I always get a cheap thrill when I notice a tattoo motif referenced in two different historical academic publications. It makes me think of issues that range from shared scholarship to lazy research to plagiarism and that things are not that much different today as compared to years, even centuries ago.

My recent post on Tattoo History Daily of Havelock Ellis’s image-quoting of part of a Cesare Lombroso plate caused me to look deeply at Lombroso’s original plate. And I realized that the motto written across the central figure’s chest was one that I had posted many months back from Lombroso’s contemporary Alexandre Lacassagne. Here are the two images:


(Lacassagne, Les tatouages étude anthropologique et médico-légale, 1881. Translation: “The past betrayed me, The present torments me, The future terrifies me”)


(Lombroso, L’uomo delinquente, 5th edition 1897, originally published 1876. Translation: “The past torments me, the present ?s me, the future terrifies me.”)

The quote differs slightly from Lacassagne to Lombroso, and that makes me wonder if both researchers were observing the same person, but one of the researchers just transcribed the motto wrong (or wasn’t paying proper attention to his sketches when drafting the drawings after the fact). It’s patently clear that these criminologists’ research findings were so problematically skewed because they were working with such specific populations (incarcerated or otherwise institutionalized men), but if they were working with such a limited group that both the Italian Lombroso and the French Lacassagne had to seek out the same man, their conclusions become even more appalling. The entire lingering stigma that tattoos are deeply connected to criminality and deviance comes from the writings of these criminologists, who patently ignored or dismissed the vast practice of tattooing going on on non-criminal bodies at the time.

On a less depressing note, while scrutinizing the Lombroso figure, I was floored to note the persistence of a tattoo motif referenced in a 1717 text that I’ve studied. The snake curling around the man’s leg and buttocks, the head of the snake emerging to peer down on his crotch, brings to mind a tattoo described in writings attributed to French military officer Henri de Tonti:

“I have seen several of these [Indianized] men, and especially an officer—a man of rank—whose name you might know, who, besides an image of the Virgin with the baby Jesus, a large cross on his stomach with the miraculous words that appeared to Constantine, and an infinite number of pricks in the native [“savage”] style, has a snake that winds around his body, whose tongue—pointed and ready to strike—comes to lead toward an extremity that you will guess if you can.” (my translation from the original French)


(Lombroso, L’uomo delinquente, 1897 5th edition, originally published 1876)

I make a strong case in my dissertation that this was actually a tattoo that Tonti himself wore because of the flirtatious way in which he writes about it (the description of the tattoo is in a letter to a lady friend) and Tonti’s own history with body modification including probable tattoos. One can’t help but wonder: Did this tattoo become a standard tattoo through oral tradition among sailors, traders, military men, and the like? Or perhaps–and this is my favorite hypothesis–the man pictured in Lombroso’s illustration was a bibliophile with a rare book collection and had read Tonti’s account (which, of course, goes against all that Lombroso, Lacassagne, and fellow scholars were trying to assert re: tattooed people–that they were atavistic, more primitive, less intelligent, degenerate, childlike, etc.).

However…the distrustful scholar in me wonders if this illustration even actually references a real body. I would not put it past Lombroso, who clearly hated to have to acknowledge that non-criminals got tattooed (in his 1896 Popular Science article he called the British women who were getting tattooed as part of the artistocratic-driven fashion at the time inferior, vain, savage, and atavistic) to have just crafted a heavily tattooed body from bits and scraps of tattoos that he had read about in other texts or heard about at academic lectures. This might be why the motto tattooed across the chest differs from the one in Lacassagne–even though Lombroso’s image predates Lacassagne’s by a few years, if he had heard Lacassagne speak about the tattoo at an academic gathering, he could have flubbed the transcription (note the missing word in the middle line!), perhaps never even viewing or interviewing the man in question, which would make the popular outcome of the influence of his flawed scholarship even more depressing. When you look at how carefully Lacassagne rendered the script (especially in contrast to some of the other text tattoos for which he meticulously tried to replicate the font), it seems even more of a possibility that Lombroso may not have seen the tattoo (or at least didn’t sketch it very carefully). Questions, questions…more research to be done.



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