On the application of phrenology to criminal legislation and prison discipline


19th century criminologists looked for physiological sources which could rationally both explain and treat crime. Cesare Lombroso saw the criminal as a throwback to earlier evolutionary forms of behaviour, manifested physically in certain head formations; C J Mittermaier proposed that phrenology, the study of the workings of the brain through the shape of the head, could show how the dominance of certain organs and excitements ‘produce a certain disposition of mind that impels the individual with extraordinary force to crime’. 

Mittermaier’s view of phrenology proposed that the ‘criminal’ was so predisposed to commit criminal acts, by the shape of his head, over which he had no control; thus he should be treated rather than punished.

How are these ideas reflected in Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde?

Hyde’s physical aspect may be seen in the context of criminal anthropology. Hyde is described as ‘abnormal and misbegotten’, ‘an imprint of deformity and decay’, yet nobody seems able to specify what his deformity is. For Utterson he is ‘hardly human’, for Enfield he is ‘deformed somewhere’, but he cannot put his finger on what the specific deformity is. Lanyon, on watching the transformation, can be no more specific, saying that ‘he seemed to swell – his face became suddenly black and the features seemed to melt and alter.’ And when Utterson gets Hyde to show his face, he makes no remark.

Full title:
On the application of phrenology to criminal legislation and prison discipline. By Mr. C. J. A. Mittermaier ... and Mr. G. Combe. From the Phrenological Journal for January 1843.
estimated 1843, probably London
Carl Mittermaier, George Combe
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Public Domain
Held by
British Library

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