On a shelf at the University of Lisbon, something incredibly strange has sat undisturbed for generations. It’s the preserved head of Diogo Alves, a serial killer who terrorized the city nearly 200 years ago. But why exactly is a long-dead murderer keeping watch on the technicians and physicians to this very day?
Alves was born in 1810 in the mountainous corner of northwest Spain known as Galicia. At the time, work in the region was scarce, and it was common for people to make the long trek south in search of employment. As a young man, Alves did precisely that.
Arriving in the Portuguese city of Lisbon, Alves planned to seek work in the households of wealthy citizens. It’s said, however, that he was led astray by Gertrudes Maria, a local barmaid. Soon, he’d stopped seeking legitimate work and had turned to a life of crime.
Back in 1748 an impressive new aqueduct had been opened to supply drinking water to Lisbon’s growing population. By the time that Alves arrived in town, the bridge had also become popular with local residents as a route into the city. Among them were many farmers, on their way to sell their wares in Lisbon.
Alves’ approach was simple, yet brutal. As night fell, he would lie in wait for farmers returning to their homes after a long day’s trading. Then, he would rob them and launch them off the aqueduct to their deaths. Incredibly, he is thought to have used this technique to dispatch some 70 victims between 1836 and 1839.
Despite the frequency of Alves’ attacks, however, his victims were poor, and the crimes consequently went largely unnoticed by the authorities. Apparently, police believed that the large number of deaths on the aqueduct were nothing more than suicides.
Then in 1839 Alves left the aqueduct as suddenly as he had arrived there. Next he formed his own gang and set about robbing the city’s opulent private residences. His boldness, however, was eventually to be his undoing. And in 1840 he made the fateful decision to break into the home of a local physician.
After murdering the entire household, Alves was finally caught. He was subsequently sentenced to hang for his crimes and went to the gallows on February 19, 1841. But although Alves lost his life that day, what happened after his death is truly bizarre.
At the time, the practice of phrenology was becoming popular in Portugal. First developed in Germany towards the end of the 18th century, this pseudoscience involved making observations about an individual’s personality based on the physical shape of their skull.
Although such thinking is dismissed today as nonsense, many scientists in Alves’ time believed that certain traits could be detected by measuring and studying the skull. Therefore, the prospect of analyzing the head of someone as wicked as Alves was tempting to say the least.
So, Lisbon’s practicing phrenologists enthusiastically acquired Alves’ head and preserved it for future study. It appears, however, that their interest ended there. Researchers have in fact been unable to find much evidence that any studies were ever carried out on Alves’ skull.
The serial killer’s head has instead remained at the University of Lisbon for more than 170 years. Today it sits innocuously on a shelf in the Faculty of Medicine’s anatomical theater. Although students have grown used to its presence, its eerily lifelike appearance can still send shivers down the spine.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for such a sinister artifact, the preserved head has given rise to many legends about Alves himself. According to some, he had the dubious distinction of being both the first serial killer in Portuguese history and the last man in the country to face the hangman’s noose.
It turns out, however, that neither of these claims are true. The title of Portugal’s first serial killer in fact belongs to Luisa de Jesus, a woman who admitted kidnapping and murdering some 28 unwanted babies. Interestingly, she was also the last woman to be executed in Portugal, sent to the gallows in 1772.
Similarly, there are others with a much better claim to Alves’ other alleged title. With hanging still legal in Portugal until 1867, it was the method of execution for at least half a dozen more criminals after Alves’ death. Yet despite the historical inaccuracy of these claims, Alves – and his head – have remained notorious over the years.
It’s unclear why Alves’ head is so much better better known than that of Francisco Mattos Lobo, a criminal who met a similar fate. Apparently, Lobo was just as monstrous and once slaughtered an entire family before throwing their dog out of the window for good measure.
When Lobo was executed, the phrenologists swarmed, but this time their efforts seem to have been a little more successful. Apparently, in April 1842, researchers completed an examination of the skull, although there doesn’t seem to be any record of what their conclusions were.
Today, Lobo’s skull sits in a case just feet away from Alves’ resting place. For some reason, however, it has never achieved the same fame as its notorious neighbor. Alves, meanwhile, has gone on to inspire everything from novels and movies to comic books.
In 1911 a Portuguese silent film, Os Crimes de Diogo Alves, was made about Alves’ life. Then, in 2015 artist Andre Oliveira Xico Santos published Vil – A Tragedia de Diogo Alves, a graphic novel that recounts the killer’s murderous days on the streets of Lisbon.
On top of that, both a novel and a fictionalized biography have also been released documenting Alves’ macabre yet fascinating past. Meanwhile, the murderer’s yellowing head continues to watch the hordes of students who walk the hallways today – almost as if it were searching for victims from the grave.