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Heads Up

Heads Up


  Imagine, if you will, that the first thing you see when entering a building is a severed head, pickled in a jar. This is exactly what you would find, next to a diaphonized hand, when entering the University of Lisbon’s Faculty of Medicine.



  Just a head, staring blankly, as physicians and staff pass by with indifference. What a sight!



  Who does the head belong to? Well, its owner was Diogo Alves, whose claims to fame include being both the first serial killer and the last man hanged in Portugal.


Diogo Alves - extraído de uma gravura da época (1840)


   Diogo Alves was born in Galicia in 1810. He traveled to Lisbon early in his life, to serve in the houses of the Portuguese capital. This migration of Galicians southward looking for work was very common, but Alves soon realized that it still wasn’t enough work. So, he turned to a life of crime, finding it much more profitable. Some tales of his life blame an opportunistic barmaid for this shift in morality – because what’s a good story without a temptress? – but with no hard evidence, being poor seems like a good enough reason to me.


  In 1836, he transferred his workplace to the Aqueduto das Águas Livres (Aqueduct of the Free Waters), which was a nearly one kilometer (0.62 miles) long, spanning the Alcântara valley, which allowed both water and suburban farmers to make their way into the city, 213 feet above the rural landscape.


L. de Koningh Aqueduto das Águas Livres
The Aqueduto das Águas Livres, Lisbon, where Alves committed his crimes. PUBLIC DOMAIN

This aqueduct became Alves’ first killing ground.




  Many of the commuters to travel this crossing were humble farmers, traveling to the city to sell their produce. Alves would wait for them to return by nightfall, and rob them by whatever means possible, and unceremoniously push them to their deaths from the massive structure. He repeated this scenario 70 times in the three years he was active in the Aqueduto, and it’s unclear why he ever stopped. The police were unlikely to investigate the disappearances, as the deaths were dismissed as a wave of suicides, and it’s unlikely that anyone in power would have feared a murderer who targeted only the poor.



  Alves soon set his sights on larger heists, forming a gang, and began to target private residences. After breaking into a physician’s house and murdering the people inside, he was finally caught by authorities and sentenced to hang in February 1841.


This is where the facts of the tale – and Alves’ claims to fame – are often misrepresented.


  Remember how I mentioned that Alves was Portugal’s last man to be hanged? Well, he actually was not, despite the claims. At least six more criminals followed him to the gallows between 1842 and 1845, and Portugal did not rule out capital punishment until 1867.


  Also, Alves was a serial killer, yes, but not the first in Portugal. This title falls to Luísa de Jesus, a Coimbra resident who confessed to the murder of 28 newborns taken from the local foundling wheel. She was hung in 1772, and was the last woman to be executed in the country.


  So, if neither of Alves claims to fame are actually his to claim, why is it that his severed head was kept for all these years? Why would anyone keep such an odd memento from this serial killer?




  Timing. Yup, just timing. Alves was executed in 1841, which is right about the time phrenology was beginning to become practice in Portugal. Phrenology, developed by German physician Franz Joseph Gall in the 1700’s, is now recognized as a pseudoscience, or as medical quackery, but in Alves time it was a new, revolutionary discovery. While there is no evidence that Alves’ head was studied in this manner, the skull of Francisco Mattos Lobo – a contemporary of Alves who butchered a family of four – was examined by phrenologists in April 1842, and rests just two doors down the hall at the University of Lisbon’s Faculty of Medicine.



  While neither of Alves’ claims to fame may truly be his to claim, his head, and life story, have inspired a comic book, a fictionalized biography and novel, and the 1911 silent film Os Crimes de Diogo Alves (“The Crimes of Diogo Alves”), which is one of Portugal’s first fictional films.



Though neither of this oddity’s claims to fame may be authentic, I still find the eerie, staring head of Diogo Alves to be quite the interesting find. How about you?


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