The Criminological Theory of Earnest A. Hooton

K.B. Melear

Florida State University

Theory in Criminology and Criminal Justice

Summer 1998

Instructor: Dr. Cecil Greek

Hooton Related Websites:

Inventory of the papers of Earnest A. Hooton
--Archives of the Peabody Museum, Harvard University

Sociological Theories of Deviance Homepage, Maintained by John Hamlin
for the University of Minnesota-Duluth^s Sociology 3305:

The Encyclopedia Britannica online

The Criminological Theory of Earnest A. Hooton

How is criminal activity best explained? As a society, we have sought to define and delineate the underlying nature of criminal behavior throughout the course of history in numerous ways. The Biological Positivist school of thought holds that criminal activity is due to the effect of biologically caused or inherited factors (Hagan, 1990: 138), and this is the area under which the work of Earnest A. Hooton fell. Hooton’s theory involved the notion that criminals are physically inferior to non-criminals and was based upon his measurement and analysis of the physical characteristics of criminals (Schafer, 1969: 187). This paper will briefly trace Hooton’s background and research interests and will then emphasize Hooton’s biological perspective of criminological thought and the impact of this work . His theory of criminal physical inferiority will be examined as it was perceived in the early to mid twentieth century, and how is it considered in the realm of today’s criminological thought.

Earnest Albert Hooton was born on November 20, 1887 in Clemansville, Wisconsin, the son of an English immigrant to the United States. He attended Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship (Britannica Online, 1998) and received his Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Wisconsin in 1911 (Hunt, 1991: 564). As a physical anthropologist, he began his tenure at Harvard University in 1930, and eventually became a highly respected professor and the Director of the Peabody museum. He taught and published at Harvard until his death in 1954 (Axelrod, Phillips, & Kemper, 1996: 131).

Earnest Hooton was not a criminologist by trade. Rather, he was a prominent anthropologist whose interests included the analysis of body types and how they correlate to various personality traits (Axelrod, Phillips, & Kemper, 1996: 131). His research interests were also quite diverse, ranging from human evolution from primates, a topic on which he wrote numerous books and articles, to Roman culture, the topic of his doctoral dissertation at the University of Wisconsin (Hunt, 1991: 564). The underpinnings of his ideas concerning the physical inferiority of criminals are reflected in one of his earlier works, "The Asymmetrical Character of Human Evolution," in which he argues that human development has not been uniform, but rather that some traits have developed differently for different subsets of people: "Further it will be demonstrated that similar disharmonic, contradictory, or asymmetrical features are by no means uncommon in modern human races, but are in fact characteristically present" (Hooton, 1925: 127). It was his anthropological background which led him to the study of criminals and criminal behavior as linked to physically inherited characteristics.

Hooton believed in Cesar Lombroso’s theory of the born criminal, which held that criminals could be identified by their physical characteristics. Hooton felt that although there was general agreement concerning the physical attributes which differentiate races, there was no consensus concerning the implications of biological characteristics on other facets of the person, such as personality or propensity for deviance (Hooton, 1926: 75; 1946: 568). Lombroso’s theory was challenged by Charles B. Goring, who felt that Lombroso’s research methods were inadequate, and set forth to disprove his theory (Jones, 1986: 107). Hooton (1939a: 16), on the other hand, felt that Goring was "...frankly and violently prejudiced against Lombroso and all of his theories," and in 1927 began a massive project which he intended to be the final proof that Lombroso’s theory was correct, that deviant behavior is due to a "low-grade mentality" (Hooton, 1939b: 300).

Hooton measured the physical characteristics of 13,873 criminals from ten states (which included Massachusetts, Tennessee, Kentucky, Texas, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Missouri, New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona)and compared them to a control sample of 3,203 non-criminals from Massachusetts, Tennessee, and North Carolina in order to make clear any differences between the two groups all adult-male groups (Hooton, 1939c: 35). His measurements included such physical characteristics as weight, height, head length, nose height, and ear length. Countless other measurements (107 in total) were taken from each subject including age, religion, education, offense committed, marital status, I.Q., eye color, moles, tattooing, and race (Hooton, 1939c: 37-47).

The results of his study were then stratified into two separate works for publication, the massive log of statistical results known as The American Criminal (Hooton, 1939c), which discussed only criminals of "Old American" origin, and the more readable Crime and the Man (Hooton, 1939a), which was composed of analysis of Hooton’s research, and the results concerning not only the "Old American" criminal, but also the "New American" criminal, and the "Negro and Negroid" criminal. Crime and the Man was meant for consumption by the general public in hopes that this layperson’s work might help Hooton gain the widespread popularity of such criminologists as Lombroso and Beccaria, but this hope did not come to fruition (Jones, 1986: 108).

Hooton felt that it was necessary to differentiate among the various criminal types in order to provide a clearer picture of deviant behavior. His definition of the "Old American" criminal is "...a native born White of native parentage-from two or three generations of American nativity-largely because criminals seem less addicted to genealogy than to certain other vices." (Hooton, 1939a: 34). He defined "New Americans" as those who had immigrated to the United States from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds such as Italians, Jews, Greeks, Chinese, Danes, Germans, and Russians. He saw the deviance caused by the groups as particularly troublesome because the heterogeneity of backgrounds had to be accounted for in the measurement of their deviance. Concerning immigrants from foreign lands, he said, "...we had not realized how many of these little New Americans were going to wave automatics instead of American flags, and hold up the corner grocery store rather than uphold the Constitution." (Hooton, 1939a: 131). Negro criminals he defined simply as "The most underprivileged human group in this country" (Hooton, 1939a: 290) and who were of African-American descent, while Negroids were simply members of the Negro race into which "...the incessant seepage of White and Indian blood...have brought about a multiplication of physical types." (Hooton, 1939a: 291).

