Phrenology in American Culture


(Source: Wikipedia)

At any one time, I am working on a couple of skeptical projects, most of which involve some sort of writing component, so I am always on the lookout for new material. Last month, in the class I am teaching about researching and writing about extraordinary claims, a student decided that he was going to look into medical quackery, and we brainstormed about topics that he could look into at the library.

As we sat in the computer lab, I started entering some terms into the university databases, looking for a source that might give my student a head start on the research. When I entered “phrenology” into the search box, I was surprised not only by how much came back, but especially by how much of it came back from journals in the humanities, especially in literature and history. I honestly knew next to nothing about phrenology, so I saved about 20 full-text articles with phrenology in their titles on the off chance that I would have time to look at them in depth later.

Sifting through these articles, I was struck by the impact that phrenology managed to have on American culture. Phrenology came out of the work of German doctor Franz Joseph Gall in the first two decades of the 19th century, and was popularized in the United States in the 1830s by a well-known physician named Charles Cardwell. I was surprised to learn from Robert E. Reigel, writing in the 1930s, that the earliest phrenologists were respectable physicians who had derived their theories by employing the empirical tools of observation and measurement to the psyche, even if the conclusions were uniformly unrevealing. The thought behind phrenology seems to have followed as such: that the brain consisted of modular faculties that were generally independent and localized, an observation that would have been supported through observations of traumatic injuries like the one received by Phineas Gage in 1848, whose personality changed radically when his left frontal lobe was largely destroyed by a railroad spike. It seemed not implausible that if mind and brain were deeply intertwined that the size of these various organs in the skull might determine one’s personality. And if the shape of the brain determined the shape of the skull, well, could one not possibly infer the personality traits of the individual from an examination of the contours of the head? Sure there are a lot of speculative leaps in there, but it’s not impossible. It could have been right. It just happened to not be, and quite quickly the interpretive flaws that doomed phrenology were recognized.

Phrenology, while in some ways reflecting a materialist sensibility about the origin of character, was also a very convenient tool by which to confirm racial and social stereotypes and beliefs that one’s true inner nature would be written on one’s body, like Dorian Gray’s portrait. As such, it was an especially useful pseudoscience for reconfirming the inferiority of darker races and confirming the inherently criminal nature of the lower classes.

What I am most surprised by as I go through these articles is the number and variety of prominent historical characters who underwent phrenological analysis. These include Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Clara Barton, most of the Northern generals in the Civil War, and the exhumed skull of Jonathan Swift. When these personages were not available for direct examination, phrenologists would base their analyses on paintings and busts of the figures. One of the most intriguing was a phrenological analysis of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. The Nauvoo Wasp on 2 July 1842 printed a letter from Smith’s phrenologist, Dr. A. Crane. which he prefaces with:

“Sir, I take the liberty to inform you that a large number of persons in different places have manifested a desire to know the phrenological development of Joseph Smith’s head. I have examined the Prophet’s head, and he is perfectly willing to have the chart published. You will please publish in your paper such portions of it as I have marked, showing the development of his much-talked-of brain, and let the public judge for themselves whether phrenology proves the reports against him true or false[.] Time will prove all things, and word to the wise is sufficient.”







(source: Bennet, The History of the Saints)

The scores range from 1-12, twelve meaning that the part of the brain in question is very large. It turns out, according to Dr. Crane, Smith was extremely susceptible to and desirous of the opposite sex. A lot. Like 11 out of 12 a lot.  Also, he was judged to have an enlarged region of critical acumen. He scored low on “attachment to places of long residence,” musical aptitude, destructiveness, indifference to life, and, interestingly, the sentiment of “veneration,” which is described as “religion without great awe or enthusiasm” and “reasonable deference to superiority.”

Mark Twain also had his head examined. In a series of articles published in the 1970s, literary scholars debated to what degree Twain was a believer in phrenology. Certainly he was familiar with phrenology and other forms of bunkum. It’s low hanging fruit, and he often deployed his satirical skills against popularly discredited practices. The exchange that these scholars were having, however, seem to miss the point that whenever Twain was writing for a large popular audience, he was uniformly damning of phrenology, which suggests to me that was likely his attitude toward the topic. In Huck Finn, the King and the Duke, two traveling confidence men included phrenology among their skills. Wandering phrenologists would come to his hometown of Hannibal, MO and give readings for a quarter. In his Autobiography, he recounted:

The phrenologist took great delight in mouthing [the] great names [of cranial features]; they gurgled from his lips in an easy and unembarrassed stream, and this exhibition of cultivated facility compelled the envy and admiration of everybody. By and by the people became familiar with these strange names and addicted to the use of them and they batted them back and forth in conversation with deep satisfaction– a satisfaction which could hardly have been more contenting if they had known for certain what the words meant.

