Mind Games – A look at phrenology in the 1830s

Mind Games – A look at phrenology in the 1830s

Phrenology was a hot topic in 1830s America, the relatively new “offspring of inquiring and revolutionary age,” as the Quarterly Christian Spectator called it in 1834. It was hailed by some as a science that could unlock the secrets of the human brain by measuring the skull. It was denounced by others as sheer hucksterism–the work of con-men using the dubious notion of “cranial bumps” to make money off the gullibility of others.

Some moralists opposed phrenology on religious grounds; some scientists said that it was not very scientific. Nevertheless, thousands of curious Americans flocked to phrenological lectures, even as skeptics tried to trip up the lecturers by disguising the true identities of demonstration subjects. In the 1830s, New England, particularly Massachusetts, was the hotbed of phrenology in America. The Bay State hosted some of the leading European prophets of this new “science” and produced many of its most prominent American practitioners.

Much scientific opinion in the early nineteenth century held that the human brain consisted of many separate areas, each controlling a different mental function; phrenology grew out of the notion that by meticulously observing and measuring the brain, one could read its functional organization and the relative strength of each function or “faculty.” Phrenologists maintained that the brain had 37 faculties, each embodying a specific personality trait. These included “philoprogenitiveness” (the love of offspring), “amativeness” (the love of the opposite sex), and “concentrativeness” (the faculty of unifying all mental functions). The size and strength of each faculty varied widely between individuals, it was believed, and each person had a unique combination of them. Some people were naturally blessed (or cursed) by unusually large or small faculties.

What made practical phrenology possible was the practitioners’ conviction that the skull conformed to the brain it contained; thus the skull’s shape could be examined to give evidence of the size and development of the brain beneath. Once a “map” of the head was made delineating personal characteristics, a subject’s diverse personality traits could be scientifically predicted.

Practical phrenologists promised useful knowledge. Many young men and women sought career or marital advice. Some employers hired workers based on phrenological reports, while others used them to judge business associates or choose political candidates. The new science could be therapy as well as diagnosis, because phrenologists also believed that each faculty of the brain could be increased in size and power through regular mental exercise, just as muscles could be developed through heavy physical labor. Thus individuals could be advised how to improve their personalities by strengthening their deficiencies and curbing negative traits through self-knowledge and discipline.

Phrenology also claimed significance beyond the individual as a theory of human nature. It was used by some of its proponents to “prove” the mental and moral superiority (or inferiority) of whole races and offered explanations of criminal behavior and mental illness. Some followers claimed to have found “the origin of evil… the sources of disease… [and] the true remedy” for these persisting human ills.

The founding father of phrenology was Dr. Franz-Josef Gall (1757-1828) of Vienna, and, later, Paris. As a boy, Gall had become convinced of the close links between mind and body–for example, that students who had large, protruding eyes tended to have strong language abilities and good memories. Correlating personality traits with idiosyncrasies of the head and face became his life’s work. But it was Gall’s student, Dr. Johann Gaspar Spurzheim (1776-1832), traveling and working with Gall throughout northern Europe, who gave phrenology a name, a language, a system, and a literature, publishing extensively on the subject. In 1832 Spurzheim was persuaded to visit America to deliver a series of lectures on this new science of the mind. Boston was his first stop–and, as fate would have it, his last. After delivering 10 well-attended lectures at Athenaeum Hall, he began to repeat the series at Harvard. Overworked, and overwhelmed by curious members of the Boston elite who flocked to his lectures seeking personal attention, he contracted typhoid fever and died on November 10, 1832.

Spurzheim’s death appears to have done even more for phrenology’s popularity than his lectures while he lived. A Harvard medical professor conducted a public autopsy of the celebrated man, including a phrenological assessment. As per his own instructions, Spurzheim’s brain, skull, and heart were removed, preserved in jars of alcohol, and displayed to a curious public. Crowds of Bostonians attended his funeral at the Old South Meetinghouse. A group of physicians, Harvard professors, and wealthy Boston laymen met that very night to found the Boston Phrenological Society. Within a year of his demise, Spurzheim’s Outlines of Phrenology became a best seller. Spurzheim was buried in the new Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, where his benefactors bought him a tomb. It became a tourist attraction, as did a wax statue of the great phrenologist at a Boston museum.

