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Aug. 30, 2021

Phrenology & Crime in 19th Century America

In Nineteenth Century America there was a strong reformist push to know and improve the self. One key tactic Americans used to learn more about themselves was phrenological readings. They would pay practical phrenologists, like Orson Squire Fowler and his younger brother, Lorenzo Niles Fowler for readings of their skulls or their children’s skulls. 

In Lorenzo Fowler’s reading of Emily Sawyer, he concluded a thirteen-page analysis by saying: “Cultivate as much as you can the organs marked smallest in your Chart + properly guide and exercise the stronger ones + thus produce a harmony of mental and physical action.” By using the phrenological readings of themselves or their children, Nineteenth Century Americans could apply the advice to become the best version of themselves.

Practical phrenologists weren’t interested only in reform of the self, but in larger societal reform as well. For practical phrenologists, prisons were the site of both research and reform; they argued for the elimination of capital punishment and the reform of prisons to include re-education instead of punishment. 

Despite the reform impulse of phrenologists, phrenology was also used as a scientific reason to justify racism and gender stereotyping. American phrenologists were sympathetic to liberal causes including the antislavery movement, even while claiming the superiority of the European brain.

By the early 20th century phrenology had been largely discredited in the public, but some of the concepts of phrenology, including propensities and physical localization in the brain of different characteristics have persisted.

In this episode, Kelly briefly tells the story of phrenology in 19th Century America and interviews Courtney Thompson, Assistant Professor of History at Mississippi State University, and author of the February 2021 book, An Organ of Murder: Crime, Violence, and Phrenology in Nineteenth-Century America.

Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. Episode image: “A head marked with images representing the phrenological faculties, with a key below. Coloured wood engraving, ca. 1845, after H. Bushea and O.S. Fowler.” Wellcome Collection. Public Domain.

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Kelly Therese Pollock 0:00

This is Unsung History, the podcast where we discuss people and events in American history that haven't always received a lot of attention. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then talk to someone who knows a lot more than I do. Be sure to subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. And please tell your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, maybe even strangers to listen to.


Today's story is about phrenology. German physician and neuroanatomist Franz Josef Gall was the first to lecture on what he called organology, which was the idea that different mental faculties could be found in different organs, or regions of the brain. The method by which one could read the skull shape to understand an individual's organs he called cranioscopy. It was Gall's partner, Johann Gaspar Spurzheim, who named the field phrenology and would bring it to the US where it would enjoy its greatest success. Spurzheim attended a public lecture by Gall in Austria in 1800, and Gall hired him first as his assistant. By 1804 they were full time research partners. In 1805, they left Austria, where their ideas had been deemed heretical by church authorities. After a falling out between Gall and Spurzheim, Spurzheim continued to tour and lecturer throughout Europe, popularizing phrenology. In 1832, he made his first and only trip to the United States where he toured around the country lecturing for six months before dying of typhoid in Boston. The Boston Phrenological Society was founded on the day of Spurzheim's funeral to honor and remember his contribution to phrenology. And they displayed Spurzheim's skull in their collection. After the Boston Phrenological Society folded, the skull was donated to the Warren Anatomical Museum, housed within Harvard Medical School's Countway Library of Medicin,e where it is still displayed. In the US the chief promoters of phrenology were Orson Squire Fowler and his younger brother, Lorenzo Niles Fowler. Together they opened a phrenological office in New York City, which became known as the Phrenological Cabinet, where they conducted readings of visitors' skulls, and also displayed phrenological portraits. The Fowlers lectured and wrote extensively. Orson edited and published the American Phrenological Journal and Miscellany from 1838 to 1842. The journal itself remained in print until 1911.


By the 1840s phrenology had been largely discredited as a scientific theory. Following Jean-Pierre Florens's experiments on the brains of pigeons, which demonstrated that cutting away parts of the brain did not correspond with the loss of the mental faculties that phrenology would've predicted. After the scientific discrediting several of the front phrenological societies folded, including the Boston Phrenological Society. However, the practical phrenology of folks like the Fowlers was still going strong. Many Americans at the time sat for readings, including Clara Barton, Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, Horace Greeley, Brigham Young and PT Barnum. Authors Walt Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe incorporated phrenological concepts into the writing. Practical phrenologists encourage Americans to "Know Thyself," which they could do by paying the Fowlers or other practical phrenologists for a reading. The readings included notes or charts instructing the clients how to make best use of their natural propensities. In Lorenzo Fowler's reading of Emily Sawyer, he concluded a 13 page analysis by saying: "cultivate as much as you can be the organs marked smallest in your chart, and properly guide and exercise the stronger ones and thus produce a harmony of mental and physical action." Parents sought readings for their children, and educators and reformers like Horace Mann latched on to the theory of phrenology, drawn in by the idea of perfectibility.


