Archive for the ‘True Crime’ Category

Criminal Is a Defective, but Not a Type

Which matters more for influencing criminal behavior: nature or nuture? This 1919 paper from England, “the most complete first hand scientific study of the criminal that exists in any language,” found it was nature.

Presenting what seems to be the most complete first hand scientific study of the criminal that exists in any language, it goes a long way toward proving that there is no “criminal type,” and casts grave doubt upon the previously held theory that the criminal is a product chiefly of environment.

Dr. Goring comes to the conclusion that physical and mental defectiveness, like many other human qualities, is inherited, and he infers that crime is, to a large extent, a product of nature rather than of nurture and environment.

So what indeed determines criminal behavior, according to the study? Primarily inherited mental disorders:

First convictions show a preilection for the age period 15 to 25, which Dr. Goring concludes to be significant. Comparing this fact with the age incidences of liability to various diseases, he is inclined to interpret the facts as evidence that a “mental constitutional proclivity is the primal source of the habitual criminal’s career.”

The nature vs. nurture debate still plagues us today. Coming down on the nature side is the thought-provoking book  Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters by Alan S. Miller and Satoshi Kanazawa. I actually had an email correspondence with Kanazawa after reading his book, and he was very friendly and helpful in elucidating some of his book’s ideas further. Coming down more on the nurture side is the 2018 documentary Three Identical Strangers, which I’d also highly recommend.

Every month I listen to the debate show Intelligence Squared U.S., in which teams of two debate a topic and the audience votes on which side most changed their minds. October’s episode on nature vs. nurture was terrific. I won’t spoil which side won, but the final score was +7% to +5%, one of the closest matches in the history of the show.


Criminal Is a Defective, but Not a Type: Conclusions from Biometrical Study of 3,000 British Convicts Discredit Lombroso’s Theory and Minimize the Influence of Environment (PDF)

Published: Sunday, December 21, 1919

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Written by Jesse

December 19th, 2019 at 1:44 pm

Posted in Science,True Crime

The Laying On of Hands for Fingerprints

In 1919, “The fingerprints of every sailor and soldier serving the United States are on record… In Argentina it is true of every civilian. In time it may be true of all the world.”

Indeed. By 2009, the FBI had 63 million fingerprints on file. Their database started in 1924, just five years after this article predicted the possibility of such a system’s eventual creation.

Whether that was a necessary move for public safety or an unconstitutional violation of civil liberties can be debated. What’s not up for debate is the casual misoginy of the 1919 article’s sub-headline identifying Gertrude Meredith Sullender as a “woman expert.”


The Laying On of Hands for Fingerprints: Woman Expert Thinks System Will Not Be Confined to Criminals, but Will Become Universal — Chinese Used It for Identification Sixteen Centuries Ago (PDF)

Published: Sunday, June 29, 1919

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Written by Jesse

June 30th, 2019 at 11:53 am

Is the Czar Dead?

Was the czar dead? It was February 1919 and seven months had elapsed since anyone had heard from Russia’s Czar Nicholas II. Turns out, yes: he was executed.

The tsar abdicated the throne in March 1917 after the February Revolution, then he and his family were imprisoned in the Ipatiev House. More than a year later on July 17, 1918, Bolshevik authorities killed them all. The tsar was dead.

As was his family, but you wouldn’t know that from reading this 1919 article by Carl W. Ackerman, a New York Times correspondent.

I have just returned to the United States, after a tour of investigation, with all of the facts and testimony I was able to obtain in Siberia and Russia about the last known days of the Romanoffs. After weighing this evidence carefully I am inclined to think, although I cannot prove it, that the Czar is dead, but that his family still lives somewhere in Russia.

Fake news! A grave containing the tsar, his wife, and three of their daughters was discovered in the late 1970s, with the remaining daughter and son found in 2007. DNA testing proved who they were:

In the lyrics of Bret McKenzie from the comedy music group Flight of the Conchords: “A man is lying in the street, some punk has chopped off his head / But I’m the only one who stops to see if he’s dead. / [Pause] / Turns out he’s dead.”

Is the Czar Dead?: Six Chances in Ten That He Was Executed by the Bolsheviki — Fate of His Family Also Doubtful (PDF)

Published: Sunday, February 23, 1919


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Written by Jesse

February 21st, 2019 at 2:13 pm

Not Convicts, Graduates of Sing Sing University


New York’s notorious prison Sing Sing added a vocational training school in 1917.

