Dr Willemijn Ruberg

The criminal’s hair, body and mind: forensic practices in the Netherlands (1800-1945)

Body and mind played an important role in the identification of criminals and in the determination of insanity and unaccountability. This paper will address the ways forensic scientists, doctors and psychiatrists examined the criminal’s body and mind. It argues that a major shift can be identified in the methods and techniques used to define the criminal self: from the last decades of the nineteenth century, psychiatric reports became more important in court cases. Increasingly, these reports contained detailed measurements of the body. For instance, psychiatrists looked for signs of hysteria on the body and in the suspect’s expressions of emotions. During the 1920s these psychiatric reports became more extensive. At the same time, the natural sciences began to influence the investigation of trace evidence. Fingerprints, blood tests and the use of the galvanometer to measure the pulse rate and emotions were all instruments that could ‘objectively’ establish the criminal’s identity.

This increasing importance of scientific measurements of the body led to new regimes of making knowledge: whereas in the early nineteenth century, most knowledge on the criminal suspect was gained by interviewing witnesses, in the early twentieth century scientific practices were added to lay evidence. We can see this by looking at hair: In the first part of the nineteenth century, hair, together with clothes, featured in the administration of criminal law as a means to identify suspects, whose looks, before photographs or images were used, were described in discourse. Hair, together with facial features and posture, was an important indicator of identity. With the introduction of scientific technology in crime scene investigation at the beginning of the twentieth century, hair acquired a new meaning: several tests were designed to distinguish human from animal hair, but hair was also seen as a marker of gender and ethnicity, as is testified by Dutch and colonial handbooks of forensic medicine and technology. However, older meanings attached to hair did not entirely disappear: in the early modern period, hair had been cut or shaven as a way of punishment. This practice reappeared just after the Second World War, when Dutch and French women who had slept with German soldiers during the Second World War, were publicly punished for their behaviour.

This paper will compare the older and newer, scientific, ways of giving meaning to the criminal’s hair and body. It will thus focus on knowledge practices and the body and address the question whether the criminal’s body was disciplined or whether criminal identities were rather produced by these kinds of practices.

Willemijn Ruberg is associate professor in cultural history at Utrecht University. Her research addresses the cultural history of gender, sexuality, the body and emotion. She is currently writing a monograph on the making of forensic knowledge on body and mind in the Netherlands, in 1800-1930.