The "professor" above is reading a clent's head for the bumps in the foolproof chart at the left. Foolproof? Well, it's not so long since queens, prime ministers and credit managers agreed that
HAD ALL THE ANSWERS
WHEN THE FAMOUS American illustrator, James Montgomery Flagg, said. "Any young couple contemplating matrimony should have their heads read," he wasn't being flippant. He was dead serious. For Flagg was an amateur phrenologist, and he was speaking during the heyday of phrenology, a "science" that commanded the confidence of millions of people in North America and Europe between 1800 and 1930. Hundreds of professional phrenologists, all using the title "professor.” found themselves in lucrative, lifelong jobs by doing little more than feeling the bumps on their clients' heads. It was implicitly believed that these bumps, by their prominence and position, revealed a person's intellectual and emotional capacities. They showed the strengths and weaknesses of the mind and character. The phrenologist was the vocational guidance expert, the psychologist. and the marriage counselor rolled into one. with an added dash of Norman Vincent Peale and Dale C arnegie.
Phrenologists believed that the qualities of love, understanding, tolerance and devotion to home life were shown by a head well rounded and full at the back. People whose heads sloped sharply upward at the back were poor marriage risks.
For every professional phrenologist there were a score of dedicated amateurs. Norman Elder, a
Toronto manufacturer, was an amateur. As late as the 1930s he was basing his customers' credit ratings on the shape of their heads, and losing thousands of dollars. His son Robert, who now runs the business, says. "Dad would listen to a hard-luck yarn, look carefully at the customer's head, and il he was satisfied with what he saw let him go. Then he would say to me. ' I hat fellow is honest: did you notice that slight protuberance between the ear and the forehead? He'll be back with the money.' All too often we never saw him or his money again. It was a costly hobby." When Robert brought his future wife home, his father cut through the introductions and made a grab for her head. After a few minutes of careful pawing he announced. "She'll do.”
“Dad was right that time,” Elder says.
Three Canadian prime ministers. Sir John A. Macdonald, Sir John Thompson, and Alexander Mackenzie, submitted their heads to the phrenologist's revealing touch. A few brief reports by the men who examined our early leaders can be dredged from old copies of the Canadian Phrenological Magazine and other texts. A Canadian phrenologist. Francis Cavanagh. after examining Sir John I hompson's head, reported: "He has the ability to make quick decisions which are usually right. Leadership is pronounced. Fie would be impatient
with trivia or stupidity, and his reasoning powers are remarkable.” Another Canadian "professor." William Seymour, read Sir John A s head and reported: "His constructive faculties (sides of the forehead well rounded out) are well developed. His head is larger than most men s: Sir John has enormous perceptive development and his intuition is strong. He is lacking in seit esteem." William Walls, a touring British phrenologist, was given a Hing at Alexander Mackenzie during a visit to Canada in the 1830s. He found: "good reasoning ability, with humor and combativeness in equal prominence. His honesty is pronounced: but he is not a quick observer and is lacking in the perceptive faculties."
A British phrenologist. Mrs. Stacpoole O'Dell, was summoned in 1874 to read the heads of Queen Victoria's children. When Winston Churchill was a boy his mother took him to Millott Severn for a reading, which revealed that the young Churchill was fond ot springing surprises, and had the gift of getting his own way while allowing his opponents to think they were having theirs. (Phrenological findings, as these examples suggest, hail a lot in common with the fortunes on weighing-machine tickets — they're ambiguous enough to fit most personalities.)
Thomas Edison, Sir
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Phrenology had all the answers
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They sold vocational guidance, and even read heads by mail
Ernest Shackleton, Ignace Paderewski, Walt Whitman, W. F. Gladstone. Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Horace Greeley were but a few other famous men who seriously sought direction from the phrenologist. At the beginning of this century there were forty-two phrenological magazines flourishing in North America, more than are now devoted to astrology and palmistry combined.