“It is my hope, entirely outside of the work of this commission,” said Mr. Hubbell [Charles Bulkley Hubbell, Chairman of the Commission on New Prisons of the State of New York], “that the time is not far distant when prison extension work will be just as formally recognized as university extension work.”

Even a century later, it doesn’t seem that development has quiet happened. Those who have been arrested or incarcerated still face disproportionately more difficult job prospects upon release. (Of course, many tough-on-crime advocates would argue that’s exactly as it should be.)

Sing Sing prison still exists in New York today as a maximum security facility, though several inmates have successfully escaped, most recently in 2015 when two murder convicts broke out. Approximately 1,730 men are imprisoned there.

Not Convicts, Graduates of Sing Sing University: Plans for the New State Prison Are Based on Giving the Inmates a Useful Education That Will Fit Them for Honest Work (PDF)

From Sunday, February 25, 1917

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Written by Jesse

March 9th, 2017 at 6:56 am

Posted in Education,True Crime

We Have Too Many laws, Thinks Henry A. Wise

From September 24, 1911


WE HAVE TOO MANY LAWS, THINKS HENRY A. WISE: U.S. District Attorney Believes That as More Offenders Are Being Punished There is an Awakening of the Public Conscience and a Promise of Better Things for the Country. (PDF)

It’s a busy week for me, so sadly I couldn’t write any commentary or pull-quotes from this article. Anyone care to do the honors in the comments?

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Written by David

September 21st, 2011 at 10:00 am

The Modern Sherlock Holmes Is A Scientific Man

From September 24, 1911


THE MODERN SHERLOCK HOLMES IS A SCIENTIFIC MAN: Swiss Professor Tells of Professional Criminals and the Means of Detecting Them in a Book That Has the Indorsement of M. Lepine, Head of the Paris Police. (PDF)

That reminds me: the modern Sherlock Holmes is now streaming on Netflix.

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Written by David

September 20th, 2011 at 10:00 am

New Identification System Ousts Rogues’ Gallery

From September 10, 1911


NEW IDENTIFICATION SYSTEM OUSTS ROGUES’ GALLERY: Capt. Joseph A. Faurot After Studying the “Portrait Parler” Abroad Will Introduce It in New York’s Detective Department and Promises Great Results. (PDF)

This new system of identifying criminals looks at individual facial features.

“The whole system of the ‘portrait parler’ is a process of elimination,” explained Capt. Faurot. “It is on that basis we are to reorganize the Rogues’ Gallery. We will be able to divide the number of portraits to be searched on a given case by three if we know the type of nose, by two again if we know the height, by three if we know the type of ear, and so on till we have only a small, narrow group to examine.”

I imagine identifying a criminal in the portrait parler is something like playing Guess Who?

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Written by David

September 9th, 2011 at 11:00 am

Electric Machine To Tell Guilt Of Criminals

From September 10, 1911


ELECTRIC MACHINE TO TELL GUILT OF CRIMINALS: If It Is Perfected So As to Be Infallible It Will Make Expert Testimony Unnecessary and May Eliminate Juries in Trials. (PDF)

The “psychometer” described in this article works in the same way as modern polygraph machines. As the article puts it, “the human body’s resistance to an electrical current increased with the increase of the motions.” Skin conductivity, along with blood pressure, pulse, and respiration, can all be indicators that a person is lying.

But the technology is still far from being “perfected so as to be infallible.” You needn’t look hard to find harsh criticism of lie detectors including tips on how to beat one. In an episode of Penn & Teller’s Showtime program Bullshit, they talked to “people whose lives were ruined by faulty lie detector results.”

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Written by David

September 7th, 2011 at 10:00 am

Where Witches Flourish In This Twentieth Century

From September 10, 1911


WHERE WITCHES FLOURISH IN THIS TWENTIETH CENTURY: New York Woman Haled to Court as a Magician in Allentown, Penn. — Big Modern Communities Where Spells and Incantations Are Used Daily for Every Ill That Flesh Is Heir To. (PDF)

Meta Immerman, a dressmaker from New York, moved to Allentown. Her neighbors the Kipps noticed she was a bit odd. She walked barefoot through grass. She owned an electric flashlight. She ate nuts and raw eggs. Clearly, she was a witch.

The Kipps called police, and Meta Immerman was arrested and spent 48 hours in jail.

And that is why I won’t eat nuts and raw eggs.