After extensive statistical tests were performed on the data which had been accumulated over the twelve-year period during which the study took place, Hooton felt that he had discovered that the cause of criminal or deviant behavior was the physical inferiority of the criminal in comparison to the non-criminal. His findings were stratified into the various sociological, psychological, physical, morphological, and pathological areas by state and then indexed together to paint a portrait of criminal behavior (Hooton, 1939c: 301):
Criminals are less often married, more often widowed, and more often divorced.
Criminals are excessive in extractive, laborer, and personal service occupations, and deficient in trade, professional, and clerical occupations.
Criminals are greatly inferior to civilians of the same ethnic origin in educational attainments.
Tattooing is commoner among criminals.
Criminals have thinner beard and body hair, more straight and less curved hair, more red-brown and less gray and white hair.
Dark eyes and blue eyes are deficient in criminals, while blue-gray and mixed eyes are in excess.
Low sloping foreheads, high nasal bridges, and thin lips with compresses jaws are prevalent in criminals.
The criminal ear is more likely to have a slightly rolled helix and perceptible Darwin’s point than the civilian ear.

These indexed measurements were then combined with offenses committed to create the stereotypical offender (Hooton, 1939c: 302):
First degree murderers are excessively divorced and widowed, laborers, and poorly educated. They also have straight hair.
Second degree murderers are less extreme. They have excessively golden hair and broad nasal bridges.
Assault offenders have a high percentage of divorced men, of men skilled in trade labor and personal service, and have excessively olive skin color.
Robbers are mostly unmarried and factory workers.
Rapists are largely divorced men and widowers.
Arsonists are deficient in single men and typically have ash-blonde hair.


Hooton also used this data to classify criminals by individual body type, or somatotype. Short-slender individuals were thought to be more prone to burglary and larceny and having been previously convicted. Short-medium subjects were predisposed to arson, and short-heavy individuals tended to commit rape, other sex crimes, and assault, while medium height-heavy men tended to commit crimes toward society (the most bootleggers!). Tall-slender men were predisposed to murder in all degrees and robbery, while tall-medium men committed forgery, and tall-heavy men ranked first in first-degree murder (Hooton, 1939c: 177).

These results led Hooton to believe that the physical inferiority of the criminal was the underlying cause of deviant behavior. "Criminals as a group represent an aggregate of sociologically and biologically inferior individuals" (Hooton, 1939c: 304). Because criminals were so hopelessly beyond the scope of rehabilitation, his view of social control encompassed simply segregating or eliminating criminals from society. His strong ties to eugenics (the science of improving a species through controlled breeding) are reflected in this concept, as he felt that paroled offenders could be allowed to inhabit a certain segregated area provided for them by federal or state government, but that he favored permanent incarceration of those who were so genetically inferior that they should not be allowed to procreate (Jones, 1986: 123; Hooton, 1937: 295). In Why Men Behave Likes Apes and Vice Versa (Hooton, 1940: 230), he echoed the sentiment: "Let us cease trying to make the world safe for morons, and endeavor rather to save it from them." He had hoped for widespread acceptance of this idea, but it was not to be found due to the critiques which soon bombarded his study.

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Hooton’s gigantic study of criminals and criminal behavior was subject to a number of criticisms concerning its nature and design. Of primary interest was the design of Hooton’s samples of criminals and controls. Both were criticized as not being representative of their respective groups, as prisoners are in actuality criminals who have been caught, and therefore were inadequate criminals (Pfohl, 1994: 104) and his control sample was so eclectic that it could not possibly represent civilian society--it included members of the military, hospital outpatients, and college students in Massachusetts, as well as bath house patrons, and even firemen from Nashville (Jones, 1986: 108)! Lilly, Cullen, and Ball (1995: 28) note that the firemen and militia should have been distinguished from averages males because of their physical characteristics, but Hooton deftly avoided the argument: "Although they represent a physically and occupationally selected group,...when dispersed among the other persons...[they] do not weight unduly the total group" (Hooton, 1939c: 33). His work was also criticized for its racist overtones (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 1995: 27), for his blatant disregard of characteristics which could have been considered important and emphasis of those which benefited his results, and for the fact that he never actually presented any evidence that criminal deviance was, in fact, biologically inherited (Shafer, 1969: 187).

It is clear to see that the theoretical underpinnings of Hooton’s work were quickly discredited as was the nature of his observations. As noted by Pfohl (1994: 143), biological theories of criminal behavior revolve in cycles, and are enjoying increased popularity today. Indeed, a recent study of criminology textbooks indicates that the biological perspective is on the upswing as "compared to older books, newer texts devoted more coverage to biological perspectives, and were significantly more likely to claim that there is at least some empirical evidence supporting nature arguments" (Wright and Miller, 1998: 14). Although he was renowned as one of America’s foremost anthropologists, Hooton’s criminological theory has not won such favor. Rather, his theory that criminals can be distinguished by their physical characteristics, has not enjoyed joining other biological theories in withstanding the test of time.





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