From the very beginning of phrenology, the prison had been used as a research site for both reading of skulls of live criminals, and a place for phrenologists to obtain cadavers to study the skulls of those executed for their crimes. For the Fowlers the prison was also a site for reform. They and other practical phrenologists argued for the elimination of capital punishment, and the reform of prisons to include re-education instead of punishment.


Despite the reform impulse of phrenologists, Phrenology was also used as a scientific basis to justify racism and gender stereotyping. American phrenologists were sympathetic to liberal causes, including the anti slavery movement, even while claiming the superiority of the European brain.


By the early 20th century, phrenology had been largely discredited in the public. But some of the concepts of phrenology, including propensities, and physical localization in the brain of different characteristics, have persisted. To help us understand more about the history of phrenology in the United States. I'm joined now by Courtney Thompson, assistant professor of History at Mississippi State University, and author of the February 2021 book, An Organ of Murder: Crime, Violence and Phrenology in 19th century America.


Hi, Courtney, thanks so much for joining me today.


Courtney Thompson 6:57

Hi, thanks so much for having me, Kelly.


Kelly Therese Pollock 6:59

Yes. So I inadvertently created this month of 19th century episodes.


Courtney Thompson 7:05



Kelly Therese Pollock 7:06

I think this is sort of the the perfect end to the 19th century. I want to start by asking you just how you got interested in phrenology, how you decided to start writing about it, which maybe you regret a little bit at this point, because I'm sure you're talking about it a ton. You know, but but what got you into this as a subject?


Courtney Thompson 7:24

Oh, boy, there, there are about seven different ways I could answer that question. Because, as with all things, I think that our work or research tends to demonstrate or represent convergences, right, just lots of little choices you made along the way and somehow you end up with project. When I was an undergrad, I never intended to be a historian of science and medicine at all. But I took a course with Ann Harrington that, she is this wonderful historian of psychiatry and mental illness, who also her first book has a lot to say about phrenology as well. So maybe that was the first thing. When I was a grad student, so the book, the book comes out of my dissertation research, of course, and when I was a graduate student, I really wanted to do something on the history of mental illness. Originally, I thought I was going to be writing about French asylums; I went to France for a summer to do prospective research. And that didn't pan out. And I scrambled, I was like, oh, gosh, if I can't do that project, what am I going to do? And it's like, okay, brains, brains, brains in the 19th century, I like brains in the 19th century, okay. I wanted something on brains in the 19th century. And I spent a lot of time at the Beinecke, which is a research library at Yale, which was my graduate institution. And I noticed, if you want to write about brains in the 19th century, you run into phrenology pretty quickly, it's kind of hard to avoid. And I really persisted. I didn't want to write a book on phrenology. And there are parts of me that that really regret it, because now I'm the phrenology chick, which isn't exactly how I want to brand myself. But I didn't think that there was going to be anything new to say. And what I realized pretty quickly, as I started to read all these primary sources about brains and minds and started reading all this phrenology is that the criminal just kept popping up. They were always talking about criminals. They were always obsessed with criminals, especially murderers. And I thought, well, there's something interesting going on there. And so it wasn't it wasn't the project I thought I was gonna write. It wasn't the first three projects. I thought I was going to write. I think it's a really good exercise and help finding a dissertation project can work, but it was fun in a lot of ways. I do again, I think I didn't want to be the phrenology chick. But here I am. So now I'm the phrenology chick, at least until my next book comes out.


Kelly Therese Pollock 9:48

There are worse things to be, I think.


Courtney Thompson 9:51

There really are at least it's interesting, you know. It does require some explanation if you're talking to non-academics, but it's a, it's a weird science and weird science always makes for good conversations, I think.