Written by David

September 5th, 2011 at 10:00 am

Posted in Religion,True Crime

Government Is Investigating Fake Universities

From August 27, 1911


GOVERNMENT IS INVESTIGATING FAKE UNIVERSITIES: Degrees Given Practically for a Few Dollars — Institutions That Sound Big on Paper but Shrink on Investigation — The Oriental University’s Odd Curriculum. (PDF)

These fake universities, sometimes called diploma mills, or degree mills, are still around and are still a problem. I occasionally see people in the news who have been exposed for their fake diplomas, like this guy in Philadelphia who used a fake degree to commit fraud. There’s even a blog about diploma mills in the news.


Written by David

August 23rd, 2011 at 10:00 am

Posted in Education,True Crime

Famous Works Of Art That Have Been Stolen

From August 27, 1911


FAMOUS WORKS OF ART THAT HAVE BEEN STOLEN: Disappearance of the “Mona Lisa” from the Louvre Climax of Long Series of Thefts. Priceless Picture Mystified and Inspired Lovers of Art Sine da Vinci Painted It. (PDF)

On August 21, 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre.

Whoever it was who stole Leonardo da Vinci’s “Gioconda” or “Mona Lisa” from the Louvre is sure of a place in history when his name comes out. He is sure of an extraordinary place, too. It is not possible to locate the General who fought the greatest battle since the world was made, or the statesman who framed the greatest law, or the author who wrote the greatest book; but it will always be possible henceforth to locate the thief who committed the greatest theft.

Okay, then. Do you know his name?

I won’t give you the answer here. Instead, read this article from the Financial Times published earlier this month that tells the whole story of the Mona Lisa’s theft and recovery.

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Written by David

August 22nd, 2011 at 10:00 am

Posted in Art,True Crime

The Strong Arm Squad A Terror To The Gangs

From August 13, 1911


THE STRONG ARM SQUAD A TERROR TO THE GANGS: The Rowdies Who Make Trouble Get a Dose of Their Own Medicine. Waldo’s Detachment of Suppressors of Disorder Is a New Plan. (PDF)

There is so much good stuff in this article.

Rhinelander Waldo has appeared in a couple articles previously, as the city’s Fire Chief. But he just got promoted to Police Chief, and as one of his first actions he created a brute squad! But the first rule of the brute squad is that you don’t talk about the brute squad.

…Commissioner Waldo was only in office a short time when he organized what is officially known at Headquarters as “The Special Squad.” The unofficial title — “The Strong-Arm Squad” — is far more descriptive.

This squad is made up of twenty huskies whose sole duty it is to travel about the city and hand out generous doses of strong-arm medicine to any and all who show unmistakable signs of being in need of it.

Now it is perhaps best to say at this point that there is no official order on file at Police Headquarters directing the men of The Special Squad to administer strong-arm medicine.

Inquire at the Commissioner’s office, and you will be told that The Special Squad has been organized for the prevention of crime, to break up gangs, to disperse corner loafers, to suppress ferry-boat hoodlums, and discourage car rowdies. All of these much-needed reforms, you will learn at the Commissioner’s office, are to be accomplished by arrests.

But The Special Squad knows the prescription that Commissioner Waldo believes in. They make the arrests all right, but at the same time they administer a strong dose of their particular brand of medicine.

Check out that gallery of brutes. Ajax Whitman looks like he came straight from the circus. John D. O’Connor is described as a man who “pursues un-draped bathers.” And I think Joseph McLaughlin and Nathan Whitman are wearing the exact same clothes. And M.B. Conlon’s caption calls him “The Strong Arm Dude.”

At the bottom is George “Boots” Trojan. When he retired from the force in 1922, the Times article about his 29-year career explained the origin of his nickname:

Trojan, who won his police reputation by his success in combating the gangs that infested certain sections of New York City a quarter of a century ago, obtained his nickname by the method he used in subduing a particularly tough gang of negroes who used to congregate in Eighth Avenue in the territory of the West Thirty-seventh Street Station. Trojan used the toes of his boots with good effect on the negroes’ shins, and they dubbed him “Boots” Trojan. The soubriquet remained, although with the times Trojan changed his methods.

Ah, good old fashioned police violence.

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Written by David

August 10th, 2011 at 11:30 am

Posted in Politics,True Crime

Moving Pictures Suggested To End The Tramp Evil

From August 13, 1911


MOVING PICTURES SUGGESTED TO END THE TRAMP EVIL: James Forbes, Hobo Expert, Proposes Also the Equipment of Every Village Police Department and Railroad Station with a Mendicant “Rogues’ Gallery” to Help Stamp Out the Nuisance. (PDF)

James Forbes, Director of the National Association for the Prevention of Mendicancy and Charitable Imposture, is a hobo expert. As the article says, “The study of tramps has been a life study with him.”

