The Real History Behind The Use Of Forensics And Profiling In ‘The Alienist’


Medicine and the law have been in conflict since ancient times, and it takes center stage in TNT’s The Alienist, which airs Mondays at 9/8C. The series takes place in late 19th century New York and captures the fundamental shift in how the police solve crimes as we follow Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl), journalist John Moore (Luke Evans), and Police Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt’s secretary, Sarah Howard (Dakota Fanning) as they chase a serial killer.

As The Alienist demonstrates, people haven’t always understood the motives and mechanisms of mental illness, but it’s clear some people have a clear-cut motive for their actions while others don’t, and preventing crimes, let alone finding the criminals, often depends on unwinding them. But how long have we been trying to peer into the mind of a criminal? Much, much longer than you think.

Psychology has been around since almost the beginning of human history, in one form or another, but it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that psychology was viewed as a distinct science, separate from either medical work or philosophy. This was right around the time science was being applied to police work: A theory that fingerprints could be used to identify criminals was floated as early as 1840 and by the 1870s, big cities were using forensic photographers to record the scene. So it was only natural, especially when faced with seemingly inexplicable crimes, that anything with even a hint of science was brought into play, such as Dr. Kreizler’s observations.

You can see that in the most famous fictional detective of the time, Sherlock Holmes. Arthur Conan Doyle made up quite a bit of what Holmes did out of whole cloth, although almost all of it had some form of scientific basis. But at the same time, it’s important to understand that not only was early psychology crude by modern standards, but also completely new and influenced by the “science” of the time. They were originally called “alienists,” for example, because it was believed only people alienated from society in some way developed mental illness. In other words, if you had a mental illness, it was because there was something wrong with you already, quite possibly medically. Holmes himself said as much in The Empty House:

“There are some trees, Watson, which grow to a certain height, and then suddenly develop some unsightly eccentricity. You will see it often in humans.”

Still, the idea of applying psychological theory to crime had an appeal, whether on the macro scale of society in the science of criminology, or on the smaller level of what we’d call “criminal profiling.” Profiling itself is nothing new: In the Middle Ages, inquisitors often tried to assemble a series of “tenets” to “profile” heretics, for example. The belief that a certain type of person shared a certain set of traits and behaviors has been with us for a long time, for good and ill.

But applying it to criminals really began in earnest in 1888, with the Jack The Ripper murders. Thomas Bond, most famous for being involved in the Jack The Ripper case, is often seen as the first modern profiler. Bond, a surgeon by training, would not only collect and offer clear medical evidence about the victims he was assigned to, he’d occasionally offer a perspective on what may have happened, and the motives and possible physical condition of the attack. This provided an important bridge: By himself, the profiler couldn’t convict a criminal; even the most brilliant psychologist at the time was essentially using inductive reasoning to narrow down likely suspects. But the profiler helped police shape their approach to crimes and finding criminals. The profile put police on the trail; the objective evidence put the criminal in jail.

It has to be said there were plenty of blind alleys and bad ideas. This was an era where people sincerely believed pulling out your teeth cured depression. But what was important was that police began to develop an understanding that criminals were not just mustache-twirling villains, but people driven by their own desires, needs, and mistakes, and that often by trying to piece those together, you could find a likely motive. Criminals were no longer bad eggs, but people.

Profiling is still an inexact method, even now. Any profiler will tell you it’s just one piece of a much broader approach that looks at physical evidence, witness testimony, and increasingly the breadcrumbs of data we leave behind. But much of it started with doctors realizing there’s more to a criminal than just his actions. Dr. Kreizler may be a fictional example, but he’s got science backing him up.

To get some insight into that science and how it’s used in The Alienist, take a look at this video and be sure to tune in to the show Mondays at 9/8C on TNT.