by Kathleen Karr
Who are you indeed who would talk or sing
Have you studied out the land, its idioms
Have you learn'd the . . . phrenology . . . of
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
I hate this shallow Americanism which hopes to get rich by credit, to get knowledge by raps on midnight tables, to learn the economy of the mind by phrenology . . .
Ralph Waldo Emerson
I never knew I had an inventive talent until Phrenology told me so. I was a stranger to myself until then!
Thomas Alva Edison
I always begin my novels with a concept, some small tidbit of history that I personally would enjoy researching for my historical fiction. One day while puttering through books at the Library of Congress with my daughter, she said, "Hey, Mom, look at this!" She'd come across a nineteenth-century French text with the most curious illustrations. They turned out to be period phrenological charts. One glance was all it took. I was hooked! I dropped everything and delved into this bizarre thing called phrenology.
What Is Phrenology?
Webster's calls phrenology "the study of the conformation of the skull based on the belief that it is indicative of mental faculties and character." But it was so much more than that during its heyday in the mid nineteenth-century United States, Great Britain, and Europe.
Phrenology was conceived around 1800 by the German physician Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) as a theory of brain structure. It was his idea that talents and other qualities could be traced to the shape of the skull (based on the assumption that different parts of the brain will grow or shrink with use, just as muscles will when exercised; therefore, if a certain piece of the brain, say that responsible for humor, grew from increased use, the skull overlying that part of the brain would bulge out, causing a bump on the head.)
Gall's student Johann Kaspar Spurzheim (1776-1832) coined the term phrenology, meaning "science of the mind," and became world-famous in the course of promoting this study. Spurzheim lectured and dissected brains on the Continent and in Great Britain before dying in Boston during a tour of America. It was Spurzheim's lectures which inspired Orson Squire Fowler to open a phrenological emporium in New York City, turning the study into a practical-and very American-phenomenon. Hundreds of books and pamphlets were published on the correct way to interpret the lumps and bumps on the heads of Americans keen to have their lives guided by this analysis.
Phrenology has long since faded from even carnival shows. Until recently it had been totally discredited as a form of scientific inquiry. But . . . current neuroscientists are giving the phenomenon a second look. It was, after all, the first brain map, the first way to think about consciousness that predated the theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.
Skullduggery: Plot Synopsis
Matthew Morrissey, a recently orphaned twelve-year-old, answers Dr. ABC's newspaper ad for an assistant. Delighted with room and board, the hungry youngster conscientiously goes about learning his new profession. Asa B. Cornwall, however, has added something new to the science of phrenology. He's taken the study of skulls a step further by deciding that the heads of prominent men in history should be studied for the improvement of future mankind.
Thus begins their quest, as a team, for the skulls of such luminaries as the French philosopher Voltaire-and even the conqueror Napoleon. After voyaging across the Atlantic Ocean Matthew and Dr. ABC learn they have a shadow following them. What could the body snatcher's motivation be? And what does he truly desire from them? Swiftly moving between New York, Philadelphia, London, Paris, and even the isolated island of St. Helena, this is a rip-roaring adventure which recreates the world of the late 1830s.
Skullduggery is built on a "W" plot. This means that the action varies between highs and lows of dramatic tension. In the beginning of the book, the rising action/tension focuses on whether or not Matthew will actually be chosen as Dr. Cornwall's apprentice. Will he get the job or continue to starve? Once the job has been resolved, there's a short period of equilibrium while Matthew begins to learn what's expected of him in his new position. This quiet period is, however, touched by modest suspense over the question in Matthew's mind: Why is he being fattened for maximum strength? Chapter 3 answers this question by introducing the reader to the first graveyard scene. Here, the leg of the "W" shoots straight up as we watch Matthew face this harrowing night. The next day, having survived his test, tension is lowered again. And so the story continues from rising action to descending action and back again. It's a seesaw that's meant to keep the reader on pins and needles of excitement as Matthew and Dr. ABC-the protagonists-pursue their odd quest for the great heads of Europe while the body snatcher-the antagonist who keeps the "W" plot flowing-pursues at their heels.