Forbes has finally figured out how to get rid of this blight on society using modern technology:

For years he has been thinking over it, evolving it piece by piece, and now he is ready to tell how this social cancer may be healed. His plan may take some little time to work itself out, and a little money, but he declares it will be effective. Briefly, this plan is to hold up to the boy of the country the forbidding picture of tramp life as it actually is, not as the boy seeking adventure imagines “life on the road” to be. The tramp as a “horrible example” is to be shown in every railroad town and hamlet in America by means of moving pictures and by publications.

Yes, this sounds like a good idea. Perhaps a short film featuring a tramp getting into all sorts of trouble would be an effective deterrent.

Here’s one such example. From 1916, this film tells the story of a vagabond who plays music on the streets for change:

If you have kids, I’d say you should give the whole article a read. You’ll learn about Tramp Masters who seduce children using the tramp tradition of “snaring a kid.”

Recommended related reading: the chapter on Hobo Matters from John Hodgman’s book Areas of My Expertise. See also The 700 Hoboes Project

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Written by David

August 10th, 2011 at 11:00 am

Posted in Adventure,True Crime

Youth No Bar To Sending Geidel To The Electric Chair

From August 6, 1911


YOUTH NO BAR TO SENDING GEIDEL TO THE ELECTRIC CHAIR: Under the Law, a Child of Eight May Suffer Capital Punishment — The Law Concerning Murder. (PDF)

The arrest of seventeen-year-old Paul Geidel for the brutal murder of William Jackson in the Hotel Iroquois has caused many people to ask, “What can they do with him? They can’t send a boy of seventeen to the electric chair, can they?”

These people would be surprised to know that under the law of this and of many other States a child of eight may suffer capital punishment. It should be added, however, that it is extremely doubtful if this extreme penalty would be exacted from a child of such tender years, though the record of England contain a number of cases where children of eight and nine years of age were hanged, and in this country children of ten and eleven have been condemned to the gallows.

New York’s death penalty was reinstated by Governor Pataki in 1995, but found unconstitutional by the State’s Appellate Court in 2004. Nobody has been executed here in 35 years.

In 1988 the Supreme Court banned executions of people under 16, and there are still 19 states which allow for executions of 16 and 17 year olds.

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Written by David

August 4th, 2011 at 10:00 am

Posted in Debate,True Crime

People Who Still Believe In Witchcraft

From July 30, 1911


PEOPLE WHO STILL BELIEVE IN WITCHCRAFT: Instances of a Superstition Recalling Bygone Days in Salem. (PDF)

Burning old women at the stake as witches is a pleasantry no longer indulged in, even in Salem, but belief in witchcraft is not altogether dead. Only a few months ago a woman in Jersey City had a neighbor haled to court on the charge of pretending to possess powers of evil and threatening to use them unless paid to desist. As the complainant had suffered a streak of bad luck, in spite of paying to ward it off, her belief in her friend, whom she called a witch, was cruelly shattered.

More recently a woman living near Butler, Penn., was accused of being a witch. Mrs. Laupaule Orber was the victim of this ancient superstition. She was charged by Mrs. Julia Kroner, a farmer’s wife, with having gone to the Kroner barn and “casting a spell” over a cow so as to prevent her giving milk. Mrs. Kroner openly made the charge of witchcraft in court, but the Judge refused to consider it other than one of disorderly conduct. On this ground Mrs. Orber was found guilty and fined $5.

Sadly, there are still parts of the world where accusations of witchcraft still hold legal weight. Saudi Arabia even has an Anti-Witchcraft Unit. (Am I the only one who thinks that would make a great CSI spinoff?)

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Written by David

July 29th, 2011 at 10:00 am

Posted in Religion,True Crime

Keeping Track Of The Criminal By His Finger Prints

From July 30, 1911


KEEPING TRACK OF THE CRIMINAL BY HIS FINGER PRINTS: The Wonderful Art, Long Used in China, Rapidly Being Adopted by the Police of This Country, with the New York Force Leading. (PDF)

I love articles like this one.

Over in Jersey City awaiting his trial is the man who marked each successful burglary by a note defying the police and jeering at their methods. He has not been proved guilty, but the police are certain he is their man. He was caught by the finger prints which never lie.

