The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


‘Natural’ or ‘Acquired’ criminality?

An image of Sign on Andrew Kehoe's fence: "Criminals are made, not born." May 1927. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Sign on Andrew Kehoe’s fence: “Criminals are made, not born.” May 1927. Source: Wikimedia Commons


In BackStory’s show “Bridge For Sale,” Geoff Bunn, a professor of Psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University, explained that by the late 1800s, “European criminologists were trying to discern what made somebody a criminal. They had a very biological view of that,”  Bunn said, “They thought that there were born criminals, and that if you were born a criminal, you are kind of an evolutionary throwback to a previous age.”


This idea is linked to physiognomy, a method of study which sought to assess an individual’s character based on her or his physical appearance – especially facial features.

An image of Cranial shape of skull of sane man in figure 3 and 4 compared to skull shape of insane man, 1809. Source: Library of Congress

Cranial shape of skull of sane man in figure 3 and 4 compared to skull shape of insane man, 1809. Source: Library of Congress

While historians situate physiognomy within a broader late nineteenth-century culture of eugenics and scientific racism,some studies suggest that it is seeing a resurgence in present-day psychological circles.

You Look Like a Criminal

One reason why few accept physiognomy was its historical relation with phrenology, or the study of skull size and shape. This assumed that the brain was the organ of the mind and that its size correlated with intelligence and character. Phrenology was widely accepted as valid until the mid-19th century, although some southerners rejected it because of an association with abolitionist sentiment.  Peter McCandless, a historian at the College of Charleston, notes that “Phrenologists in Britain and the North (U.S.) generally proclaimed the intellectual superiority of the European races, but they were often sympathetic to liberal causes, including anti-slavery.” An article in the 1846 edition of the American Phrenological Journal asserted that “the colored man has more natural talent than is generally ascribed to him; and which culture will soon develop.”

At the same time, British, American and European scientists also used phrenology to rationalize the colonization and disenfranchisement of non-White peoples. In 1836, the notable European phrenologist Francois Joseph Victor Broussais, claimed  that Australian Aboriginal peoples would “never become civilized” because they had no cerebral organ for producing great poets or painters. Broussais attested that some African peoples might advance under European guidance, but maintained that some groups (like the Khoikhoi) were completely driven by animal instinct.

Science from Fiction?

An image of The Symbolical head, illustrating all the phrenological developments of the human head, 1842. Source: Library of Congress

The Symbolical head, illustrating all the phrenological developments of the human head, 1842. Source: Library of Congress

By the early twentieth-century, certain physiological and moral circumstances began to morph through pop culture. Dr. Geoff Bunn told BackStory that William Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman, actually worked as a psychologist and invented the systolic blood pressure test — a component of the polygraph, or lie detector. Marston’s Wonder Woman was able to compel bad guys to confess to crimes by holding them in the “Lasso of Truth,” which Dr. Bunn claims was inspired by Marston’s research.

Pop-culture’s interest in truth and deception can be traced back even earlier. In the 1920s and 30s, widely popular detective fiction (or, “whodunit” novels) often featured amateur detectives who would get tangled in a crime. The stories challenge readers to think about the potential suspects. Criminals were often revealed at the end of the plot to be unexpected types, such as young women, with very specific motives.

In the real-world, the polygraph was used by investigators who tried to measure stress as an indicator of deception – if one’s moral character could not be discerned from their appearance, perhaps it could still be measured from physical reactions. Despite the theory of the ‘measurable lie,’ Bunn still reminds us that the tests simply weren’t effective. In fact, the most ideal scenario usually involved coaxing out confessions from suspects merely by threatening to conduct tests.

Like phrenological explanations, the polygraph falls short by modern scientific standards. Recent studies suggest that there is no causal relation between lying and physiological response. Moreover, the brain activity behind lies isn’t fully understood. Still, the assumptions behind the invention of the polygraph are important. As BackStory host Brian Balogh puts it, the trend represented a “democratization of deception.” Everyone was now equally free to be a criminal.


Learn more about “Deception in America.”

Media Contact:

Diana Williams
BackStory Digital Editor & Strategist
[email protected]

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