Can you tell who a criminal is just by looking at them? No you can’t, but that didn’t stop the idea from gaining traction in the late 19th century. Early criminologists in the U.S. and Europe seriously debated whether criminals have certain identifying facial features separating them from non-criminals. And even though there is no scientific data to support this false premise of a “born criminal,” it played a role in shaping the field we now know as criminology.
This idea first struck Cesare Lombroso, the so-called “father of criminology,” in the early 1870s. While examining the dead body of Giuseppe Villella, a man who’d gone to prison for theft and arson, the Italian professor made what he considered a great discovery: Villella had an indentation on the back of his skull that Lombroso thought resembled those found on ape skulls.
“At the sight of that skull, I seemed to see all of a sudden…the problem of the nature of the criminal—an atavistic being who reproduces in his person the ferocious instincts of primitive humanity and the inferior animals,” he wrote in his 1876 book Criminal Man (which he expanded in four subsequent editions).