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Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Get Your Bumps Felt

Get Your Bumps Felt

C.A. Asbrey

In the 19th century 'getting your bumps felt' was a phrase everyone understood. It meant sitting still while an expert in phrenology examines your skull to determine your character, weaknesses, strengths, and even your sexual proclivities. An activity which is now dismissed as pseudoscience was once taken so seriously that people would actually use it to break engagements, fire employees, and plan their lives. It was so popular that even the royal family were doing it. It was used to re-educate the weak-minded, and even to rehabilitate criminals. 

The roots of phrenology go right back into the mists of time. Hippocrates and his followers posited that the brain was the seat of soul, in a shift from the thinking which came before. Prior to this time the heart was believed to be the seat of the soul.  The Greek physician Galen supported this view and a step change in the way people saw the brain changed forever.

Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741–1801) in his Physiognomische Fragmente, published between 1775 and 1778, he put forward the idea that the mind and emotions  were connected with an individual's external frame. "Of the forehead, When the forehead is perfectly perpendicular, from the hair to the eyebrows, it denotes an utter deficiency of understanding."
Franz Joseph Gall (1758–1828) 

In 1796 the German physician Franz Joseph Gall began lecturing on the isolation of mental faculties and later cranioscopy which involved reading the skull's shape as it pertained to the individual. It was Gall's collaborator Johann Gaspar Spurzheim who would popularize the term "phrenology".

In 1801 Gall published his principal work which took ten years to write; The Anatomy and Physiology of the Nervous System in General, and of the Brain in Particular, with Observations upon the possibility of ascertaining the several Intellectual and Moral Dispositions of Man and Animal, by the configuration of their Heads. In the introduction to this main work, Gall makes the following statement in regard to his doctrinal principles, which comprise the intellectual basis of phrenology. "The Brain is the organ of the mind
The brain is not a homogenous unity, but an aggregate of mental organs with specific functions
The cerebral organs are topographically localized
Other things being equal, the relative size of any particular mental organ is indicative of the power or strength of that organ
Since the skull ossifies over the brain during infant development, external craniological means could be used to diagnose the internal states of the mental characters
Through careful observation and extensive experimentation, Gall believed he had established a relationship between aspects of character, called faculties, with precise organs in the brain."       

However, it was Johann Spurzheim, Gall's anatomist who disseminated phrenology throughout the United Kingdom during his lecture tours through and the United States in 1832.

It's easy to forget how forward-thinking the average Victorian was in comparison to earlier generations. The average age in London in the 1830s was only 32 - younger than today's average of 37. It was a youthful population, looking forward to a new future with optimism and vigor, and shedding, what they saw, as the superstitions of the past. Unfortunately they were often replacing them with new ones, but it was seen as a measure of learning and sophistication to embrace the new, so people at all levels of society embraced the new 'science' with enthusiasm. 

Phrenology parties were very popular, and people would enjoy evenings where they hoped to gain insight into themselves, and their friends. More than one budding romance was ruined by a poor diagnosis or by the declarations of failures of character. Phrenology sessions were often coupled with another Victorian craze mesmerism. The benefit of combining mesmerism and phrenology was that the trance the patient was placed in was supposed to allow for the manipulation of the subject's penchants and qualities. For example, if the organ of self-esteem was touched, the subject would take on a haughty expression.
Dumoutier’s “Cephalometre,” a machine the phrenologist created to study the exact contours of the skull via Dumont d’Urville’s Phrenologist: Dumoutier and the Aesthetics of Races

People genuinely believed that phrenology could make the world a better place and societies sprung up throughout the world. Published in 1841, Coombe’s Popular Phrenology explained: “One of the first requisites in a good wife is to ascertain that she has a good head.” Two phrenological organs were important: ‘Philoprogenitiveness’, which produced affection for children and ensured that your future wife would be a good mother; and ‘Amativeness’, which controlled sexual desire. Too little, and the wedding night might suffer. Too much, and you were at risk of being cuckolded. In a society in which it was believed that female sexuality should be carefully regulated, phrenological manuals on marriage proved to be very popular and were seen as a way of avoiding a lifetime of misery with the wrong partner.

The matron of the women's prison in New York started reading phrenology aloud to the inmates in a bid to try to rehabilitate inmates. It wasn't long before the practice spread, and phrenology was seen as a way to rehabilitate prisoners. The concept behind it was that if prisoners understood how their minds worked, they could learn to resist their worst impulses.    

 East India Company surgeon George Murray Paterson set up the world’s first ‘phrenological school’  in Calcutta in 1825 He suspected that education could change the brain. There was also a racist dimension in that he saw the Bengali pupils degenerate and weak. British Education was seen as the way of improving this condition. He measured their heads every with callipers. After six months Paterson found that the areas of the brain associated with intellect had shown great improvement. He seems to have overlooked the fact that these were growing boys. 

Phrenology was already being debunked by the 1840s, but it had such a grip on society that phrenologists had stalls in the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851 and persisted with some people into the early 20th century. A man called William Bally did a roaring trade in miniature busts which could fit in a pocket or handbag. They were one of the most popular souvenirs of the exhibition. The tiny busts were of all kinds of popular figures from Royalty, criminals, politicians, and even famous Philosophers.

