Thursday, April 14, 2016

Criminality in the Hair. (And Ears, And Chin . . .)

In August of 1895, The New York Herald hired criminologist Arthur MacDonald to interview and physically examine Dr. Henry H. Holmes who at that time sat in Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia, accused of one murder and suspected of many more.

Arthur MacDonald had authored the first book published in America on criminology (appropriately titled: Criminology). He would go on to write 24 more books and many articles. He belonged to the school of Criminal Anthropology, of the Positivist movement. MacDonald's book, Criminology, included a forward by the founder of the movement, Cesare Lombroso.

McDonald's impressions of Holmes constitute a fascinating and unintentionally amusing look into what passed for forensic science at that time. Here is the article transcribed. (The pull quotes, in italics, are those of my selection.)

From the same article as reprinted in The Daily Mail and Empire, Toronto, August 10, 1895


Scientific Analysis of the Man Accused of Ten Murders, Confessed Criminal.


Examination of the Prisoner's Personal Characteristics as Revealed in an Interview.


Variations from the Normal Which Are the Revelations of the Criminal Character

". . . the possible chief of horrible assassins. . ."

For many years I have devoted myself to a scientific and philosophical investigation of the criminal, says a writer in the New York Herald. The nineteenth century has made criminology to a certain extent a definite department of knowledge, and all men of learning agree in declaring that the cosmic, the biological, and the social factors in crime are the causes wherein we may seek and find the true explanation of those abnormal members of our race whose lives are a menace to their fellows; and as the hospital surgeon hails with professional delight the presentation to his examination of the most serious and unusual complication of injuries in one man, so the criminologists regards with an enthusiasm which horror only increases that offender who by his atrocities reveals a moral nature most diseased and monstrous. I confess, then, that the personality of Holmes, the self-acknowledged criminal and suspected murderer, now imprisoned in Philadelphia, has attracted my most eager attention. His history as proven is worth of profound interest, while the variety and number of the murders of which he is accused are such as to make him unique in our age as the possible chief of horrible assassins. His shrewd and intelligent schemes, his entire self-control, his frightful disregard of human life, which led him to extinguish the divine spark with no more show of emotion than in the puffing out of a candle's flame--these qualities, while so detestable that one cannot meditate upon them without a shudder, are yet such that the well-being of mankind demands the patient and scientific investigation of their amelioration, if not their cure and their ultimate prevention.


It was then with a sense of much satisfaction that I received from the New York Herald a request to make an investigation of Holmes' personality from the criminologist's standpoint. I entered on the task with keen interest and an appreciation of its moment, tinctured only by a regret that none better fitted for the undertaking could be found. My way, however, was beset with difficulties which all the authority of a great journal could hardly overcome. To compass my ends a personal examination of the accused was indispensable. To gain it, however, I needed the consent of no less than three persons, they being Mr. Graham, the District Attorney, who in Philadelphia conducts the Commonwealth war against the suspected assassin; Mr. Perkins, the keeper of the prison where Holmes is confined; and, rather to my surprise, I admit, the alleged murderer himself. When I began my investigation last week I encountered such opposition in securing the consent of the first that, having gained it, I was nigh despair when the keeper informed me that the prisoner had issued a request that none be permitted to see him. I entered on a long argument with the keeper, as a result of which, from sheer weariness, perhaps, he said that he would consult with Holmes on the matter and be guided by the latter's decision. Happily the accused did not regard me as objectionable, and cordially invited my inspection. I was not permitted to enter the cell, nor was I able to make certain measurements of value, but the grating of the door allowed me to study very satisfactorily the details of my subject's physique, while the freedom of our conversation was such that I could inquire systematically concerning all those characteristics which criminology consider vital. I shall not report here the conversation, but I shall refer to it and quote from it as may be necessary in my examination of the accused's traits for the prosecution of which I have employed not only his own statements, and my personal inspection, but also a great bulk of matter bearing on his individuality which I have gathered from all those who are best fitted to know the man in his criminal, social, and domestic life.

It may be stated at the outset that Holmes does not possess in any marked degree the apparent physical peculiarities which are popularly connected with criminality. His head is seemingly well-shaped, his countenance open and pleasing, his eyes gentle and meeting one's gaze fairly, his ears, nose, mouth, chin and figure are in no wise singular. In fine, [sic] he is a man whom you would pass and repass in the street without especial attention, and one who, in casual conversation, would impress you favorably rather than otherwise. He has none of those external deformities such as Homer attributed to the evil Thersites, of pointed head and general ugliness, and, indeed, a professor of physiognomy would be likely to describe him as a young man of mild and gentle disposition.


". . . all physical departure from the normal, as Nordan points out, is a symptom of degeneracy."