Kelly Therese Pollock 10:05

Yeah, yeah, definitely. So you mentioned reading primary sources, what were the kinds of sources that you were looking at in this project. And we'll talk more about this, but you talk some about sort of elite phrenology and practical phrenology. And so I imagine that the sources are somewhat different than as you're sort of switching gears and looking at the more practical.


Courtney Thompson 10:25

Yeah, sure. So when I started out, I was mostly reading scientific and medical texts of the little bit of late 18th, actually, an early 19th century. So where I started was in this world of sort of intellectual history with these, these elites this very top down sort of approach reading what scientists and physicians had to say about phrenology, the brain and the mind, a lot of periodicals or a lot of phrenological periodicals in this period, that were not unlike other scientific journals or medical journals of the day. In fact, they they also cross published a lot. So you'd see, medical journals would publish phrenological texts, phrenological journals would publish from, you know, borrowing from other scientific texts. So spend a lot of time with that kind of material. But I didn't just want to tell a story about men with degrees, white men with degrees and what they thought about science, in part, because that's not the whole story of phrenology. Phrenology is very well known for being a prolific Popular Science, especially in mid century America. So then I also started looking at the records and papers and publications of what were known as practical phrenologists. These were people who, you know, the sort of stereotype of men and women who read heads for a fee. There was a really robust set of publications coming out of New York City, in particular with the Fowler brothers, writing almanacs, writing magazines, for the public, writing books for mothers for raising their children. And then of course, I did spend time in archives looking at, there's a lot of manuscript sources about phrenology, the problem with that is they tend to be little bits and pieces scattered all over the country rather than huge repository. So it's very different kind of project, a lot of manuscripts phrenological readings, so the actual records of what they were reading heads, posters, playbills ephemera objects. There's some great collections of phrenological busts, especially held at the Countway at Harvard. And then the challenge with manuscripts so which, which was frustrating is if phrenology is sort of scattered everywhere, so it's kind of hard to track down, writings about phrenology and crime, it was it was very much a needle in a haystack. So eventually, I did also turn to legal documents, court records, what I could find with the help from legal librarians and other things in that sort of realm. So I cast a really big net, I also make use of some, some plays, short stories, fiction, wherever I could find that connection between phrenology and crime, I just went for it. So I was mostly trained as a social historian, my next book is going to be very social history. But this book was it was very much a, anything I can grab, I'm gonna stick it in. So there's, there's visual culture, material culture, there's some letters and diaries and medical, I don't even know how to categorize my method. Whatever works, and whatever will stick and I just, I just sort of went for it.


Kelly Therese Pollock 13:25

And the visual culture pieces are fantastic. I love all those diagrams and posters and things. So I do hope people will look at your book, not just read it. But look, it's so fun.


Courtney Thompson 13:38

I'm a visual culture person, I really am. I have a an art background. And so anytime I can talk about an image or use an image, I will. Picking out the images for the book, were really fun. And some of them are just so rich and fantastic. When, when I'm telling people about the book, I'm always like, it's a short book, and there's lots of pictures. So you know if that if that's a selling point, for anyone out there, I do encourage you to look at the pictures because there's some good ones.


Kelly Therese Pollock 14:00

Yeah, they really are. So I think when I, so prior to reading your book, I think when I thought about phrenology, I was not thinking at all about this sort of elite piece of it. You know, to me, it was like, yeah, people reading heads, and maybe they were quacks and charlatans and they were just trying to get money from people. And the idea that that you lay out so wonderfully about this being sort of a precursor to sort of criminal science and criminology is so fascinating. So can we sort of put this in context prior to phrenology that we don't have the kinds of tools that the criminal scientists and police forces have now they're certainly obviously in our DNA, but there's not even things like fingerprinting and things like that. So what what does sort of criminal science which doesn't exist, you know, what, what does that sort of look like prior to phrenology, and how does phrenology sort of help the development into some of these other things that are really still being used?


