On L’Homme Criminel by Cesar Lombroso

Cesar Lombroso Grid 1, Photograph AdS
Cesar Lombroso, the fly, Les Criminelles, and an Atlas! Photograpgh AdS

This the first post in my library book series.

Every week, I add a post inspired by either music or books.

For books, I use my personal library. What I write can be a reflection on the book, how I got it, what I found inside the book, or flash fiction inspired by something I read on either page 2015, 215, or 15. I will switch between general fiction and criminology/human rights.

For music, I will try to write flash fiction inspired by a song from Billboard‘s Pre-Hot 100s era. We start in 1940 and work our way up the charts.


Let’s start this series in the crime/human rights section. My background is in criminology and human rights defense so it makes sense to start there.

Many years ago, we were at a book fair in Madrid. Browsing through the stacks of books, we saw the works of Lombroso. The copy we bought is from 1887 and in French. The previous owner translated some words (understandable) but wrote in the margin (Argh! Just keep a notebook or place scrap paper between pages! ), and a fly is buried in the book. Seriously, just look at the picture. I never removed it as it adds character to the book, no? What did the fly see? Is it from Lombroso’s time period? And so on …

Back to the book!

In general, Lombroso (Nov 6, 1835 – Oct 19, 1909) was an Italian criminologist who developed the theory of anthropological criminology meaning that criminality was hereditary and that someone born as a criminal was recognizable by their physical defects.

Lombroso’s theory suggested that criminals could be spotted by their multiple physical anomalies. Their bodies differed from non-criminals in aspects such as sloping foreheads, ears of unusual size, asymmetry of the face (we now know that is normal), excessive length of arms (you can see the primate element here), asymmetry of the cranium, and other things like being less sensibility to pain and touch; more acute eyesight; a lack of moral sense including absence of remorse; vanity, impulsiveness, vindictiveness, cruelty; and excessive tattoos. Even left-handedness was a sign.

Lombroso P215 and Atlas, Photograph AdS
Lombroso: skull measurements and pages 214 + 215, Photograph AdS

Here is page 215 (bottom left): the topic discussed is cranial circumferences (started on p. 214, see top left). Lombroso connected the skull’s size with the brains. The bigger the brain’s size the better the positive qualities.

An interesting detail is the accompanying Atlas that we bought together with the book (right). It is filled with maps, diagrams, drawings of known criminals from several countries, and tattoo drawings. Really fascinating to see and gasp … the previous owner cut out a section of a page! How someone can cut out a section of a page from a 1887 book is beyond me.

Of course, Lombroso’s emphasis on biological features to predict the growth of criminal traits within a human being is now rejected. What you look like or whether you write with a left-handed tattooed hand are no indications at all of what someone might do when faced with certain circumstances. But sadly, prejudice still exists.

I am fascinated not with people’s looks but with their choices. Why do some people respond this way when faced with a situation when someone else does the opposite? I read a lot of books that attempt to understand crime, criminal behaviour, and how it develops (or not) or changes people. Expect more posts about this subject!

Next time: general fiction.


3 thoughts on “On L’Homme Criminel by Cesar Lombroso

  1. This is fascinating! You have to get the fly carbon dated too!!! Thank you for this post, you have an amazing library and this series is a lovely idea.

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