Criminology and the Physical Disease of the Brain

Electric chair at Sing Sing Prison, Ossining, N.Y., c. 1900 (George Eastman House)

Electric chair at Sing Sing Prison, Ossining, N.Y., c. 1900 (George Eastman House)

Criminology, in it’s endeavors to identify a scientific basis for crime, finds it’s origins in the global shift of ideology and mindset during the Enlightenment and Age of Reason in the late 18th century (1). In the midst of a socio-political cataclysm, citizens and scientists alike turned away from the previously spiritually-oriented explanations for crime and turned instead to scientific reasoning. Nicole Rafter, historian and author of The Criminal Brain, identifies several key proponents in this shift towards scientific and medicinal studies regarding criminality and social disruption at the hand of criminals. Among them, Benjamin Rush, James Cowles Prichard, and finally, Franz Joseph Gall mark the pathway from religious explanation to full-fledged phrenological study. Rush’s concept of the “moral faculties” as the true defining mechanism for discerning between good and evil paved the way for the later separation and individual studies of distinct lobes or “organs” of the brain (2). Rush’s effort to push the study of mental illness into the secular realm also forged a basis for the idea of physical disease of insanity.

Phrenological studies beginning in the early nineteenth century arose from the scientific study of the structures of the brain as associated with specific behavioral tendencies, a cornerstone of psychological studies that progressed well into the twenty-first century. This mental voyeurism found a foothold in the theories of Benjamin Rush, founding father and physician in the late 18th century.  Rush’s theories of behavioral disorder as physical disease rather than spiritual imbalance revolutionized the way people thought about crime and punishment. The distancing of mental studies from the religious realm allowed for widespread theorization of the source of mental illness, as well as methods of medical treatment that before were not even considered an option (3). From Rush, the postulates of James Cowles Prichard and eventually Franz Joseph Gall allowed for the inception of full-fledged phrenological study. From Prichard, the theory of moral insanity developed as more and more behavioral studies showed subjects displaying mental or behavioral derangement but no obvious mental injury (4). These disorders were therefore rooted in an individual’s temper and habits, rendering him incapable of participating morally in civil society. Prichard’s theory of morality and moral insanity shifted into the realm of criminality in his studies of criminals; the behavioral studies of these subjects proved a propensity to plot, steal, and engage in sexually taboo actions- all of which are exhibited as sources for incarceration well into nineteenth century Sing Sing. From here, Franz Joseph Gall went on to found the study of phrenology by the nineteenth century, with it’s fast developing and widespread use spanning well into the century. The popularization of phrenological studies was especially apparent from 1820 until approximately 1850 (5).

Fully transitioned from the realm of spiritual illness into that of practical medicine, phrenologists looked to the surface of the skull for answers, decoding its planes as denotations of certain psychological functions and therefore indicators of an individual’s temperament and behavior. Browne’s work, alongside Spurzheim and Gall, provides a window into the fascination with psychological processes and the coinciding manifestation of phrenological studies from the turn of the 20th century and well into the late 1960’s.

Nicole Rafter especially elaborates on the influence of phrenology on the punishment and discipline of incarcerated citizens in the middle of the 19th century, a period of transitional criminal reform: “[Phrenology’s] ideas segued into the theory of degeneration that underpinned concepts of deviance in the late 19th century.” (6) Rafter’s studies of phrenology and the criminal mind relate to the rise in reform programs within the parameters of penology at this time. The studies of the criminal mind coming to age at this time favored a mindset of reform rather than punishment, as phrenologists proposed not only that behavioral disruptions could not be helped by the individuals, regardless of punishment, but they could also be reformed through disciplinary action and training of specific faculties of the mind. These theories would go on to influence the prison system and criminal justice for the following 150 years (7).

-Elisabeth A. Boniface

Works Cited

  1. The Criminal Brain, by Nicole Rafter. 19
  2. Rafter, on Benjamin Rush. 21-22
  3. Rafter, on Benjamin Rush. 24
  4. Rafter, on James Cowles Prichard. 27
  5. Rafter, on the history of phrenology and psychological studies. 42
  6. Rafter, on the history of phrenology and psychological studies. 42
  7. ibid. 40