Courtney Thompson 15:00

It's a great question. I mean, I would argue that phrenology really is the first criminal science or it's the first real attempt by scientists and the founders of phrenology, especially Franz Josef Gall and Johann Gaspar Spurzheim, who were German anatomists and physicians, they really were scientists, they really were trained in in the realms of science, they were taken very seriously, not by everybody, but certainly by other elite scientists enough for these these ideas to be debated. What they offered, was a scientific approach to crime. That wasn't the only thing that they offered. But they did offer a way to look at the mind and brain and behavior, to identify, sort of link materially aspects of the brain or the skull, right, to criminal behaviors and criminal potential, which had really big implications for disciplinary measures within prisons within prison reform. And within how we think about criminals more generally. So what they were were doing at a time when science was starting to think through the mind itself, right. I mean, psychiatry, there's plenty of people who've written about the development of psychiatry, but they're doing this at the same time as psychiatry is really starting to think more, or well as psychiatry itself is even becoming a field, right? Because it, you know, madness wasn't really medicalized until the late 18th, early 19th century. So they are participating in this burgeoning desire to look at the mind as more than a philosophical problem, but as a material object that can be studied, that can be understood, interpreted, that can be localized, which is a big part of what they're participating in. And then the implications for that are where things get really interesting. Right? So crime is one of the areas that phrenologists have a lot to say about. But it's certainly not the only one. Education is another big thing that they have a lot to say about. Other aspects of reform eventually. And what I argue in the book, or one of the several arguments that I make in the book is that a lot of the sort of birth of criminology and those of you listening didn't see my, my, my airquotes with my fingers, but the so called birth of criminology that appears at the end of the century, whether you date it to the innovations of Cesare Lombroso in the 1870s and 1880s with his theories of the criminal, or the innovations of Alphonse Bertillon and Francis Galton with practices like mug shots and hand handwriting analysis and bertillonage, which is the anthropometric measurement of the body. All of these things, certain techniques, certain theories were presaged by phrenologists, were proposed by phrenologists. And that lineage definitely got forgotten. But if we want to call those practices the first criminal sciences, then we have to recognize that they owe an intellectual, intellectual and practical debt to what phonologists were doing half a century earlier, which is not to say, of course, that phrenology wasn't building on other practices and other sciences. But if the 19th century was the century where the so called dangerous classes and the criminal mind come to be seen as objects of scientific interests, then we have to give phrenologist credit for seeing the potential, right, of a building expertise and authority of bolstering up their science by pointing at one of the most intransigent social problems, the criminal and saying, we can science that away, essentially, and they were right. You know, when Alphonse Bertillon comes along with his his system of identification, Bertillon was a French, a French policeman, he had no scientific training whatsoever. But he basically used the veneer of science, of measurement, of statistics, of instrumentation to give his system this scientific veneer that was very persuasive and led it to be adopted throughout Europe, the United States to the colonies lasting well into the early decades of the 20th century. So phrenology basically was a test run for taking the social issues out of crime and turning it into a scientific, an object of scientific study, and potentially an object of scientific problem solving.


Kelly Therese Pollock 19:28

Yes, so I think the other thing that I just never realized about phrenology was the idea of that that reformists could use it that it, you know, to me it was, I've always sort of looked at it as like, well, it's just deterministic. It just says like you bad head, can't ever be better. You know, and the idea that you could use this in reforming prisons, in education is just so fascinating. So how, how are they sort of using phrenology, thinking about phrenology, in a way that could lead to reform?


Courtney Thompson 20:01

Yeah, so this is a really important aspect of both the history of phrenology and historiography because one of the key questions that's motivated the historiography since the 1970s, has been was phrenology a reform science and, and to what extent, so part of this is dependent on where we are and when we are right. So one of the founders of the science, Franz Josef Gall, he he had a very pessimistic view of humanity, he was very much more along the lines of you're born with it, and you're stuck with it, and we can't fix you. Right. And then you had other others come along, Spurzheim, Combe, and then especially the American phrenologists, who saw a more utopian reformist potential, in the case of the Fowler brothers who are the really famous mid century American phrenologists or practical phrenologists, it's it's actually sometimes unclear to what extent they saw hitching their their wagon onto reform as as a self promotion sort of tactic. It definitely, I get the sense that their politics were were pretty, pretty much on the reformist side that that that's very authentic. But did they really think that phrenology could could really play a role in all of these? You know, it's hard to say, you know, they were allied with such practices as the suffrage movement, water cure, various kinds of criminal reform, anti capital punishment was a big a big one of theirs. But what exactly could phrenology do to reform people? This is the question I get all the time, right, like, So what exactly can you do? If your bumps are there? They're your bumps, right? Well, here's where it gets kind of, there's a lot of wishy-washy-ness, right? To what extent is the mind fixed or the character fixed? And so the you know, if you're born with it, and the idea of being you know, you should have infants you know, examined to see what their their phrenology says, but also this idea of criminals you can tell that they're criminals based on the size of the head. You know, that seems very determinist, seems very materialistic, as you said, and materialism was something that phrenologists really tried to avoid because charges of materialism were literally what got Gall kicked out of Germany, essentially, leading him to have to settle, like his his lectures were banned. His publications were banned. He got in a lot of trouble for the materialism. So materialism is always something phrenologists are running away from, and especially our reformist Americans, like the Fowlers, you know, materialism or determinism don't work too well, if you're trying to sell this more utopian, reformist point of view.


