Victorian Era Criminology and Forensics

The advancements made in DNA gave law enforcement almost mystical powers to solve cold cases. Parabon is a fascinating modern that can take a DNA sample and generate an image of that person.

While Victorian era law enforcement would be bewildered by our current capabilities, they were making huge advances in criminology and forensics even then. But you will see at the end of this post, the most interesting technique was also the oldest!

Let’s take a look at the influential theories, training, and the reality of Victorian criminology.

LOC – Circa 1900 – The Men Behind the Bars

LOC – circa 1900 The Transgressor and Other Stories









Anarchy! Its Cause and Cure by Rev. Emma Pow Sauder


LOC – 1910 Class is studying the Alphonse Bertillon method of criminal identification

One of the most influential thinkers in the field was an Italian doctor named Cesare Lombroso. He believed physical characteristics determined criminality to a large degree, creating what he called “born criminals.”  It was a forgone conclusion that a man with a large jaw and abnormal teeth would tend toward thieving and other lawbreaking activities.

Lombroso, the Italian criminologist, explains what a born criminal looks like

Lombroso examples of criminal craniums


A rare picture of on-the-job training!

LOC – Training a policewoman–Inspector Cross and Miss Clark, veteran policewoman, are shown demonstrating the correct way to handcuff a prisoner


New York City led the way in implementing innovations like mugshots and fingerprinting.

LOC – 1909 NYCPD taking mug photo of prisoner

LOC – 1908 NYC Police HQ – taking Bertillon measurements for identifying prisoners 










Do you think punishment deters criminality? What about really creative punishments? Shaming was effective at the turn of the century.

LOC 1902 Chinese prisoner in the cangue placarded with the record of his crime


And the pièce de résistance of this post. This photograph captures the ancient punishment of crushing a criminal beneath an elephant’s foot. Both creative and effective.

LOC 1907 Ancient method of executing a criminal in Ceylon, prisoner crushed by and elephant’s foot