If you’ve ever read much of what I’ve written, then you know my fascination with the history of criminal identification. Last year, I wrote a piece on the so-called “warrior gene” — which causes the brain’s amygdala to become more active, putatively leading to greater aggression.
This is but one in a very long line of theories hoping to explain why people commit terrible crimes. Last week, readers were greeted with recent research on the “connection” between mental illness and violent crime. Turns out, it’s not very strong.
Every age has its need to account for those who hurt others. We don’t hang many “witches” anymore, but we got close with the whole sordid West Memphis Three saga. Technologies may provide more intricate explanations, but human nature seems pretty consistent.
Amid our “foolish consistency,” methods for identification of malefactors have changed. So too have the ways in which we represent or “imagine” villainy. I can remember seeing an image from ancient Egypt where two tomb robbers were being whipped for their crimes. Then there are the early American ink drawings of drunkards in the stocks. Artistic styles changed, but craving, etching and simple printing usually lack the visceral quality of modern criminal “portraits.”
This started to change in the 19th century with the advent of photography. The Bertillon System was among the first to take and systematically organize what we now know as “mug shots.” This system had many flaws, but the idea of photographing criminal suspects stuck.
Mug shots are, however, a more technocratic manifestation of the ways in which we graphically imagine criminals. Nigel Blundell’s recent article in the UK’s Daily Mail leads us on a tour of Victorian-era criminal photographs taken by Henry Hering.
Blundell describes the context of the images and their odd quality, “They may look like any other old Victorian photographic portraits — the subjects formal, stiffly posed and somewhat self-conscious. But, in fact, they are the deranged killers and would-be murderers who were among the first patients at Broadmoor, which opened 150 years ago.” Hering also notes, “some were taken at Bethlem (or ‘Bedlam’ as it was known), the lunatic asylum in South London.”
A BBC report states, “The Broadmoor ‘criminal lunatic asylum,’ as it was called, was opened in 1863 with 95 female patients. A block for male patients followed a year later. The hospital was built after the passing of the Criminal Lunatics Act of 1860 - also called the Broadmoor Act.”
Even the concept of an “asylum” conjures images that could not be more at odds with the generally well-dressed, groomed and almost regal countenance of the murderers, would-be regicides and rapists Hering composed. There’s one who looks a bit like Mary Todd Lincoln; and another reminiscent of Fyodor Dostoevsky.
There’s no hint of “crazy” Charles Manson’s eyes or that absurd Nick Nolte mug shot. It’s almost as if Hering said, “let’s put a little rouge and lace on the monsters before we take their picture.”
Of course, the much more deeply symbolic quality of his artistic choices goes to a point many of us have lost: We can acknowledge and appropriately punish horrific deeds without robbing people of their humanity — even if we’re pretty sure they have forfeited it themselves. Lest we forget, these were people who had been diagnosed with what we would now term “a mental illness.”
For offenders who may lack the capacity for rational thinking, draconian punishment says more about us than them. As I have argued countless times: we must find a way to de-stigmatize mental illness while at the same time delivering appropriate measures of punishment, protection for society and treatment for the offender. As history has aptly shown, we can neither incarcerate all who we might wish to; nor can we execute people for traffic tickets. We certainly can’t just let them run amok.
We need a medium. It won’t be a happy one, but a medium nonetheless.
• • •
Matthew Pate, a Pine Bluff native who holds a doctoral degree in criminal justice, is a senior research fellow with the Violence Research Group at the University at Albany. He may be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.