So where they basically come down on is the sort of halfway point of saying, if you know what your organs are, what your potential is, or if you as a mother, know what your child's organs are, and potential, or a schoolmaster, right, they have a lot to say about educational reform, then you can basically guide yourself--Know Thyself was their big sort of motto--or your child towards an appropriate expression of these. So just because you have the organ of destructiveness, for example, that didn't mean you were necessarily going to become a murderer, if you were raised right within a Christian worldview and educated appropriately. And, you know, if you were also white and middle class, and probably a man too, you know, while we're at it, you would probably just use that force of destructiveness to be a strong businessman, for example. So, there was this real sort of sense of, if you know yourself, and if we know others, we can find ways to to direct them in the right path, to to bolster up where they might not have the right qualities of mind to to restrain them, or they might have too much of certain qualities of mind. And it was based on the same principle that we would apply on the miniature that they also thought could be applicable within schools, prisons, other kinds of institutions, work houses and asylums, basically, these principles of education, guidance and direction along along preferred lines towards appropriate behavior, which, which doesn't seem to have a lot to do with with the bumps at all, right? Because because it wasn't, it was ultimately about the expression of self, right, and how to train people to to be their best selves based on what their their essential potential is.


But even with that, there's always lines right. You know, George Combe was was, he was a Scottish phrenologist, he was actually trained as a lawyer. And he had a lot to say about prison discipline and prison reform. He really believed he believed that prison should be reformed. Prisoners could be better educated and you know, recidivists could be could be reformed. But he also basically left room to say, well, some people though, which is born bad, and they're not reformable. And he was against capital punishment, so he wasn't saying we should kill them. That's not good either. But he did sort of suggest, as did other phrenologists, that sometimes, there's always going to be some of them, some of those criminals that you really just kind of have to put in jail and throw away the key, which, you know. So, you know, reformist to a point, I guess, is the way to think about.


Kelly Therese Pollock 25:15

Yeah, it's interesting, because really that idea of sort of knowing thyself, I mean, that that continues as well, right. I mean, we still do, like psychological testing on kids to figure out like, what's the best method of teaching this child? You know, so I think that, that that's interesting to think about it in that way that that really this idea of these like bumps and stuff is sort of less important than, in some ways, at least in this sort of practical phrenology.


Courtney Thompson 25:44

It was, it was self help. Right? You know, I mean, they didn't like it when it was compared to things like horoscopes or astrology, right. Like that was, that was something that that phrenologists of every stripe were really upset with, you didn't want to compare to that. But at the same time, it's part of the same lineage, right? When you go on BuzzFeed, and you take a quiz to see which Disney Princess you're most like, or, for that matter, you take one of the MBTI tests, right? What we're all participating in is, you know, we want to find out more about ourselves, whether we take it very seriously or not, right, some people think something like MBTI is bunk. And some people take it really seriously in the same way that some people take their astrological signs very, very seriously. So you can imagine how in the 19th century, some people go the phrenologists, for fun as a lark, and they laugh about it, they write about in their diary, basically saying, Oh, it was dumb, right. And then some people would take it very seriously; they would, they would bring their first child to the phrenologist, to have them read. As soon as their next child was born, they bring that child to the phrenologists. Maybe they would carefully evaluate their phrenological guidance or seek guidance on who to marry, what jobs to pursue, right. And then there was a lot, there's a lot of space between those two poles of just seeing it as completely funny and seeing it as completely serious. My my colleague and friend Carla Bittel writes a lot about especially female phenological users, and how women would test these practices, right, they would evaluate the readings they had, they would read about it, they would test and they would experiment with it. So phrenology had a lot of room for, for interpretation for play, for for experiments. And it just had a lot of room in general, it was a very malleable and flexible science, which I think is why it was able to move around so much the 19th century why it was adopted to so many purposes, for example, you would see it being used both to argue for both, for and against the abolition of slavery, right. Basically the same information used to make both points, which is, which is kind of interesting, but it was also pretty malleable in the in the individual sense. You know how seriously I took it, you know, could be very self directed, there was a lot of room for, certainly for that exploration of self knowledge, but in a way that allowed it to just sort of perpetuate because it was at always as useful as you wanted it to be.