Huckleberry Finn's friend, the Duke of Bridgewater, advertised himself as "The celebrated Dr. Armand de Montalban of Paris who would lecture on the Science of Phrenology at ten cents admission, and furnish charts of character at twenty-five cents apiece." Turn your students into practical phrenologists for edification and fun!
Below is a list of the most important of the 37 phrenological faculties as utilized by phrenologists in the nineteenth century. Also below is a genuine phrenological analysis of a notable figure of the period. Using these as starting points, have your students choose a famous person in history.
Ask them to research this individual through books and the Internet, with particular attention to collecting information on their strengths and weaknesses of character, as well as images of their heads. With a working knowledge of exactly what this person (George Washington, for example) was famous for, have them study their head collection and write a phrenological analysis.
Phrenological Propensities (abbreviated from the usual 37 faculties):
- Amativeness (1): related to love.
- Adhesiveness (4): attachment; friendship and society result; generally strong in women.
- Combativeness (5): courage to meet danger and overcome difficulties.
- Destructiveness (6): discernable in carnivorous animals. Abuses: cruelty, rage, harshness and severity in speech and writing.
- Secretiveness (7): the propensity to conceal; an ingredient in prudence. Abuses: cunning, deceit, lying.
- Acquisitiveness (8): desire to possess. Abuses: selfishness, avarice, theft.
- Constructiveness (9): desire to build and construct works of art.
- Self-esteem (10): self respect, personal dignity. Abuses: pride, disdain, selfishness.
- Approbation (11): love of praise, desire of fame or glory. Abuses: vanity, ambition.
- Cautiousness (12): gives origin to the sentiment of fear; an ingredient in prudence. Abuses: excessive timidity, melancholy.
- Conscientiousness (16): gives origin to the sentiment of justice; respect for the rights of others.
- Ideality (19): love of the beautiful and splendid; desire of excellence, poetic feeling.
Phrenological Analysis: John Quincy Adams
The head of ex-president Adams presents a striking instance of the truth of phrenology. Love of approbation is one of his ruling organs. His Conscientiousness is large; and consequently whatever may be thought of his measures, no phrenologist will impeach his motives.
This venerable and highly talented statesman has also a very active temperament, and an excellent quality of brain. His organization firm, solid and dense. He has a remarkably healthy constitution, and is capable of enduring, perhaps more mental labor, than any other man in Congress. His very large Conscientiousness, aided by his full Self-Esteem, and large Combativeness, give him the disposition and ability to take that honest, bold and decided stand, and exercise that untiring zeal and fixedness of purpose which he so often manifests in the Hall of Legislation. His high sense of justice and equality for the colored people is the natural sentiment of his very large Conscientiousness, which shines so conspicuously in his character.
Approbativeness being very large, would make him quite sensitive in regard to his character, his honor, and his reputation. He would be ambitious for distinction; highly prize a "good name," and never allow any thing mean or disgraceful to be attached to his character. He would have a great love of his home and country; become strongly attached to his family and friends; and wish to have them intelligent and moral by all means. Acquisitiveness being large, he would be economical and industrious; and will probably lay up something for the future.
His most favorable temperament gives him that extraordinary, practical, business talent, and ability to acquire knowledge, collect historical information, and attend to literary pursuits, for which he is so remarkable; hence he is called the most learned, and the most scientific scholar in the Union; and the writer would pronounce him one of the most honest, most persevering most enterprising and philanthropic politicians in the nation.
-- by Dr. N. Wheeler, 1845
Art Class Project:
Using the phrenological head illustrations in Skullduggery as a basis, have students create their own phrenological busts. These can be historically correct, or may be wild and crazy innovations on the theme.
Play the Phrenological Character Game! (inspired by a nineteenth-century game pamphlet)
l) Divide the students into groups and have them write the faculties as given above on slips of paper and throw them into a hat.