He was much too clever a burglar to do his work with bare hands. He always wore white lisle gloves, like a village undertaker. But one night in taking out a pane of glass he cut his finger, and had to take off his glove. And there on the glass was left the tell-tale finger print. The detective who was sent out from the New York office saw it with his naked eye.

He dusted a bit of chemist’s gray powder from a tube in his pocket over the glass and photographed the prints to which the powder stuck, bringing out every ridge and whorl. Back in the New York Bureau of Identification the photograph was carefully measured and classified according to these whorls and arches. And in the files, among the 60,000 finger prints was found its duplicate. The man’s photograph was in the Bertillon department next door, and he was quietly arrested.

The criminal who leaves his finger marks behind him is doomed, provided anywhere in the world he has been “finger-printed,” or if he is ever caught in another offense, no matter how trivial. In ten minutes the expert of any police department receiving his finger prints and a request for information can look him up and forward description, photograph and record. There is no possibility of mistake, for nowhere in the 60,000 records in the New York Department is there a single duplicate. The thousands in the other American cities which have adopted the system show none. Not one has been found in the fifteen years that the English detective department at Scotland Yard has used this means of tracking criminals. And for 2,000 years Chinas has been affixing a thumb print to a passport as a means of identification. No two have ever been found alike.

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Written by David

July 25th, 2011 at 10:00 am

How Uncle Sam Hunts Swindlers Who Use The Mails

From July 23, 1911


HOW UNCLE SAM HUNTS SWINDLERS WHO USE THE MAILS: Intricate System of Espionage by Which the Government Protects the Gullible Public from Postal Crooks the Country Over. (PDF)

The mails? Is that proper usage, or is that like the internets?

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Written by David

July 22nd, 2011 at 9:30 am

Posted in True Crime

How Flynn Foiled The Sicilian Counterfeiters

From July 16, 1911


HOW FLYNN FOILED THE SICILIAN COUNTERFEITERS: A Dime Novel in Real Life Is the Story of the International Conspiracy Which Came to an End Last Week With the Suicide of the Head of the Plot. (PDF)

One day last week an old Sicilian jumped off a Weehawken ferryboat and drowned himself. That is the proem. Here is the story.

[Proem. I didn’t know that word. It means prologue.]

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Written by David

July 14th, 2011 at 11:30 am

Posted in True Crime

The Campaign To Curb The Moving Picture Evil In New York

From July 2, 1911


THE CAMPAIGN TO CURB THE MOVING PICTURE EVIL IN NEW YORK: Organized Efforts to Censor Exhibitions Which Under Existing Conditions Are Harmful. (PDF)

In 1911, movies were gaining in popularity with all kinds of people. This created situations for grown men and little children to sit side by side in a darkened room, which probably didn’t happen very much before. Surely this is a reason to worry. A report “On the Condition of Moving Picture Shows in New York” was submitted to the Mayor. Superintendent Thomas D. Walsh described the matter this way:

“There is no objection to the moving-picture show as a means of entertainment. Properly conducted it is most instructive and entertaining. But the evil lies in the conditions under which so many are given — the dark room, filled with adults and children, absolutely without supervision, affording no protection against the evil-minded and depraved men who frequent such places and sit beside the innocent boys and girls without a question or suspicion until irreparable harm is done.

“The society last year prosecuted twenty-eight cases of crimes committed under these conditions and secured twenty convictions of men who lured children to their downfall. Numerous other cases of impairing the morals of children were prosecuted in the Court of Special Sessions.

The percentage of criminal cases arising from this evil has, during the first six months of 1911, leaped upward over 100 per cent. These figures are well to be considered by those who plead for moving pictures as only an innocent pastime.”

One proposed solution: leave the lights on.

A better proposed solution: encourage families to go to the movies together.

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Written by David

June 29th, 2011 at 10:30 am

Scientific Detective Would End Expert Testimony

From July 2, 1911


SCIENTIFIC DETECTIVE WOULD END EXPERT TESTIMONY: Head of Scotland Yard’s Bureau of Identification Urges Training of Sleuths — What Finger Print System and Blood Study Have Done. (PDF)

Fingerprints and blood are commonly gathered and tested in crime scenes today. But 100 years ago, this was new technology.

…if detectives were only trained scientifically, not merely in logic, so as to reconstruct a crime with proper attention paid to theory and fact, but also in chemistry, physics, and other sciences, there would be less need of expert testimony at criminal trials…

If the article interests you, definitely read Caleb Carr’s novel The Alienist, about a New York City murder investigation around the turn of the last century.

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Written by David

June 28th, 2011 at 10:00 am