Kelly Therese Pollock 28:11

Yeah. I want to talk a little bit about this tension that you, you talk about with with prisons and criminals and how the phrenologists both argue that there should be reform and there shouldn't be capital punishment, but they also sort of rely on executions to get skulls to examine or prisoners to as sort of the the heads that they need to go examine. Can you talk to them about that, that tension? And what that means in phrenology?


Courtney Thompson 28:39

Yeah, there's a lot of hypocrisy. You can you can, this is one of the most interesting parts of doing the research for me is that I hit upon this very deep thread of virulent anti- capital punishment writing in particular. Um, so you have, you have figures like George Combe writing about reforming the prison phrenologically in the 1820s. And then he continues right, in this way throughout the decades, but the Fowler brothers and the other sort of more reform minded ones, they went whole hog against the prison, but especially against capital punishment. Capital punishment, was a big focus of phrenological, if we want to say activism, right, concern, this is where you see the prison reformers and phrenologists literally talking to one another in the United States, publishing in one another's journal.


So this was already an era of penal reform, starting the 1820s in the United States. This is the era where basically a lot of older systems of punishment, especially capital punishment, and sort of more violent forms of meted-out justice, so whippings, floggings, that sort of thing. were being replaced by longer and longer prison stays. So prisons were getting bigger and they were becoming this sort of modern version of the penitentiary, along different models. There were two competing models of what a prison should look like. So the prisons had this sense of, or the penitentiary rather, because that's that's what was being developed, were organized along the lines of reform in general. But one thing that hadn't disappeared yet was capital punishment. So there's this weird thing that happens the 19th century phrenologists, no matter where we're talking about our really elite scientists, our phrenological enthusiasts, as I discussed, or our practical phrenologists, that the prison is this really useful site for them, as it has always been for medicine, right? I mean, going all the way back until the early modern period, prisons, and especially executions were where you got bodies for dissection for medical students, right. So it's not like that was necessarily a new relationship, the prison has always served certain medical uses and finding these useful bodies for dissection and for medical education in particular. What's different about this, though, is two things. First of all, the justification has nothing to do with education, the use of bodies for dissection, medical education, that's that has been an argument or that had been an argument for the utility of those bodies, from the early modern period, well, through the 19th century, right. So there was a sort of case to be made right for, for the the utility and the practicality, and whatnot.


But the other thing is, you know, physicians weren't running around protesting prisons, either, right? They weren't, they weren't saying anything about it. They were they were quietly going in and, and taking the bodies and also getting bodies from all sorts of other places, believe me, you know, from work houses and hospitals, and from digging them out of the ground. But these practical phrenologists basically were wearing their hypocrisy on their sleeve, because they would write in the pages of their journals. And it's really quite ironic, because they'll write on one page, basically, these long screeds about how horrible it is, to, to to, to hang a man. And then the very next page will be like, Oh, we got a new skull in our collection, this guy just got executed. Isn't that great? So So it's, it's almost impossible not to see this tension through all of these phrenological readings because they needed this space. And it was not just for skulls and heads, they also went into these spaces, and use them as demonstration sites. I mean, this is also where Gall first did some of his earliest research, as he was developing his theories of phrenology, he went into prisons and basically examined groups of murderers and thieves. So the organs of murder and theft, as they were originally called, were some of the earliest organs, the earliest parts of the brain, he was able to localize. So when I say that, I would argue that phrenology is criminal science, you can say it is that right from the founding, but especially in the United States, there's this real irony to it because Gall wasn't saying anything about he didn't care. He didn't care about it.


