Killer in a Jar: The Preserved Head of Diogo Alves

The head of serial killer Diogo Alves in a glass jar.
The head of serial killer Diogo Alves in a glass jar.
The head of serial killer Diogo Alves in a glass jar.

In the anatomical theater of the University of Lisbon’s Faculty of Medicine, high on a shelf, sits the preserved head of Portugal’s first serial killer.

Diogo Alves
was a nefarious criminal, reputed to have killed countless citizens of Lisbon in the 1800s. He would wait for farmers to pass by, rob them, and push them to their deaths off of a 200-foot-tall aqueduct. Later in his life of crime, he robbed homeowners, killing them after he took what he wanted. He was eventually caught and executed by hanging.

Although he was rumored to be the last man hanged in Portugal before the capital punishment was reversed in the city in 1867, there were at least six other executions after Alves. Because of the volume and barbarity of his crimes, however, Diogo Alves remains one of the most notorious criminals in Portugal’s history.

Given his evil reputation, it may seem strange that Alves’ head has a permanent home at the University of Lisbon, but there is an explanation. In 1841, when Alves was hanged, Phrenology — the thorough examination of the size and shape of the cranium as a supposed indication of mental abilities and character — was gaining notoriety in labs all over Portugal. Scientists thought that if they could study Alves’ head, they might gain insight into what turned him into such a murderous villain. It is unclear if studies actually took place, as Alves’ head remains perfectly preserved and undisturbed.

While it is hidden from public view, physicians and lab technicians pass by Alves’ preserved head as they go about their work each day. The head is shockingly normal in appearance, with minimal degradation to the facial features and hair. The most unusual characteristic of Alves’ head is its distinctly yellow hue.

Scientists may not have learned why Alves grew into one of the most well-known serial killers in history, but as long as his eerie face stares out from the shelves of the theater, his crimes will not be forgotten.