Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

John Rulloff: The Genius Killer

Not a Man of his Times

Cesare Lombroso
Cesare Lombroso

It was the age of psychiatric study of the criminal, and medical men looked more earnestly for ways to recognize killers before they launched their deadly careers.  Cesare Lombroso, a professor at Turin in Italy, was at work on the cases he would present in 1876 in L'uomo delinquente, summing up anthropological ideas from the preceding decades.  He had made numerous measurements and studied many photographs of criminal offenders, looking for ways to classify them with objective tests.  He was convinced from his extensive studies that certain people were born criminals and could be identified by specific physical traits: for example, bulging or sloping brow, apelike nose, close-set eyes, large jaws, and disproportionately long arms.  In other words, delinquency was a physiological abnormality that could be observed in someone's simian appearance.  The police, it was suggested by those who reported this work, could make arrests more accurately if they learned to spot the right traits.

Lombroso's ideas spread across Europe and America, supported by the new evolutionary thinking, and sometimes a defendant's presentation alone could be a factor in a criminal conviction. 

In those days, not much was known about psychopaths, or those people who broke the social contract for their own gain without remorse.  Such people made others feel vaguely uneasy and precipitated ongoing discussions among alienists about "dangerousness" and homicidal insanity.  (One even suggested that the brain contained an "organ of murder.")  People without remorse, yet with their reasoning skills apparently intact, weren't exactly mentally defective, but something human seemed to be lacking.

In 1809, Philippe Pinel had introduced the label "mania without delirium," and more than two decades later, British physician James Prichard called it "moral insanity," to indicate that one's faculty for moral behavior and reasoning had been affected.  He believed illness or trauma caused it.  In 1881, German psychiatrist J.L. Koch introduced "constitutional psychopathic inferiority," which covered a multitude of disorders but emphasized the loss or impairment of the power of "self-government," and four years later William Stead called such people "psychopaths"— someone to whom nothing is sacred.  It would be another half century before psychology crystallized the disorder for practical purposes.  So they struggled to make sense of someone like Rulloff.

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