Concerning the cranial and cerebral characteristics, an examination at once shows that Holmes possesses neither the oxycephalic nor its opposite, the flat-roofed skull, distinctly both of which are common among criminals. The skull receded somewhat from the brows, however, and the crown of the head is almost a straight line to the point of descent, while a careful inspection reveals the fact that the general contour is singular rather than round, but this, while a departure from the normal, is insignificant in itself. Tenchini asserts that the front crest is often prominent in criminals, and this is verified by other investigators; but such prominence is not found in the case of Holmes. In general configuration the shape of the head closely follows that of those given by Dr. Van S. Clarke in his sketches of criminals. On the other hand, such a type is also found among the non-criminal and only becomes significant when joined with other like characteristics as a species of cumulative proof.

Criminology has discovered that those who are guilty of deeds of violence more commonly have a remarkably well developed lower jaw, to such an extent that its undue size is at once apparent to the ordinary observer. Experiment on dead criminals has demonstrated that while the average weight of the lower jaw is 80 grammes, in murderers it is nearly 94. The receding chin is common among petty thieves and rascals, and a light lower jaw is frequent among the insane. Instances in the other direction do, however, occur. Holmes' lower jaw is not light, but the chin recedes, and it is therefore, to a limited degree, abnormal with an indication of possible insanity, rather than excessive violence. Weakness is not shown by it.


"All the authorities unite in giving to a majority of criminals large or projecting ears."

When I saw Holmes the restraints of prison had had their effect. It showed in his sunken cheeks, but in spite of the prominence of the cheek bones which resulted, they were not such as to make one think him one likely to be dominated by sexual impulses, which have been found to be the case in criminals with conspicuous zigoma.

"As to the teeth, I found that they are crowded and slightly overlapping from above. This is obviously abnormal, and all physical departure from the normal, as Nordan points out, is a symptom of degeneracy. Yet no scientific classification of criminals has yet been made, and I do not desire now to give the results of my own studies.

All the authorities unite in giving to a majority of criminals large or projecting ears. Holmes' ears are noticeably long, although not projecting and their shape is of the sort condemned by Lombroso as 'ad ansa.' Of itself it is important, as an index of character, which is seldom at fault, although this abnormal formation is found often among ordinary persons, in whom other qualities were in the ascendant, but in whom we must believe peculiar tendencies toward evil must exist. Holmes' nose is of a type so common it can scarcely be considered as an indication of character. Ottolenghi states the criminal's nose is more often rectilinear, rarely undulating, with horizontal base, neither long nor short, and rather large. This would not describe Holmes' nose. On the other hand, a careful study of outline plates of criminals' heads will reveal a type of those similar to Holmes of great frequency, or it would be unjust, however, to place much dependence upon any conclusion drawn from this, in view of the probability that a like study of non-criminals heads would reveal a preponderance of the Holmes type.


When I saw Holmes in his cell the pallor of his skin was remarkable, but he was of good complexion when arrested, and the affirmation of Polemon L'Ingegniri and the moderns, that a pallid skin is characteristic of criminals, is in Holmes' favor. The same may be said also of the wrinkles in his face, which are, and especially were not at the time of his arrest, such as to be considered abnormal. Criminologists have agreed, however, that wrinkles are earlier and more abundant in the criminal than in the non-criminal.


"Among the insane, baldness is frequent."

Dark hair is the more common among criminals, and dark, almost black, is the color of Holmes' hair and beard, and luxurious hair is often asserted to be characteristic of criminals, but Holmes has scant hair and heavy beard. I do not from my own investigations, however, agree with my fellows in criminology. On the contrary, I believe that the man who follows such a life of scheming as he has led will have a strong tendency toward baldness, while heaviness of beard is a result of race and climatic conditions. My own opinion, justified by extended researches, is that Holmes' hair and beard are what might properly be expected, whether he be merely the bold swindler, or, in addition, a calculating murderer. Among the insane, baldness is frequent.

All agree in giving the criminals an unusual amount of hair upon other parts of the body, and in this respect Holmes is remarkable, as his hands display a thick growth.

It may be added that the proportion of those having dark hair among the insane is ten out of every twelve.


Of Holmes' eyes I observe that they possess that orbital prominence which Lombroso condemns, emphasized by the arches and frontal sinuses. The eyes are not deep set to any noticeable extent and the glance is clear, gentle and pleasant. There is none of that hardness which is common in the gaze of criminals. It would be of great interest to observe them when the accused should be putting forth an effort of strength. Lombroso asserts that in his tests, made in that manner on criminals, the eyes of that murderers never fail to show that gleam which burns in the eyes of the beast watching its prey while crouching for the spring or afterward in the ferocious struggle. Lombroso also declares that this feline and cruel look alternates often with one of almost womanly softness. The latter is that which I found in Holmes' eyes. Whether occasion should change that gentleness to cruelty, I had no opportunity to determine.