Despite it's obvious failings, phrenology did contribute to a interest in the brain and in what makes us behave in certain ways. Although it's now dismissed , it was a forerunner to more empirical and scientific methods used in the study of psychology and neuroscience.   

In All Innocence - EXCERPT

Almost everyone woke simultaneously, jolted by the sound of the brakes grinding, and the engine puffing and huffing in protest at an unscheduled stop. Jake’s hand reached for his gun even before he was fully conscious.

“No!” The cry came from Jeffrey, the younger steward, who staggered into the aisle in shock.

Nat strode out of the curtained area, fastening his trousers. “What’s wrong?”

“Mrs. Hunter,” Jeffrey stammered. “She’s dead.”

Nat dragged the curtain aside, revealing the tiny-framed woman lying in a pool of blood. He kneeled and scrutinized her. “Bring a lamp.” He reached out and touched her face. “She’s alive. She’s warm. Fetch Philpot. He’s a doctor.”

The Englishman wandered groggily forward. “I’m not a doctor. I’m a—”

“We don’t care what you are, Philpot,” Jake growled. “You’re the nearest thing we’ve got. You’ve got medical training. Get in there.”

Mrs. Hunter’s eyes flickered weakly open. “My moonstone. Miss Davies—she took it.” She fell back into insensibility.

Jake frowned and his keen blue eyes looked up and down the railway car at the passengers crowded in the aisle in various stages of undress. “Where is Miss Davies? Have you seen her, Abi? You’re bunkin’ with her.”

“No, she isn’t here.” Abigail frowned. “I haven’t seen her for ages. She wasn’t even in her bunk when I changed Ava.”

Malachi padded briskly up to the group, pushing various butlers out of his way as they milled around. “Oh, my goodness! The poor woman.”

Jake nodded. “Yeah, Philpot’s seein’ to her. She’s still alive. Why’ve we stopped? We ain’t at a station.”

Malachi quickly fastened a stray button. “I’m sorry, gentlemen. I have been informed that a rock fall has blocked the tracks. We will dig it out and be on our way as soon as possible.”

“A rock fall? So, how far to a station?” Nat asked. “We’re high in the mountains, miles from anywhere.”

There was another ominous rumble somewhere above them and the carriage shook. The roof thundered with the thumps and clattering of stones and gravel pounding the roof. Worried glances rose upward while Abigail hunched protectively over her baby. The noise gradually stopped, but for an occasional patter of settling gravel and stones shifting above them.

The head steward’s brow crinkled into a myriad of furrows. “I’d best go and check that out.”

Nat’s brows knotted into a frown. “We’re miles from anywhere? So where has Maud Davies gone?” “With the moonstone?”

Jake strode over to the door and looked out at the huge feathery flakes drifting down from the heavy skies onto an expansive mountainous vista. “There’s nowhere to go.”

In all Innocence



  1. I couldn't help mentally snorting at George Paterson trying to show that phrenology worked on...and his example was boys....of course their heads grow! As always, an interesting blog, Christine, and I always love reading excepts of your books.

    1. Thanks, so much. Yes, the Victorians had some strange obsessions. I can't help wondering what aspects of our lives will be looked at in the same way in the future.

  2. Interesting and an entertaining excerpt, Christine. I remember how in Jane Eyre there was a conversation about phrenology.

    1. One of my all time favourite books! Yes, it was everywhere in the 19th century.

  3. Ah, Victorian pseudoscience! Thanks for another fascinating column. I wonder if Myers-Briggs or ennegrams are the phrenology of today -- although I'll swear up and down that the descriptions of INFJs fit me precisely! ;-) Congratulations on the new release -- can't wait for it to arrive! (Luckily, I have NY Comiccon to distract me until it comes -- got an "educator badge" and going to my first, this year.)

  4. Yes, I can see the Myers-Briggs and ennegrams being seen as an equivalence, partly because so many watered-down versions are available and used by non-psychologists. Have a wonderful time at Comicon!

  5. A little imagination can sway people in the wrong direction. So scary. Great post!

    1. Thanks, yes. People are meaning-machines and often see links where they don't exist. I do wonder what the future will say about us!

  6. Ohmagosh! I think I want to throw a phrenology party with a mesmerizing session to follow. It's hard to imagine anyone actually believing that lumps, bumps, and formations of a person's skull could possibly indicate personality traits or tendencies. They may have learned more about a person from those mesmerizing sessions which I imagine might be more like hypnosis and could perhaps reveal surprising secrets about someone. What I find truly amazing and positive about this Victorian era preoccupation with the mind is how curious people are and what lengths they will go to in order to discover more about the complicated workings of human behavior. We still do this crazy pseudoscience...astrology for instance.
    I want to wish you all the best with your new release, IN ALL INNOCENSE, C.A.! The cover is just amazing. A train stopped by a rock fall must lead to something ominous I'm certain. I like the name Malachi. I wish you tremendous success.

  7. Thank you, Sarah. I love the Victorian need to use the new sciences to explore and explain the world. Yes, Livia worked so closely with me, and was really helpful in getting it just right. This is my favorite cover of mine for sure!