2) Each player chooses a slip with a faculty on it until all are dispensed. The players then create a personna for each other based on the attributes of their chosen faculties. E.g.:
+ Acquisitiveness: You are too eager after wealth; too close to making bargains; allow nothing to go to waste and would say with Ben Jonson:
Get money! Still get money, boys,
No matter by what means.
+ Conscientiousness: You have few scruples and little penitence, some regard for duty in feeling, but less in practice, justify self and inwardly quote the lines of Shakespeare:
Conscience is a word that cowards use,
Devised at first to keep the strong in awe.
+ Self-Esteem: You rely fully on your own powers; willing to hear advice but seldom take it; think you are equal to any emergency; and though not outwardly very egotistical, still a little more modesty would be becoming; you would not follow the advice of Pope:
Do good by stealth, and blush to find it fame.
+ Amativeness: You are capable of fair attachment and a good degree of affection for the opposite sex; fond of your parents; enjoy society; winning and attractive, yet not particularly susceptible to love and when you hear others extol it, you are inclined to think with Longfellow:
How can I tell the signal and the signs
By which one heart another heart divines?
How can I tell the many thousand ways
By which it keeps the secret it betrays?
NB: These examples are from the original game (David W. Wilson, Phrenological Character Game, 1882), and should amuse students with their formality of language, not to mention their literary references-which could be a good starting point for learning who these "ancient" guys were!
Most of the material I used for research consisted of worn, tattered and torn books, journals, and pamphlets of the nineteenth century. They are all long out of print, but all exist in the collections of the Library of Congress. To get some idea, however, of my thought processes, following are other books I also read to get a grasp not only of phrenology, but also of the period covered in Skullduggery:
Blackburn, Julia. The Emperor's Last Island: A Journey to St. Helena. Vintage Books, New York. 1993.
Burrows, Edwin G. and Wallace, Mike. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. Oxford University Press, New York. 1999.
Davies, John D. Phrenology Fad and Science: a 19th-Century Crusade. Yale University Press, New Haven. 1955.
de Giustino, David. Conquest of Mind: Phrenology and Victorian Social Thought. Rowman and Littlefield, Totowa, New Jersey. 1975.
Stern, Madeleine B., compiler. A Phrenological Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century Americans. Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut. 1982.
Vidal, Gore. Burr. Random House, New York. 1973.
Use any web search engine such as www.HotBot.com and seek the word Phrenology. A number of interesting sites can be located. One of particular interest is:
About Kathleen Karr:
Being raised on a chicken farm in South Jersey was good for several things: It was so boring that I had to develop my imagination (reading as many books as I could get my hands on helped,) and it gave me a lust for travel. After college and some teaching experience, years of working in the film business not only gave me the opportunity to travel (currently to every continent except Antarctica!) but also filled my subconscious with the moving picture's method of storytelling. As a result, my books have a cinematic feeling to them. My stories move fast, dialogue pushes along the action, and I try to make my descriptions as visual as possible.
It's good to have found my true calling at last. I love the combination of research, travel, and personal experience that a writer has to pull together to make a book come alive. And I love having a husband and two children (at university now) who have supported me wholeheartedly during every moment of my personal quest to write the best stories possible.
Hyperion Books by Kathleen Karr:
Bone Dry 2002. ISBN: 0-7868-0776-8 (trade). The thrilling sequel to Skullduggery which follows the young hero Matthew from 1840's Paris to the beautiful, bizarre and deadly world of the Sahara Desert.
It Happened in the White House: Extraordinary Tales from America's Most Famous Home, 2000. ISBN: 078680369-X (trade); ISBN: 0-7868-1560-4 (paper)
The Lighthouse Mermaid, 1998. ISBN: 0-7868-2297-X (trade); ISBN: 0-7868-1232-X (paper)
Skullduggery, 2000. ISBN: 078680506-4 (trade); ISBN: 0-7868-1698-8 (paper)
Spy in the Sky, 1997. ISBN: 0-7868-2239-2 (trade); ISBN: 0-7868-1165-X (paper)
If you're interested in reviewing children's and young adult books, then send a resume to email@example.com.