Eugenics and the Criminal Penis

A baffling 1981 news story treated as a joke at the time reveals the long survival of Victorian eugenics ideas.

Every once in a while, my research turns up historical information so baffling that it simply defies explanation. Today’s story comes to us from 1981, the year I was born, a time when apparently it was possible to convince people that phrenology might be true if only we could apply it to the penis. The story must be read to be believed.

Authorities at the Juvenile Detention Center in Dallas reportedly have stopped their practice of measuring the dimensions of the sexual organs of all boys admitted to the Center.

The controversial practice came to public attention earlier this year when a Dallas district judge, Pat McClung, wrote a letter to the county health director complaining about the procedure.

The county confirmed that two medical doctors had been measuring the boys’ organs as part of a long-term study on juvenile delinquency. The doctors allegedly were trying to discover a correlation between organ size and development, and a propensity toward crime.

The county admitted that although the measurement practice had been going on for four years, no effort has ever been made to analyze the information collected.

Twin Cities Reader, June 25 1981

While I have not been able to find other news stories about this—apparently the Dallas papers aren’t indexed in most major databases—this seems to be a real story, since the details match known people, places, and events.

Three parts of the particular piece quoted above were amazing to me. First, that anyone took seriously the notion that penis size could be an indicator of juvenile delinquency. Second, that no one considered it strange that two doctors wanted to measure teenage boys’ penises while doing absolutely nothing with the “data” gathered. Third, that the news considered this abusive behavior to be amusing. The Twin Cities Reader story drew out none of the problematic nature of the story, leaving the lack of analysis as a punch line. But the magazine that ran this piece—and I don’t know what it was—was still worse. Just look at the drawing that accompanies the story. It’s obvious that the editors not only found the story amusing but envisioned it as a locus for sexual arousal.

Times have certainly changed over the past forty years.

The theory behind the study, incidentally, is a Victorian one. Havelock Ellis—yes, the same eugenicist who wrote the first modern study of homosexuality—asked medical experts to provide him with data about the bodies of criminals, and he asserted that malformation of the sexual organs was associated with criminal behavior. Among other things, he reported that one medical expert found “unusual size of penis” as a correlate for criminality. Ellis alleged that overly large penises were also associated with mental illness and learning disabilities, also seen as precursors to crime in the Victorian era.

Ellis wrote in 1895, in a very conditional way, ascribing no more importance to penis size than to any other physical trait that he believed indicated hereditary disease—what we would today call bad genes. But that’s not how criminologists of the era interpreted his single paragraph in an entire volume on The Criminal. By 1906, George Frank Lydston, a eugenicist, urologist, and law school professor of criminology (!) who was interested in trying to prove that poor whites and most Black people were inherently criminal, made use of Ellis’s ideas in a much more absolute way, declaring in The Diseases of Society that large penises on criminals—which he claimed to have also observed himself—supported “the degeneracy view” that criminals were atavistic, animalistic, and overly sexual. And, of course, there was the unspoken racist corollary: Black people had big penises and were criminals by heredity due to their “uncivilized,” perverted African ancestors. Lydston believed that crime was caused by sexual perversion and advocated castration as a cure for crime. His ideas influenced generations of lawyers, doctors, and criminologists.

So, the doctors in Dallas weren’t just acting like perverts but were drawing on an old, discredited Victorian idea to justify what it’s difficult to read as anything other than sexual abuse.