A Brief History of Criminology and Criminal Psychology

DATED: 05.05.21

Crime and punishment have evolved greatly since the Victorian-era but, even to this day, studies are continually being undertaken in order to understand what motivates criminals and how crime might be deterred. Thanks to modern medicine, we now have a greater understanding of how the human brain works, but we’re not fully there just yet. That being said, we’ve certainly come on leaps and bounds since the Victorian-era – especially in terms of criminology. 

To see just how far we’ve come, you need to take a look back at what early criminologists thought. 

A Brief History of Criminology 

Crime ran rife in Victorian England, and the government was struggling to keep a lid on things. It used to be the assumption that religion and the fear of consequences from god would keep people in line, but that proved to be redundant as courts and jails became overwhelmed with the rising number of criminals. This saw the government implement new measures to try and control the growing unrest, including the introduction of the Metropolitan Police in 1829 and a range of new laws governing things like the management of foreigners and those seeking to rebel through the form of protest. 

When it became clear this wasn’t working, the government finally began to look at what exactly was causing people to commit crimes. Rather than implement better living and working conditions that would surely decrease the number of people resorting to crimes like theft and fraud in an attempt to simply survive, they chose to turn to science. 

At the time, Cesare Lombroso was at the forefront of psychiatry. The Italian physician published On Criminal Man which detailed what he believed to be the four reasons why a person would commit a crime. This is now called criminology – the study of who commits crimes, why they commit crimes and how crime can be prevented. 

Many people took Lombroso’s word as gospel, and even to this day, the theories that he presented as early criminology influence people’s perceptions of criminals. 

Why Victorian People Committed Crimes

The first reason people might commit a crime, according to Lombroso, was that they were simply born that way. If a person was born with shifty looking eyes, a large jaw or fleshy lips, Lombroso concluded that they were a born criminal. In this event, Lombroso touched upon the concept of eugenics. The problem with this theory is that some of the features Lombroso listed as criminal characteristics were more prominent amongst certain races, and this fed into the idea that some races were more likely to be criminal by nature. It was only when Adolf Hitler started to experiment with eugenics that Lombroso’s name was dropped from the discussion. Unfortunately, this prejudice still exists in modern society, despite it having absolutely no scientific basis as proved in the years following Lombroso’s proposals of criminology. 

If a person wasn’t a born criminal, they were surely an insane criminal. Mental illness wasn’t greatly recognised nor was it understood at this point in time, so the definition of an ‘insane criminal’ was far-reaching. Those who suffered from alcoholism, paranoia and epilepsy were considered insane criminals, as were ‘idiots’ and ‘imbeciles’. In modern times, mental illness is more widely understood and criminals may be excluded from conviction on the grounds of diminished responsibility pertaining to a diagnosed mental illness. Courts of law now don’t include epilepsy, alcoholism or ‘idiocy’ as a mental illness. 

In the event a person was neither a born criminal nor an insane criminal, they were considered occasional criminals. This type of criminal was opportunistic and took advantage of ad hoc situations that presented the chance to commit a crime. Crimes of opportunity and occasional criminals certainly do exist today and this is very much considered in modern criminology. 

Finally, the last theory Lombroso proposed was that people might commit crimes of passion. For example, if a person were overwhelmed with feelings of love, anger, lust or loyalty, this could be the lead mitigating factor as to why they committed a crime. Of all the theories Lombroso presented, this one is certainly one of the most solid and is to this day considered a valid reason why a person might commit a crime. 

Lombroso only looked at men in his reasons as to why a person might commit a crime. He deduced that women were less evolved than men and, therefore, less capable of committing crimes. 

Criminal Psychology 

Criminal psychology is somewhat similar to criminology in the sense that it looks at the thoughts of a criminal, i.e. what goes through their heads, what their intentions are and how they react after their crime. 

Hugo Munsterberg is widely considered to be the first person who started in the field of criminal psychology in 1908. His book, On the Witness Stand, outlined for the first time how psychological influences could impact a criminal trial. He raised questions surrounding how a witness could give inaccurate testimony by questioning the likelihood of events e.g. could a person feasibly see 100 metres ahead of them in the dark? Munsterberg also raised the idea of false confessions, as well as asking questions surrounding how defendants were interrogated. Many of his notions are still used today, and increasing research is being conducted into how best to rehabilitate criminals rather than punish them.

Nowadays, criminal psychologists are commonly called upon in court proceedings, but they also do lots of work in a bid to understand exactly how to reduce the chances of a person committing a crime in the first instance, but also how to best rehabilitate a person after they leave the criminal justice system. 


Since the 19th century, criminology and criminal psychology have come on leaps and bounds. Whilst some theories – like Lombroso’s – have been disproved, others have stood up to modern science and are still depended on to this day. 

We now have a much better understanding of what might influence a criminal to commit a crime and how this can be prevented, as well as how best to communicate with the accused to understand how to get them to talk and get to the bottom of why they might have done what they’re accused of. That being said, there is still a long way to go. Who knows what the next 100 years will hold? 

Hopefully, criminals like Jack the Ripper will become less frequent as our understanding further improves, but it is through looking back at crimes like the Whitechapel murders that we are able to move forward and make advances. If you’re interested in looking back to see just how far we’ve come, book a tour and allow us to transport you back to the Victorian-era and immerse you in what life was really like when killers like Jack stalked the streets.


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