Neurocriminology in prohibition-era New York

New York City in the 1920s and ’30s was a hotbed of criminal activity. Prohibition laws banning the production, sale and distribution of alcohol had been introduced, but instead of reducing crime, they had the opposite effect. Gangsters organized themselves and seized control of the alcohol distribution racket, smuggling first cheap rum from the Caribbean, then French champagne and English gin, into the country. Speakeasies sprang up in every neighbourhood, and numbered more than 100,000 by 1925. When prohibition was abolished in 1933, the gangsters took to other activities, such as drug distribution, and crime rates continued to increase.

At the forefront of the city’s efforts to keep crime under control was a man named Carleton Simon. Simon trained as a psychiatrist, but his reach extended far beyond the therapist’s couch. He became a ‘drug czar’ six decades before the term was first used, spearheading New York’s war against drug sellers and addicts. He was a socialite and a celebrity, who made a minor contribution to early forensic science by devising new methods to identify criminals. He also tried to apply his knowledge to gain insights into the workings of the criminal brain, becoming, effectively, the first neurocriminologist.

Simon was born in New York City on February 28th, 1871, and studied in Vienna and Paris, graduating with an M.D. in 1890. Afterwards, he conducted sleep research and obtained experimental evidence suggesting that the medulla oblongata is the brain’s sleep centre, which he presented at the Medico-Legal Society meeting in 1897. Several years later, he was elected as President of the Hundred Year Club, a newly established association for the scientific study of longevity.

Eventually, Simon became interested in criminology and psychopathology, and by the turn of the century had abandoned his psychiatric research to focus on these disciplines. He was also interested in phrenology, the pseudoscientific precursor to the modern principle that the cerebral cortex consists of functionally distinct areas, and, by combining these interests, came to believe that the face is a good indicator of personality. He argued that facial characteristics were etched onto the face by experience and, therefore, that the face of a criminal reflected his actions.

In 1901, he was asked to conduct a psychiatric analysis of Leon Czolgosz, the anarchist who had been apprehended after attempting to assassinate President McKinley in September of that year, and who had, the police said, “the phrenological characteristics common to criminals of a low and degraded class”. (McKinley died from his injuries, several days after the attempt on his life, and Czolgosz was executed the following month.) Subsequently, Simon would act as an expert witness at criminal trials, branding defendants as “moral degenerates”. His father was murdered in 1907, apparently by a disgruntled employee, and this event may have spurred him on to pursue a career in criminology.

Soon after prohibition was introduced in January, 1920, Simon was appointed Special Deputy Police Commissioner in charge of the Narcotics Bureau. He realized the scale of the problem he faced, and set about tackling the crime wave. “Dr. Carleton Simon… declared that the peak in crime is not yet reached,” the New York Times reported on December 22nd, 1920. “He blamed the present abundance of criminals on existing drug conditions, which, he said, were brought about in a small measure by prohibition.”

Simon held this position for six years, during which he was responsible for a significant increase in the number of drug-related arrests in the city. And rather than delegating the work to others from behind his desk, he took to the streets himself, arresting drug dealers and addicts, raiding opium densdrug saloons and gin joints and seizing the drugs and alcohol that he and his detectives found. These operations were hugely successful, leading to the confiscation of several large drug hauls, together worth at least several million dollars. Consequently, Simon attained somewhat of a celebrity status, appearing in the pages of the Times on several dozen occasions in the two years following his appointment.

10 Feb 1922 – Deputy Commissioner Dr. Carleton Simon is seen here destroying opium pipes. Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

“Dr. Simon said that in the last six weeks more traffickers had been arrested than in the year 1919,” the paper reported on February 25th, 1921, “and that in three and a half months there had been more arrests than in the entire previous history of the city.” Less than 18 months later, another story declared that “During the eighteen months Dr. Simon has had charge of the Narcotic Division, all but 2 per cent of 480 drug sellers have been convicted and sentenced to three years each. In the same period, 4800 arrests were made.”

Early on in his role as Deputy Commissioner, Simon founded the International Narcotic Criminal Identification Bureau, and proceeded to compile a database that eventually contained the photographs and fingerprints of over 100,000 people convicted of drug-related crimes in 700 American cities and 27 foreign countries.

This was, said the Times, “a sort of international secret service against the drug evil. Dr. Simon receives daily reports from London, Paris and other European cities, telling him where large supplies of opium, heroin, cocaine and hasheesh are being shipped, and where their information leads them to believe it is going.” As a result, a marine narcotic force consisting of 250 motor boats was established to combat the smuggling of drugs and alcohol from abroad.

Nevertheless, crime rates continued to increase, and towards the end of the 1930s crime was estimated to cost the U.S. approximately $15 billion annually. Knowledge of brain function and dysfunction was very rudimentary by today’s standards, and criminals and psychopaths were often lobotomized or subjected to electroconvulsive therapy in order to keep them under control. Another treatment available was insulin shock therapy, which had been introduced by Manfred Sakel in 1933, and involved giving patients large repeated doses of the hormone to induce coma. It was around this time that Simon proposed a new theory, which he believed would help science to understand and control the criminal mind.