Holmes' worst feature is his mouth which is disfigured by a heavy and hinging underlip, the significance of which all men know. Passing to a review of other essentials, in a thorough study of the man Holmes, I found that his arms were rather long, rather than short, which is usually the case among criminals. It is worthy of particular attention that criminals as a rule are feeble in the muscle development. They are capable of great effort and extraordinary liveliness, yet lacking in certain physical requirements, and their activities are always intermittent. Investigations in the Elmira reformatory prove that the chief physical deficiency is in the respiratory apparatus, and about half of the total of deaths were the result of pulmonary diseases. Holmes is hollow chested and rather round shouldered. Indeed, his sunken breast, joined to his thickness and pallor, as I saw him in the prison, gave him a consumptive appearance, although he is not tainted by disease. He does not now show any physique which would be likely to endure protracted strain. In my investigation of his past life, I was baffled. On one hand I found evidence that he indulged in logn periods of rest; on the other, I was assured that he was a ceaseless toiler. My own opinion, drawn from his appearance, is that he must have indulged in frequent pauses for rest from the fatigues incident to his enervating plots.


"Lombroso considered a typical criminal was without perception of pain when pricked by a needle, and similar tests with the electric current has shown like insensibility, a matter which is of vast importance in the consideration of electrocution."

No one peculiarity of criminals has attended the notice of scientific investigators more than the physical insensibility to pain, in which they often closely resemble idiots. Lombroso also insists upon the importance of this characteristic, and with much justice, since it forcibly illustrates the abnormal condition of the offender. Criminals submit to the painful process of tattooing more frequently than the savages, who are trained to it, although latterly its usefulness as a means of identification has made the more intelligent shun it. One whom Lombroso considered a typical criminal was without perception of pain when pricked by a needle, and similar tests with the electric current has shown like insensibility, a matter which is of vast importance in the consideration of electrocution. It is by an appreciation of this quality in offenders that we come to understand their cool behavior on the eve of execution, and at other times when their predicament is such that the normal mind is amazed at the indifference of the person most concerned.

The same characteristic is shown in another fashion by the criminal's abnormally speedy recovery from wounds and injuries in general. In the case of Holmes, I was only able to question, but the result was notable. I learned from him that he was once severely injured on the head by a brick, but the amazement of his physician he retained consciousness. In addition, for a considerable length of time he remained awake, stubbornly refusing to receive the quiet of slumber, as he himself says, lest while he slept delirium should unlock his lips and he should chatter of his secret schemes. Such self-control exerted upon the body is most extraordinary, and is evidence at once of dominant will power and, too, of a certain lack in the physical perception of pain.


"In another [lie], his whole tale rests upon the discovery of the fragments from a broken bottle."

Closely allied to this is the moral insensibility which is indicated chiefly by an absence of remorse. This to the normal man is altogether astonishing and alarming, and is clearly revealed in the personality of Holmes. He confesses that he is a criminal, that his life has been one long series of outrages upon the rights of others, yet he expresses no sorrow for his shameful acts. He even refers with pride to the fact that his confessed crimes were never the robbery of the poor, but always the wealthy, but he is complacent over his domestic virtues in having contributed to the support of a number of families. Another damaging characteristic of Holmes is that he is what may be termed a genius for deception. He is a liar so colossal that Ananias seems a pigmy and the Baron Munchausen a failure. He recounts a long tale which minutes describes every imagined detail in some one of the tragedies wherein he was concerned, and at its conclusion calmly says: "You go there and look in that alleyway and you will find that old hat which I threw away on my way to the station." In another, his whole tale rests upon the discovery of the fragments from a broken bottle. His stories seem to depend for their proof upon evidence similar to Mark Twain's statement concerning the legend of the Seven Sleepers; he knows it to be true, because he has seen the cave where they enjoyed their slumbers. Holmes does not claim that he is habitually truthful nor do any of those engaged in his defence. Such a habit of lying is undoubtedly significant of criminality.


Vanity is a conspicuous feature in the individuality of the criminal, and of this quality Holmes gave me an illustrious example. When I visited him he was dressed comfortably in undershirt and trousers, something in no wise remarkable, as the weather was warm and the hour later than that at which visitors are ordinarily admitted. Holmes, however, apologized for his appearance, and did it profusely. He referred to it more than once, and not only that, but after I had left him I received a message through his attorney, of reiterated regrets that he was not apparelled as for a stroll in Fifth avenue. One might regard this as merely the natural act of a gentleman in such circumstances, but a gentleman would surely make but the slightest reference to his dishabille. Or one might say that it was no more than an evidence of bad taste. Unfortunately, the exaltation of a matter so insignificant in itself to such importance by one whose condition is so deplorable, whether guilty of murder or not, is evidence of something more than bad taste. It is the revelation of one with an ill-balanced mind who dismisses with carelessness the awfulness of his estate, while mourning over the inelegant arraying of his body.