From Boston phrenology spread quickly throughout the country, fueled by the energy of New England’s purveyors of culture. Soon all the major cities had their own phrenological societies and journals. Popular magazines like the Journal of Health and The Ladies’ Magazine and Literary Gazette gave phrenology considerable attention. Phrenology’s themes of popular science, psychological revelation, and self-help attracted and fascinated Americans. Probably just as important, there was money to be made. While a few well-to-do and cultivated gentlemen held forth in scholarly phrenological societies, by the late 1830s dozens of “practical phrenologists” were opening offices in cities and traveling through small towns all across the United States. Like other itinerant lecturers they brought their talks to meetinghouses, halls, and even school houses. For an additional fee, phrenologists offered personal “readings.”

If we judge by the hundreds of thousands who paid to attend lectures and the many thousands who had their personalities read, it is clear that a large portion of the American population put some faith in phrenology. Many claimed it changed their lives. For Clara Barton, the visit of the noted phrenologist Lorenzo Fowler to her native Oxford, Mass., in 1839 was a critical turning point. Observing the shape of her head, Fowler advised Barton’s mother to put the shy and house-bound Clara to work in the service of others. Soon thereafter the 18-year-old girl was teaching school; she went on to become a pioneering public health nurse and founder of the American Red Cross.

Nelson Sizer of East Granville, Mass., recalled that his career as a practical phrenologist began in 1839 when he joined his neighbor P.L. Buell to work as a traveling lecturer. They “worked together in the larger places, and separated for short periods in the smaller places.” Once in a community, Sizer would seek to address the local lyceum society for a fee or hire a lecture room and charge “a shilling” [16 2/3 cents] admission. He accompanied his lectures with a variety of visual aids. Most important was a phrenological bust of the head delineating the various “organs” of the mind as mapped by Spurzheim (available at the time for about $1.00). He also brought with him a plaster cast of the human brain, two human skulls, and several animal skulls for comparative purposes.

Most nineteenth-century phrenological lectures probably followed the basic pattern that Sizer recalled. He asked rhetorically what phrenology was and then held up the plaster cast to explain, “The brain is the organ of the mind.” He then launched into his lecture and concluded by performing two public demonstrations on members of the audience. Often an audience would test him by disguising a prominent citizen as a ne’er-do well, or vice versa, but Sizer claimed he was never fooled; the “scientific truth” of phrenology always won out.

Phrenologists sought to link education to income in other ways as well, setting up offices in which they could provide private readings for a fee. By the late 1830s phrenologists’ offices were opening in many New England cities and large towns, including Worcester. Many practitioners offered their clients personal readings in written form. They provided them with short pamphlets in which the phrenologist wrote down his observations next to the paragraph elucidating each faculty or characteristic. Either the book was included in the price of the reading or the purchase of the book entitled one to a private reading.

Americans adopted phrenology and remade it in their own image. In the United States, its assertions about the anatomy and physiology of the brain were less important than its psychological and even spiritual claims, as phrenology became a tool of self-reliance. Phrenology became part of the American constellation of moral reform. It dove-tailed with the work of Sylvester Graham and the Grahamites, who advocated better health through a strictly controlled vegetarian diet and chastity, and that of educational reformers like Bronson Alcott and his cousin William, who sought to reshape education and child-rearing. In a broader sense phrenologists also shared some common ground with politically radical groups–abolitionists and advocates for equal rights for women. All were intensely interested in the rights and responsibilities of the individual, and the phrenologists’ motto–“Know Thyself!”–held the keys to self-awareness and understanding.

Phrenology gave its followers a way to explain–and justify–individualism and inequality, all under the banner of science. It also gave Americans a source of reassurance in a world rocked by social and economic upheaval; people looking for advice and direction often found it in phrenology’s decisive “right-headedness.” Some also found it a reasonably successful means of making money, proselytizing from Cape Cod to Kentucky and from Maine to Georgia. While their detractors saw their labors as nothing more than glorified fortune-telling, phrenologists successfully read the country’s crania for a few decades. They tapped the purses of many thousands, but also gave direction and counsel alike to men and women, day laborers and socialites, urbanites and rural villagers.

After the middle of the nineteenth century, phrenology grew moribund, with no new leaders or scientific discoveries to keep it fresh. Over time many of its assumptions were disproved by the emerging disciplines of psychology and neurology, and, damaged by its association with hucksterism, phrenology withered away.

Phrenology is alive and well, however, at Old Sturbridge Village, where careful research has allowed us to resurrect this “science of the mind” in authentic fashion. On your next visit to the Village, you might see a phrenologist holding forth on what the cranium reveals about one’s personality. If you dare, step up to have your own head read. It’ll expand your mind on the science, popular culture, and entertainment of the 1830s.


Reprinted with permission from Old Sturbridge Visitor  , a publication of Old Sturbridge Inc., all rights reserved.