Kelly Therese Pollock 32:56

He was like, yeah, execute them.


Courtney Thompson 32:59

He didn't he really didn't. I mean, politics. I mean, he gets involved in politics, but he doesn't want to, you know what I mean? It's he's, he's not a motivated actor, I would say, although he's, other other historians have written a lot more in detail about Gall and his his interests. But here you have, you know, people like the Fowler brothers who are putting it all out there. The American Phrenological Journal, which they edited, had a very wide, you know, they have 1000s of subscribers who would read their journal, who go to see them when they traveled to town to give a lecture. And they, they really made reform a hallmark of what they were about. It's on the first pages of when they took over the journal, they were like, reform is our project, essentially. So there is a certain irony in them protesting the prison, and speaking so loudly to the principles of reform, especially against capital punishment, and then in the pages of the same journal, also, proclaiming essentially how central these spaces were because they go into prisons and demonstrate their skills, basically as tests of phrenology to to demonstrate how brilliant they were, and also how truthful and scientific phrenology was. And they also had a lot of heads, plaster skulls, death casts, but also literal, literal skulls that they sometimes took from the bodies. They don't address this, though. I mean, you know, I would love to, if, if I could, I would love to sit them down and be like, so when you say you don't think to be capital punishment, like, what do you really mean? Because it sure seems like you would lose something. But if they were that self reflective, they did not reflect in their writings, unfortunately.


Kelly Therese Pollock 34:44

So in the epilogue to the book, you talk about sort of how some of this really continues that, you know, we haven't really left you know, as much as we'd like to scoff and be like, oh, pseudoscience or phrenology ,that people are still looking for the murder gene or they're they're using MRIs to try to figure out, can we figure out who's a criminal? And you know, can you talk some about the ways that it hasn't really gone away? And that I know as much as we might want to sort of say, this is a debunked science that people are still trying to use some of the concepts and language of phrnology?


Courtney Thompson 35:17

Yeah, I'd argue that it's, it's still a very pervasive aspect of our modern day lives. I spent a lot of time I'll be honest, I actually really love crime drama. And so I don't know


Kelly Therese Pollock 35:28

Oh, I do, too.


Courtney Thompson 35:30

You know, they still, if you watch Criminal Minds, or SVU, you know, they still use the language of phrenology more often than you think, as well as the sense of determinism that some people were just born a certain way. And they, of course, they were going to behave this way. Even even the notion of criminal insanity, which is something I talk a lot about in the book, is is very much overwritten with phrenological conceptions of determinism, materialism, and the connection between mind, brain and behavior. You know, it's funny, because the the epilogue is always one of those things that you could have, I could have just keep writing it. Every few months, there's a new news story. There's a new facial recognition technology that comes out or some terrible piece of research in air quotes, is publishing and makes waves, we can use faces facial shapes, to determine whether somebody is trustworthy or not. Or this this new facial recognition technology can tell some ways, you know, dangerous before the act, and I'm like, what you're doing is phrenology. And in fact, if you look at the images and the language of a lot of aspects of facial recognition technology, as well as some of the other things I've written about in the book, but also in a few recent public facing pieces. It's all just phrenology all over again. It's the image, it's the language, and it's the assumptions. I would argue that we still very much live in a world that is shaped by phrenology. And this is why I actually am, I have a whole screed about this. But this is this is actually why I'm so careful not to use the word pseudoscience in the book. It doesn't appear once in the book, because I don't think pseudoscience is a useful term in general for historians of science. But especially I don't think it's useful for phrenology because first of all, it was a science that was taken very seriously. It was developed by scientists, it was taken seriously, at least initially. A lot of people adopted it and and allowed it to spread into various realms that we might not expect. But it's also not useful, because pseudoscience implies something that we don't believe in. And I think that we do still believe in a lot of the essential tenets of phrenology.


