It was an innovative idea: get incarcerated offenders to tell their life stories. Collectively, they might thus offer clues about the nature
of criminality. And it wasn’t a psychiatrist who thought of this, but a Jack-of-all-trades pathologist.
By the late 1800s, Dr. Jean Alexandre Eugène Lacassagne, a medical professor from the University of Lyon, had already initiated or invented a number of forensic practices, and to this list he added criminal autobiographies.
He believed that solid data might come not just from scientific observers like himself and his medical colleagues but also from the subjects themselves. Lacassagne first tried a few interviews, but then he devised what he viewed as a more productive idea that would benefit the offender as well. He identified those who wished to express themselves, either in writing or with drawings, and he encouraged them to do so.
Lacassagne supplied the instruments they needed and told them to address their writings or drawings to him. Each week, he visited the prison to check their notebooks, correcting and sometimes guiding the budding authors into productive directions. If they filled a notebook, he gave them another, and sometimes he would publish their work in his professional journal. Occasionally, he paid them.
From both males and females, Lacassagne collected more than sixty such manuscripts, averaging about twenty-five pages. However, one inmate, set for execution, had filled six notebooks.
If Lacassagne thought a manuscript was not acceptable, he made the prisoner rewrite it, but he usually left the choice of material to the subject. A few participants came to view Lacassagne as a friend or father figure, especially those who felt improved by the experience. Many were keen to work with a such a prominent scientist to try to understand themselves.
As his theory suggested, Lacassagne learned from these writings that many prisoners’ family histories were full of violence, tension, poverty, and disease. This taught him a great deal about the origins of, and influences on, criminality.
Some of the men had never had a relationship with a woman, he discovered. They often had little education and only a precarious means of supporting themselves. Their marginality contributed to their impulse to commit crimes and most had started young, earning numerous short prison sentences.
Writing their life story, some attested, made them feel slightly less anonymous, as if they might actually have something important to say. A few made observations about other prisoners they’d met, too.
Scholars who have studied these documents suggest that some offenders had deliberately blackened their character or mentioned a background that supported Lacassagne’s theory simply to capture the doctor’s attention. However, he had no sympathy for malingerers, and he caught a few.
Yet this is, indeed, a primary concern with the scientific study of criminal personalities via personal contact. Examiners have difficulty veiling their interests as they listen, and astute subjects who want to impress them figure out what to say. Despite the oft repeated desire to “assist science,” either party can become more interested in his own goals.
A few offenders wanted to be viewed as experts in crime or at least in their particular variety of crime (sort of like incarcerated serial killers today who want to help the FBI). Some of Lacassagne’s subjects even believed that the “docs” had it all wrong: these professionals viewed criminals through the distorted lens of a pet theory. Because they want the crimes to make sense, i.e., to have an understandable motive, they leapt too readily to their own conclusions.
One killer of four claimed that while the professionals who evaluated him attributed his offenses to greed, he saw the influence of a childhood head injury, lifetime substance abuse, and the sudden blinding sensibility that preceded each stabbing event. No one who examined him had even considered these items as causal, and in this, said the offender, they were remiss.
Lacassagne once said, “Societies have the criminals they deserve.” Although he believed that disease and addiction, passed on to successive generations, could cause mental and physical degeneracy, he leaned toward the idea that poverty, social marginalization, and other such factors were significantly involved.