The theory drew on the concept of cerebral dominance, which had emerged some 70 years earlier, largely from Paul Broca’s investigations of stroke patients. Broca noticed that aphasia – the inability to speak which is a common symptom of stroke – was associated with damage to a specific region of the left hemisphere. Subsequently Carl Wernicke identified another region in the left hemisphere which, when damaged, resulted in an inability to understand speech. The left hemisphere thus came to be regarded as the dominant one, as it contained the speech centres. According to Simon’s theory, criminality occurs as a result of a shift in cerebral dominance, whereby the normally submissive right hemisphere gains mastery of the brain, leading to irrational behaviour.

“All of us have two arms, two legs, two eyes, two ears, two lungs, two lobes [meaning hemispheres] to our brains,” Popular Science Magazine explained in July, 1939, in an article called Have You A Wrong Way Brain? “Dr. Simon suggests, one lobe of the brain is stronger and dominates the other lobe. It dictates our reaction to situations and may be said to represent the normal character of the individual. Occasionally, however, the weaker lobe gains the mastery… [and] the nature of the individual changes. Dr. Jekyll becomes Mr. Hyde; the law-abiding citizen becomes a criminal.”

Simon also developed basic techniques that contributed to the emerging field of forensic science. He realized that criminals often leave tell-tale clues at the scene of the crime, such as hair, fingerprints, blood stains and fragments of clothing, and that these could be examined under the microscope to reveal something about the perpetrator’s identity. In the U.S., fingerprinting of criminals had been introduced in 1906, by New York City Police Department Deputy Commissioner Joseph A. Faurot. By the 1930s, however, criminals had found ways of foiling this method of identification. “[S]mart wrongdoers like the late John Dillinger and Homer Van Meter may mutilate their fingertips with acid or otherwise until comparison with filed prints is highly difficult if not impossible,” said TIME Magazine in 1935.

The article continues, describing a potential new identification method that Simon devised with Isadore Goldstein, an ophthalmologist at Mount Sinai Hospital: “Last week a bald, hulking criminologist named Carleton Simon expounded in great detail a method of identification which no criminal could circumvent without blinding himself. Dr. Simon would use the pattern of blood vessels in the circular backdrop of the eye. Almost infinitely various is this network in different people, and the chance that two persons might have the same pattern is as fantastically improbable as identical fingerprints. Age or disease may change the character of the eye veins and arteries, but not their position.” The idea was way ahead of its time: it was not until 40 years later, in the late 1970s, that the first retinal scanning device was patented.

Dr. Carleton Simon demonstrating the method of photographing veins in the eyes as a means of the identification of criminals. Image: Popular Science, 1939.

Dr. Carleton Simon demonstrating the method of photographing veins in the eyes as a means of the identification of criminals. Popular Science, 1939.

Between the years of 1928 and 1938, Simon served as an advisor to the Will Hays Commission. Hays had been hired as president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, which developed a production code that the major studios agreed to adhere to, in an attempt to “clean up the pictures” amidst public outcries over perceived immorality in Hollywood. The code stated that movies should not lower the moral standards of those who watched them, that they should depict “correct standards of life”, and that they should neither ridicule law nor sympathise with any character that violated it. The code gave specific examples that violated each of these principles, and placed strict restrictions on them. Thus, it banned, among other things, nudity and suggestive dancing, depictions of illegal drug use and the methods of crime, the ridicule of religion and religious ministers, words and phrases considered to be offensive, depictions of childbirth and references to sexual perversions (including homosexuality).

When Howard Hawks started making Scarface in 1931, the commission was concerned that the movie might glorify the gangster lifestyle, and asked Simon to advise on how it could be made suitable for audiences. He read the script and made a number of recommendations: that the mother of the lead’s bodyguard, “Camonte”, explain to her son that he is bringing shame to the Italian race; that the character of a lawyer named “Epstein” be changed so as “not [to] be so pronouncedly Jewish”; that “Guino” and “Cesca” should be married rather than living together, to improve the “moral effect” on the audience; that “in the final scene…the detective, should not be killed, but he should ‘get his man’”; and that “Camonte”, who in the end is “endowed with humane kindly qualities” should be altered, “otherwise it crowns the criminal with a halo.” Producer Howard Hughes initially rejected these suggestions, but eventually made the required changes, and the movie was released the following year.

Many aspects of Simon’s work touch on subjects that continue to cause concern and ignite debates to this day. At the request of the New York Herald, he investigated the water cure, a torture technique used by the U.S. Army during interrogations of Filipino prisoners, and his findings led to its abolition. He publicly opposed the death penalty and advocated corrective methods and the rehabilitation of criminals. He also advocated universal, compulsory fingerprinting, raised the issue of babies being born addicted to drugs because of their mothers’ habits and, during his time on the Will Hays Commission, advised on whether or not certain films might be indirect causes of specific crimes.

Simon died on February 18th, 1951, just before his eightieth birthday. At the height of his career he gained a reputation as a world-renowned psychiatrist and criminologist, but he quickly faded into relative obscurity after his death. Perhaps this was because his ideas about the neurological basis of criminality were simplistic and uninfluential. Even his greatest scientific achievement, the conception of the retinal scan, is not readily associated with him today. Regardless, Simon was an interesting character; on top of his professional work, he was also a champion angler and surfer. And although now largely forgotten, his work is a fascinating – if largely inconsequential – chapter in the history of neurocriminology.