What concerns me though, is the ways in which it spread, it spreads implicitly, rather than explicitly. So there was a recent case, a New Yorker article that I've written about this recently, where journalists spoke to some of the insurrectionists at the Capitol insurrection, and one of them described himself as a phrenologist. He said he believed in phrenology. So this is striking for all sorts of reasons that I'm not going to get into. But when this happened, of course, every single person I knew started tweeting at me and say this, did you see this? Did you see this? Oh, my goodness. And of course, the rest of the blogosphere who does not know me was like, Oh, my God, people are so stupid, they'll believe anything, like of course, he believes this yada, yada. And the thing is like, yes, that's very concerning that one of the insurrectionists declared himself to be a believer in phrenology, like, yes, that that's bad. I'm not, I'm not gonna pretend it's not. But I actually think it's much more concerning how we use and replicate phrenological language, imagery, and assumptions all the time, without recognizing that that's what we're doing. So as much as I don't think it's great for people to call themselves phrenologists in the present day, I think that there's a lot of ways in which we use phrenology in our daily lives. And that's where things get very dangerous. I mean, I talked about this a little bit in the chapter on expert witnesses and court cases and criminal insanity. But the language that we still use, that is written to our laws for interpreting whether somebody is is mentally sound and capable of committing a crime is still based at least in part on phrenological language from the 19th century. That I think is more troubling, ultimately, as is how we think about recidivists, whether some people are just are just natural criminals and and can never be reformed, that those are also ideas that I think are best left in the past. So I find a lot of this very troubling in in ways that I did not expect to find when I started this project. There's some things that I was looking for that I didn't find. And, but this is one of those things that nowadays, it's hard for me to do to read the news and to watch television, because it's always there. And once you see it, you can't. It's like one of those magic eye things. It's, it's just always present. You can't unsee it.


Kelly Therese Pollock 40:10

So now you know that everyone listening every time they see one of these things is going to tweet at you, right?


Courtney Thompson 40:14

Yeah, no, everybody. Anytime you ever you ever read a newspaper article, or hear in a movie, or a crime novel about somebody had a propensity to commit violence, or propensity to murder, or a propensity to steal, a propensity to do anything bad, that is phrenology, and that the logic of that language is purely phrenological, and really shapes how we think about bad behavior well into the present, which I should mention, you know, allows us to basically put a lot of things on individuals and ignore structures, which is one of the reasons why I think it's pretty insidious.


Kelly Therese Pollock 40:48

So how can people get your book?


Courtney Thompson 40:50

The book is available for sale through Rutgers University Press, as well as where many other fine books are sold. It is currently available in hardcopy, soft copy and in PDF. And if you reach out to me, I do have a code for I think, 30% off, although I'll have to dig it up. But if you send me an email or a DM on Twitter, I would be more than happy to share the code with you.


Kelly Therese Pollock 41:16

Excellent. Yeah, I mean, anyone who like me reads a lot of murder mysteries set in the Victorian era, this is a great read. There were lots of things that I was like, Oh, that's how that's developed.


Courtney Thompson 41:28

Yeah, there's even some phrenological detectives hiding in there. So there's a there's a little detective story too.


Kelly Therese Pollock 41:34

Is there anything else that you want to make sure we talk about?


Courtney Thompson 41:37

I would say that you can find me on Twitter @Dr_C_Thompson, where I tweet a lot about history currently about COVID in Mississippi and also about my dog Winnie, who is the most spoiled Beagle who's ever lived. So please follow me on Twitter. If you want to hear more of my rants about phrenology, about history of medicine, or you would like to see a very cute dog.


Kelly Therese Pollock 42:03

And who doesn't want to see a cute dogs. Excellent. I will in the show notes link to your Twitter and, and a link to the book so people can find that as well.


Courtney Thompson 42:13

Wonderful. Thank you so much, Kelly.


Kelly Therese Pollock 42:15

Yeah, thank you, Courtney. This was a lot of fun. I've been looking forward to to this one. Every subject I do is really fun. But this one in particular. I was like I want to know more, I want to know more.


Courtney Thompson 42:26

Oh good. I'm glad you enjoyed it.


Teddy 42:30

Thanks for listening to Unsung History. You can find the sources used for this episode at To the best of our knowledge, all audio and images used by Unsung History are in the public domain or our used by permission. You can find us on Twitter, or Instagram @Unsung__History. or on Facebook at Unsung History Podcast. To contact us with questions or episode suggestions, please email If you enjoyed this podcast, please rate and review and tell your friends.


Transcribed by

Courtney ThompsonProfile Photo

Courtney Thompson

Courtney is an Assistant Professor or HIstory, Phi Alpha Theta Advisor and Medical Humanities Certificate committee chair at Mississippi State University.