Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Primer on Phrenology in the Civil War - Part II - "Americanizing" Phrenology

I'm pleased to continue my "primer" on the origins and popularity of phrenology in the 19th century, especially during the Civil War...see Part I (Origins).

Americanizing Phrenology

In 1832, Spurzheim began a lecture tour in the United States. Although phrenology was not entirely new to Americans, Spurzheim’s tour sparked an interest that spread very rapidly.

Indeed – phrenology had a special appeal to Americans:

Jacksonian America was ripe for ideas such as Spurzheim’s which provided a scientific – and (apparently) factual – basis for making each person the master of their own destiny. The individual was perfectable and phrenology offered a combination of the practical and ideal which could also lead to the perfection of society. Furthermore, it valued initiative and perseverance more than the preferential treatment that advanced the lives and careers of the privileged.

Spurzheim’s lectures became a national phenomenon but he died in Boston only two months into his American tour, and phrenology had lost one of its most effective missionaries.

However, others were there to take his place:

The Fowlers

Orson S. Fowler was studying for the ministry at Amherst and by 1832 was obsessed with Spurzheim’s theories of phrenology. A fellow student – Henry Ward Beecher – engaged in a friendly public debate with Fowler over the merits of phrenology, Beecher taking the negative.

Although Beecher won the debate, he startled his audience by immediately proclaiming himself a convert to phrenology.

Fired by his own interest and taking advantage of the nation’s interest, Fowler quit his religious studies and devoted his energies to crusading for phrenology. In a short time, he drew in his family as associates, includinghis brother, Lorenzo; his sister, Charlotte; Lorenzo’s wife, Lydia (Folger) and Charlotte’s husband, Samuel Wells. Their business – Fowler and Wells – became quite famous.

Due to their energies – and their business – they reduced the emphasis on the theoretical aspects of phrenology and introduced what they called “practical phrenology” – a science that reached out to everyone at all levels of society; not just the elite.

They took over the the American Phrenological Journal – which became the official organ of the movement. They also published many books, including The Self-Instructor (full text of 1857 edition here) – an instructional guide for the subject to use as a program of self-analysis and improvement. Each copy was designed as a self-contained introduction to phrenology, complete with philosophy, definitions, explanatory instructions, charts, diagrams, and illustrations. They also established a brick-and-mortar emporium – the “phrenological cabinet” – which became an essential sightseeing destination in New York, second only to PT Barnum’s museum.

Through their publications and instruction, they also gave birth to a large number of itinerant practical phrenologists. One authority has calculated that about 20,000 such phrenologists plied their trade in the 19th century. Whatever their number, they certainly visited almost every town, village, and city in the Union. One claimed that he had examined over 200,000 heads in his career.

One such phrenologist visited the hometown of Ulysses Grant when he was just a child, and his father remembered:

“When Ulysses was about twelve years old, the first phrenologist who ever made his appearance in that part of the country came to our neighborhood…they brought Ulysses forward to have his head examined. He felt it all over for some time, saying to himself: ‘It is no very common head! It is an extraordinary head!’…[a doctor] broke in with the inquiry whether the boy would be likely to distinguish himself in mathematics. ‘Yes,’ said the phrenologist, ‘in mathematics or anything else. It would not be strange if we should see him President of

Of course, Grant was an unknown at that time, but other more famous personalities did not just have their heads examined, but also accepted the science:

Louisa May Alcott, Susan B Anthony, John James Audubon, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, Winslow Homer, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Julia Ward Howe, Herman Melville, Edgar Allen Poe, Queen Victoria, and many others. Some even became models of certain faculties in the Self-Instructor. For example, Poe was the representative of “mental or nervous temperament”; Dickens displayed a large “organ of language”

Walt Whitman was associated with Fowler and Wells as early as 1846 and for a brief time was employed as a staff writer at the Journal. Whitman was read by Lorenzo Fowler in 1849 and it had a profound impact on the poet. He kept the chart until the end of his life and had it published several times. It was Fowler and Wells that published the first edition of Whitman’s famous collection, Leaves of Grass, which many see as something as a gospel of phrenology.

Lorenzo also did a reading of a then-15 year old Clara Barton. He boarded with the Barton during a lecture tour and Mrs. Barton took advantage of the stay to ask for advice on her hyper-sensitive and shy daughter, Clara. Lorenzo’s advice was to “Throw responsibility on her; she will never assert for herself – she will suffer wrong first – but for others she will be perfectly fearless.”

Coming soon - Part III - Phrenology and the Civil War!

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