The practice of phrenology was based on the theory that beginning with the prenatal period and continuing to the pubertic, the brain was taking form. As its various convolutions were assuming permanent shape the skull was being formed into a parallel shape, conforming
with the upheavals taking place within —something like the earth's young crust forming into mountains and depressions according to the volcanic pressures that boiled and bubbled beneath.
Phrenology was systematized by a chart of the human head showing the areas of the brain that controlled each innate ability and trait of character. Under every bump on the outside surface was an underlying brain formation showing that particular quality to be strong: flat or slightly depressed areas indicated that the corresponding area of the brain was weak or devoid of the quality ascribed to it. The faculties were numbered; a chart looked something like
a fresh sheet for a number painting. The phrenologist's fingers roved over the head like a blind man's reading Braille, until all mental, moral and emotional qualities had been assessed. Besides interpreting the findings of this examination, phrenologists claimed to be able to read character by the general outlines of the head. A high, broad head meant good moral quality; a high, narrow head had these and firmness and hope thrown in. A squat head showed lack of conscientiousness: a receding brow, dullness and selfishness.
Young men went to phrenologists for guidance in choosing their life's work. Astute businessmen used the phrenolo-
gists’ help in selecting employees. In Toronto the Sheldon School of Business Science taught phrenology, so that when its graduates rose to the boss class they would know how to judge the worth of job applicants. Square pegs sought out a phrenologist hoping that he would direct them to square holes. A few sincere practitioners may have called their shots as they saw them. Most of them dispensed a verbal soothing syrup, which probably accounts for the long popularity the cult enjoyed.
Professor William Seymour ran a brisk mail-order business by offering to give readings from photographs for a two-dollar fee. They poured into his office from all over rural Canada. It was a timid phrenologist who would hesitate to make a reading from a photograph, portrait, or even the live subject at a short distance. They were guided by the general outlines of the head and claimed to be able to spot many of the actual bumps if the subject was not too far away. When Reginald Birchall was being tried in Woodstock, Ontario, in 1890 for the murder of Fred Benwell—one of the classics in Canadian murder annals— more than a dozen phrenologists were hired by as many newspapers to write special articles on their appraisal of the prisoner's character. In the Toronto News. Francis Cavanagh said that Birchall showed a large bump of destructiveness but that he had an iron will, which would endure to the last. Birchall walked to the gallows without flinching.
W. G. Alexander, a dapper Montreal phrenologist with a thick brown beard and heavy wavy hair, didn’t take his job quite as seriously as the others. Although he gave readings in his Dorchester Street studios, he spent most of his time on tour, giving lectures and demonstrations at one-night stands. His act opened with a bantering explanation of the phrenologist's art. Then he would call three or four of the town’s leading citizens to the stage for a reading. He rattled off his analyses with interjections of broad humor and emphasis on his subjects’ weak points, much to the delight of the audience. For a finale, Alexander would step to the footlights, wave his hand towards the now blushing captives, and say, “Ladies and gentlemen, after having read these well-known heads, if I were asked to choose one of them to go on an important mission, say to Ottawa, after careful consideration. I think ... I would go myself.’’ This always brought down the house as the disconcerted subjects stumbled off the stage.
Jesse Gant of Hamilton confined his practice to his own shop. Gant, a barber, became one of Canada’s bestknown kite fliers at a time when flying kites was quite a hobby. He added phrenology to his repertoire and fixed up a package deal for the customers, whereby they could have a shave, haircut and phrenological reading for a dollar . . . a bargain, since most phrenologists charged from a dollar to two dollars without the barbering.
Although these men and their hundreds of colleagues thought they were practising a new science, phrenological charts much like those of recent years were used by the Chinese as long ago as 500 BC. The father of modern phrenology was a Viennese doctor, Franz Josef Gall, a small, excitable, intense man who, late in the eighteenth century, became interested in the cranial structures of his patients. He thought there might be a connection between character and ability and the shape of the head. For many years Gall checked the known mental qualities of his pa-
dents against careful head measurements. A colleague. Dr. Johann Gaspar Spurzheim, joined Gall in his investigations, and by early in the nineteenth century they had made up charts and worked out a system of head reading.