“It is not at all likely, I think, that the traveling expert ever got any villager’s character quite right, but it is a safe guess that he was always wise enough to furnish his clients character-charts that would compare favorably with George Washington’s. It was a long time ago and yet I think I still remember that no phrenologist ever came across a skull in our town that fell much short of the Washington standard.

Twain also recounts a visit to a London phrenologist, once under a fake identity, and then again several months later under his own nomme de plume. He found that the two readings in no way matched, and that the second one was clearly far more specifically tailored to his public persona. I will include a detailed phrenological reading of Mark Twain that found–surprise, surprise–that he was very funny indeed.

I would be remiss if I did not add one final literary figure who received a phrenological analysis. Walt Whitman employed the language of phrenology in his Leaves of Grass. For instance, when he praises “the noble character of mechanics and farmers, especially the young men, he lauds:

The freshness and candor of their physiognomy, the copiousness and decision of their phrenology,

The picturesque looseness of their carriage, their fierceness when wrong’d,

The fluency of their speech, their delight in music, their curiosity, good temper, and open-handedness—the whole composite make,

The prevailing ardor and enterprise, the large amativeness[…]

And later in the poem, he questions himself:

Who are you, indeed, who would talk or sing to America?

Have you studied out the land, its idioms and men?

Have you learn’d the physiology, phrenology, politics, geography, pride, freedom, friendship, of the land? its substratums and objects?

But Whitman didn’t just use the language of phrenology in terms like “amativeness” (a phrenological feature suggesting sexual desire) and as a metaphor for understanding the deeper truths of American character; he also praised phrenologists alongside geologists, chemists, mathematicians, and oddly, spiritualists, as the “lawgivers of poets,” those who reliably illuminated the objective reality that poets use to fashion their verses. Furthermore, early printings of Leaves of Grass were initially distributed by Fowler and Wells, the New York publishers of the long-lived Phrenology Journal. Their office actually received Whitman’s professional correspondence for a time:



Further, Whitman published his phrenological readings by Lorenzo Fowler in several editions of Leaves of Grass.

For all its misuses and silliness, phrenology seems to have nonetheless left its mark on American culture. Indeed, at least a basic understanding of the pseudoscience is essential to understanding one of America’s most important literary works.


Works Consulted:

  • Bennett, John C. The History of the Saints: Or, An Exposure of Joe Smith and Mormonism. New York: Leland and Whiting, 1842.
  • Claggett, Shalyn. “Putting Character First: The Narrative Construction of Innate Identity in Phrenological Texts.” Victorians Institute Journal 38 (Jan 2010): 103-162.
  • Gribben, Alan. “Mark Twain, Phrenology and the “Temperaments”: A Study of Pseudoscientific Influence” American Quarterly 24.1 (Mar., 1972): 45-68.
  • Hungerford, Edward. “Walt Whitman and His Chart of Bumps.” American Literature 2.4 (Jan., 1931): 350-384.
  • Mackey, Nathanial. “Phrenological Whitman.” Conjunctions 29 (Fall 1997).
  • Riegal, Robert E. “The Introduction of Phrenology to the United States.” The American Historical Review 39.1 (Oct 1933): 73-78.
  • Stern, Madeline B. “Mark Twain Had His Head Examined.” American Literature 41.2 (May, 1969): 207-218.
  • Wrobel, Arthur.  “Corroborating His Phrenology”: The American Phrenological Journal, The Great American Crisis, and U. S. Grant. Journal of American & Comparative Cultures (24.3-4): 161-169.

2 Responses to Phrenology in American Culture

  1. […] Phrenology in American culture. – Early writings by Franz Joeseph Gall then popuarized in the 1830′s by physician […]

  2. […] – The Skeptics Dictionary and Skeptic's Dictionary for Kids. Skeptical Humanities – Phrenology in American culture. – Early writings by Franz Joeseph Gall then popuarized in the 1830's by physician […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: