Head of murderer Diogo Alves still preserved 176 years later

Diogo Alves was sentenced to death in 1841. But there was such a fascination with him, even after his death, that someone decided to preserve his head as a memento. It floats in yellowish liquid — the body part of a serial killer who, in 1837 alone, murdered more than 70 people in Lisbon.

Born in Spain in 1810, Diogo Alves settled in the Portuguese capital in his youth. Unable to finance his lifestyle with honest work, he started committing robberies at the age of 26. His deeds saw him haunting the Aqueduto das Águas Livres (Aqueduct of Open Water). This 700-foot high construction over the water was mostly used by simple farmers to take their crops to Lisbon to sell at the market. Alves would wait until nightfall when the farmers were returning home. He would rob them of their earnings and throw them over the parapet to make their deaths look like suicides.

He killed more than 70 people this way, inside of a year. The deaths of so many lower class people were seen as a rash of suicides that the police attached absolutely no importance to. But the killer finally changed targets, moving on to private houses which he attacked with a band of robbers. They broke into a doctor's house and murdered him and his entire family. That was how the police first discovered what he had been up to. Diogo Alves was sentenced to death by hanging in 1841.


At that time, from the middle to the the end of the 19th Century, the science of phrenology was very popular. The theory behind it was that different mental characteristics were related to particular areas in the brain and that a connection existed between the shape of the brain and the shape of the skull. The shape of the skull could tell you about the character of the person it belonged to. Followers of phrenology believed it was possible to measure someone's criminal tendencies simply by examining their skull. They were hoping for a particular insight into the brain of a serial killer like Diogo Alves, so his head was preserved in a glass jar of formalin.

And it has remained there, even until today, on a shelf in the medical faculty in Lisbon. So, 176 years later, you can visit the severed head of a murderer and see his eyes staring back at you, looking strangely alive. With their pseudoscience, the phrenologists didn't manage to gain any insight from the 31-year-old, but after he was arrested, Diogo Alves was asked if he felt any remorse for his crimes. He answered, "Only once. A baby that I killed to keep it quiet. Before I could kill it, it smiled at me. Then I felt remorse."

Considering how many people Diogo Alves killed, it's hard to believe that he could have had even an ounce of regret or remorse, but maybe he wasn't completely devoid of a conscience after all. How are some people capable of such dark and horrible deeds? It's a question that is still in need of answer, and one thing is for sure: that answer won't be found in a jar on a medical school shelf.


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