Report the Facts: Late-Victorian Criminology in The Hound of the Baskervilles
Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles illuminates the Victorian-age constructions of criminology through its characters’ actions and character archetypes. In the Victorian age great emphasis was placed on the physical traits of a person; some criminologists, such as Cesare Lombroso – who had an influence on British criminology, believed a criminal could be detected through the use of physical analysis (Sabbatini, see works cited at bottom). In the novel, Mortimer is a phrenologist and believes he can detect character traits by observing the construction of one’s skull. The two criminals in the story are the escaped convict Selden and the disgraced Baskerville Jack Stapleton. These two characters are of different criminal types. Selden represents the typical degenerate criminal of the time, while Stapleton represents the intelligent, hidden criminal. The characters in Doyle’s The Hound are often misled by their misconceptions of criminal detection while Sherlock Holmes rejects certain constructs of criminology and uses his rationality and theories of deduction to detect the true criminal.
Watson, the primary narrator of the story, is affected by the tale of the curse of the Baskerville Hound and is more willing to accept a supernatural explanation than is Holmes. In the opening chapter of The Hound Holmes is able to observe Watson examine Mortimer’s walking stick while looking the other way by the use of a “well-polished, silver-plated coffee-pot” that mirrors Watson’s actions. Yet, Watson is initially confused by Holmes’s observation, and claims, albeit in a jesting manner, “I believe you have eyes in the back of your head” . This quip shows the potential of Watson to examine the supernatural in order to explain a scenario instead of trying to discover the rational way that Holmes was able to observe him; Watson leaps into an irrational explanation. This incident foreshadows Watson’s fear of the Hound of the Baskervilles curse and Holmes’s disregard of the supernatural elements of the story. Holmes’s true interest in the curse lies in the effect and power that it has over others and how it can be used in a criminal way – such as Stapleton does use it. Holmes claims that they “are bound to exhaust all other hypotheses [to explain Sir Charles Baskerville’s death] before falling back upon [the supernatural explanation]”. Holmes is able to investigate past the curse and into the true cause of the crime.
Mortimer’s interest in phrenology is quickly ridiculed by both Watson and Holmes. Supporters of phrenology, a theory of the brain, purport that the shape of the skull reveals character traits. The practice of phrenology had diminished in popularity in Britain in the 1850s (Wyhe). Holmes is unwilling to use physical character traits to detect a criminal – he is more interested in looking for incriminating evidence, not faulty evidence of criminal potential. In Holmes’s mind everyone has the potential to be a criminal, to Mortimer’s chagrin. Mortimer; a writer: papers include such works as ‘Is Disease a Reversion?’ and ‘Some Freaks of Atavism’, is portrayed in the first chapter as a “strange visitor” and Holmes disregards Mortimer’s observations of his skull. Mortimer’s hobby is ridiculed further when Watson uses Mortimer’s obsession of craniology to distract Mortimer from his interrogation of the reason of their journey to Coombe Tracey. This ridicule of Mortimer and his phrenology, an element of criminal detection through the analysis of physical features, represents another element of Doyle’s critique on the popular criminal anthropology of the Victorian age. Holmes recognizes that Mortimer is “an enthusiast in [his] line of thought”, as Holmes is in his, only Holmes obviously believes that his “line of thought” is more effective at detecting and apprehending criminals.
Late-Victorians put great emphasis on the physical traits of a criminal. In the context of The Hound, Jack Stapleton is viewed with less suspicion than other potential suspects by Watson due to his intellectual pursuits and well-being. In Stapleton’s entrance in the novel Watson describes him as a “small, slim, clean-shaven, prim-faced man, flaxen-haired and leanjawed”. Selden, in direct contrast to Stapleton, is described in beast-like, degenerate terms: Watson states that Selden has an “evil yellow face, a terrible animal face, all seamed and scored with vile passions”. Watson allows a false correlation between a person’s appearance and his or her criminal intent to bias his investigation. The elements of being a gentleman by the Late-Victorians included social class and occupation as well as a strong moral code (Cody). By being perceived as a gentleman, Stapleton is assumed to be moral person further misleading both Watson and the Late-Victorian readers of Doyle’s novel. Doyle further examines his reader's bias by using Barrymore, a man of lesser social status than Stapleton, as a red-herring.
In the climax of the novel Sherlock Holmes discovers a portrait of the “wild, profane, godless” Hugo Baskerville that reveals a striking resemblance to Jack Stapleton. This similarity alludes to the idea that not only did Hugo’s physical features reappear in Stapleton, but also his character traits. The idea of an evolutionary throw-back of Jack Stapleton to Hugo Baskerville is another element of Victorian criminal anthropology: that some people are criminals by hereditary elements and that criminal behaviour is an evolutionary diminishment of man. Holmes is not interested, however, in the potential of Stapleton being a hereditary criminal, he is interested in establishing that Stapleton, being a Baskerville himself, has motivation to eliminate the remaining Baskervilles and inherit the estate.
In Lombroso’s theory a criminal like Selden is viewed as an evolutionary mistake. Yet Selden’s sister, the wife of Barrymore, claims that Selden’s becoming a criminal was a product of the way that he was raised and the influence of his social interactions. She says “[w]e humoured him too much when he was a lad” and then Selden “met wicked companions, and the devil entered into him”. Mrs. Barrymore herself claims that she is “an honest Christian woman” and there is no criminal history hinted at in Selden’s family’s past. This explanation of Selden’s criminality is in direct opposition to Lombroso’s atavistic criminal theories and hints at the theories concerning environmental factors in criminal development.
Victorian criminology used invalid techniques such as phrenology and held a bias based in false-correlations between criminal activity and social status, or lack thereof. Doyle, in Holmes, helps to illuminate modern techniques. Holmes avoids prejudiced assumptions concerning a suspect’s appearance and instead relies on the development of probable hypotheses and indications of a suspect’s involvement in a crime. He uses the portrait of Hugo Baskerville not to prove that Jack Stapleton is an atavistic return to the character traits of Hugo but to help support his hypothesis that Stapleton has probable motivation to kill Sir Charles and Henry Baskerville in order to inherit the wealthy estate. Holmes is able to look beneath the surface of the suspects, rely on the facts of the case, and solve the crime.
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Works CitedThe Victorianweb.org is a really good source for lots of information on the Victorian age. The novel can easily be found online.
Cody, David. “The Gentleman” Victorian Web, 2011. Web. 23 July 2013. <http://www.victorianweb.org/history/gentleman.html>
Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Hound of the Baskervilles. Toronto: Random House, 2002. Print.
Sabbatini, Renato. “Cesare Lombroso: A Brief Biography”. 2000. Web. 25 July 2013. <http://www.cerebromente.org.br/n01/frenolog/lombroso.htm>
Wyhe, John van. " The History of Phrenology." Victorian Web, 2000. Web. 23 July 2013. <http://www.victorianweb.org/science/phrenology/intro.html>.