Their theories were accepted almost without reservation by doctors everywhere, and the great phrenological boom was started. Gall and Spurzheim were learned and sincere men and they had the gift of being able to imbue others with their beliefs. Gall lectured in Europe and the United States. When he died in 1828 phrenology was an established science.
Spurzheim picked up the torch. He arrived in Boston in 1832 in time to give only one lecture before he died: but in the few weeks he spent in Boston he established phrenology not only as a science but a I so as something of a religion. Phrenology struck the world with an impact not to be equaled until the close of the century, when the theories of another Viennese doctor, Sigmund Freud, were to open a completely new study of the mind. Josiah Quincy, president of Harvard University, delivered the eulogy for Spurzheim and the members of the Boston Medical Academy attended the funeral in a body. Members of the new Boston Phrenological Society petitioned for and received special state legislation allowing them to exhume Spurzheim's body and remove the head so that the skull could be preserved for till mankind to gaze upon. When the society broke up in 1864 Spurzheim's skull was transferred to Harvard, where it remains.
Hard on Spurzheim’s heels came the English phrenologist George Combe. Combe had chosen his wife, Cecilia Siddons. by phrenological test. She was beautiful, she had a dowry of fifteen thousand pounds, and when Combe found that her bump of Benevolence was well developed he didn't hesitate another moment. Combe’s fame had preceded him to North America, and his reception in Boston in 1838 was wildly enthusiastic. All the city’s leading medical men. Harvard faculty members, and members of the Phrenological Society were on the pier waiting for his ship. He was escorted to his hotel like a messiah. For two years his lectures and writings kept this continent stirred up like a camp meeting.
Combe tried hard to keep phrenology on the high level where Gall and Spurzheim had placed it. But as it turned more and more into a popular fad, and as new anatomical knowledge refuted many of its premises, the doctors and university men gradually abandoned it.
It became known that a spongy tissue, the diploe, lying between the tables of the skull, varied in thickness and thus caused irregularities in the outer shape of the head having no relation to the shape of the brain. It also became known that muscular crests on the parietal bones, or upper bones of the skull, vary in thickness and also cause perceptible irregularities that have nothing to do with the brain formation. Critics of phrenology became numerous and highly vocal. Dr. Thomas Sewall. of Washington. D.C., carried on a vituperative exchange in the newspapers with a Boston physician. Dr. Charles Caldwell, who championed phrenology. A typical exchange went like this:
Sewall: "The sight of a phrenologist reading a man's head looks like nothing so much as one monkey searching for fleas on another monkey's back.”
Caldwell: “Our stores of Christian
charity would be ample to forgive Dr. Sewall his abysmal ignorance, if they were not completely drained away to those patients unfortunate enough to fall into his hands.” In those days men did not rush to their lawyers to file suits for defamation and slander. They stood up and gave as good as they got.
Phrenology was escaping from the lecture hall to the midway tent. The phrenologist's chart was being unrolled by more and more pitchmen, and by the middle of the century a New Yorker. Orson Fowler, was the great apostle. His books were sold by the millions: his titles were almost beyond counting— Fowler on Phrenology. Fowler on Matrimony. Fowler on Character, Fowler on Ambition. They went on and on like the Rover Boys. When Fowler tired, his son-in-law, Samuel Wells, carried on until well into the twentieth century.
In 1900 there were nine professional phrenologists in Toronto and four in Montreal (French-speaking Canadians were not fascinated by phrenology). Ten years later there were five in Toronto and one in Montreal. By 1920 another Toronto practitioner had dropped out and when the Thirties started there were only two—and none in any other Canadian city. Cavanagh cut the number in Toronto in half by leaping from the Sherbourne Street bridge one September day in 19.3 1.
Phrenology may be dead, along with most of the credulous ones whose lives were guided or misguided by it. But we shouldn't be over-scornful of them. The purveyors of personal improvement courses, authors of books on positive thinking and guides for shortcuts to popularity and riches are not lacking customers today, ic