I learned, too, that he is proud of the ability which his confessed crimes reveal, although he does not boast of them.

As to the possible taint of heredity in Holmes, he told me that one uncle had become insane, and he denied that there was any possibility of madness as the motive of his deeds. "I am willing," he said, "to stand on my own acts and take the blame for all that I have done. I don't depend on any plea that my deeds are caused by the faults of my ancestors." But all criminologists assert that insanity in an ancestor is most common among criminals.


What shall we think, then, of this man Holmes? He stands accused of the most horrid series of assassinations. His dwelling place was a sepulchre for those whom he had slain. Ten times, his accusers declare, he was guilty of meditated murder. Perjury, theft, bigamy and the minor crimes he freely confesses. He boasts that he did not seduce, although he betrayed innocence by illegal marriages. He is confident of his virtue because he eschewed lewd women and took to himself wives unlawfully. This man Holmes, whose real name is Mudgett, born amid the granite hills of Vermont, in a spot free from corrupting temptations, yet manifested from his youth an unruly and evil disposition. He early fled from his home. [note: the biographical information is not altogether correct]

While a student in Burlington, Vt., he married his first wife, only to desert her almost immediately. He won an unenviable reputation in Ann Arbor, Mich., where he completed his medical studies, and from that time his life was one startling career of crime. One of the women he married describes him as a dog of patience when he sought revenge. Another declares that his one passion was to dominate all with whom he came in contact. He himself declares that his love for Mrs. Howard is the mainspring of his life; that if she withdraws from his support he will at once destroy himself. He declares that he has no belief in another life; that he will end all when her love for him ends; that he has knowledge enough to escape the vigilance of his captors.

Is he ignorant of the fact that this beautiful woman is now aiding the commonwealth in its endeavors to fix crimes upon him? Or were his assurances merely the vain boastings of a coward? He is a man of educated mind, an expert reasoner, of temperate habits, not a user of tobacco or liquor, by his own statement. He is in the prime of life. He has not the air that sentiment attributes to the assassin. But beautiful women, saintly seeming men have not hesitated to drop poison in the cup or to hire the ruffian's knife. The gentle eye, the pleasant features, are not sure exponents of the soul. This young man confesses that he is a criminal, denies that he has slaughtered his fellows, admits that for gain he poured the explosive liquid into a dead man's mouth and blew the head open; denies that he first slew him. This man now rests under the burden of public execration. Before him looms the scaffold; he knows that men think of him with a curse on their lips and hatred in their hearts. In his cell he is confronted with the ghastly horrors of his foul life, with the terrifying possibility of a hideous and shameful death. None of those whose blood he shares come to comfort him, to weep with him, within the shadows of his prison. Is he, then, in the thrall of woe? Is he overwhelmed by anguish? Does he curse his mad folly? Does he cry out for sympathy? No, I found him distressed over his clothes, proud of his mental powers, cheerful, glad to chat with me, confident that my investigation would be in his favor. Was it, or was it not?

As printed in: New York Herald, August 4, 1895. Section 3, page 4.

April 21, 2016: Updated to include a sketch of Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia which was very weird (and continued on in existence until 1968). As I described it in the opening to A Predatory Mind:

A monstrosity of conflicting architecture, Moyamensing Penitentiary was part crenellated English castle, part Egyptian City of the Dead. Gun towers filled its turrets; a trapezoidal arch formed its entryway.

Moyamensing Prison as it looked in the 19th Century

Nikola Tesla, Arthur Conan Doyle and Dr. Henry H. Holmes are all characters in my thriller, A Predator's Game.

A Predator's Game is available in soft-cover and ebook through Amazon and other online retailers.

A Predator's Game, now available, Rook's Page Publishing.


Back page blurb.

Manhattan, 1896.

When the author Arthur Conan Doyle meets Nikola Tesla he finds a tall, thin genius with a photographic memory and a keen eye, and recognizes in the eccentric inventor the embodiment of his creation, Sherlock. Together, they team up to take on an "evil Holmes." Multi-murderer Dr. Henry H. Holmes has escaped execution and is unleashing a reign of terror upon the metropolis. Set in the late nineteenth century in a world of modern marvels, danger and invention, Conan Doyle and Tesla engage the madman in a deadly game of wits.

Martin Hill Ortiz, also writing under the name, Martin Hill, is the author of A Predatory Mind. Its sequel, set in 1890s Manhattan and titled A Predator's Game, features Nikola Tesla as detective.


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