CSFF Blog Tour: The science, the scam, the history of Phrenology

Phrenology is the study of the structure of the skull to determine a person’s character and mental capacity. This pseudoscience is based on the false assumption that mental faculties are located in brain “organs” on the surface of the brain and can be detected by visible inspection of the skull. The Viennese physician Franz-Joseph Gall (1758-1828) claimed there are some 26 “organs” on the surface of the brain which affect the contour of the skull, including a “murder organ” present in murderers. Gall was an advocate of the “use it or lose it” school of thought. Brain organs which were used got bigger and those which were not used shrunk, causing the skull to rise and fall with organ development. These bumps and indentations on the skull, according to Gall, reflect specific areas of the brain that determine a person’s emotional and intellectual functions. The Skeptics Dictionary, http://www.skepdic.com/phren.html

“Fool and Phrenologist are terms nearly synonymous” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 1823.

Phrenology: “The science of picking the pocket through the scalp. It consists in locating and exploiting the organ that one is a dupe with.” Ambrose Bierce

Ten-Finger is a phrenologist. That’s a showman that “reads” a feller’s character by feeling around for bumps and dents on his skullbone. A bump here means you got a short temper. A dent there means you got a generous heart. It’s real scientific sounding, but I reckon it’s all folderol and moonshine. Jonathan Rogers, The Charlatan’s Boy

During The Charlatan’s Boy, Floyd and Grady take up phrenology in between scams. I had seen phrenology in two other books, and I was tickled by its inclusion in The Charlatan’s Boy.

In Godless Ann Coulter wrote that “evolution fetishists” are turning themselves into “modern-day phrenologists”. This is the modern view of phrenology: a pseudoscience, a fanciful fraud. Helen’s Babies, published in 1876, is dated by many things, and not least that the book takes Helen seriously when she asks her brother to do a phrenological examination of her babies. Phrenology was widely accepted in the 1800s, in America and Britain. The intellectual and well-to-do often embraced it.

I enjoyed the use of phrenology in The Charlatan’s Boy, and I decided to poke around the Internet a bit. Here are some interesting things I turned up:

– Back in the day some employers would ask job candidates to undergo phrenology tests. In The Charlatan’s Boy a man asks Grady to examine his prospective son-in-law, ushering in one of my favorite sequences. Something like this may well have happened once.

– Henry Lavery spent 26 years building the psychograph, a phrenology machine. It had 1,954 parts.

– Sherlock Holmes, paragon of logic and intellection, once deduced a man’s intelligence from his hat size.

– In Huckleberry Finn, the charlatan called The Duke lectured on phrenology and provided “charts of character”. (I found these last two here, along with other examples of phrenology in popular culture.)

– Phrenology and physiognomy were in the 19th century mixed with Darwinism to assert that those with jutting jaws are mentally inferior. This was used against the Irish and the lower classes.

– Maps and charts were part of Ten-Finger’s phrenology kit. Jonathan Rogers described them much like these.

Here you read can the evaluation a phrenologist gave after examining a little girl.

Here is a man’s account (circa 1870) of his brush with phrenology.

– Phrenology always had its critics. One wrote in 1838, “Phrenology is a mass of untruth! Its physics are false and presumptuous, its metaphysics nonsensical, its ethics a gross idiotic blunder! And yet this system has numerous admirers, and its lecturers often appear in public, exhibiting the ignorance and audacity of the charlatan, in every sentence they utter, and they are generally surrounded by a gaping multitude, of bump-feeling people, eager to gain knowledge of the so-called ‘science’.”

4 thoughts on “CSFF Blog Tour: The science, the scam, the history of Phrenology

  1. This is great stuff, Shannon. I had never seen an actual evaluation or report by a phrenologist like the one you found. By the way, you’re right on when you mention that some employers made job applicants submit to phrenology examinations. That’s exactly where I got the idea for the man making his prospective son-in-law get examined.

  2. I found the report on http://www.historyofphrenology.org/uk – an excellent website for anyone who’s interested in the subject.

    I really enjoyed the section where Grady examines Cullum. It was entertaining, and it demonstrated why, despite the admittedly bad things Grady did, I never had any trouble staying behind him. He was clever, plucky, perceptive from beginning to end – from Coralyn’s love to Cullum’s oiliness to his own need to make a bulge for it. In a way he saved a damsel in distress, and it really was good of him. I thought it showed a lot about Grady that he recognized the preciousness of Coralyn’s love and Cullum’s foolishness in not responding.

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