On this day … 26 January 1839

Phrenological skull, European, 19th century. Wellcome Collection, London.
Phrenological skull, European, 19th century. Wellcome Collection, London. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phrenology#History

The Preston Chronicle carried a report of a meeting of the Preston Phrenological Society. The society had been formed the previous year, reflecting the growing enthusiasm for reading character from head bumps. Interest had probably been sparked by the visit to Preston of Dr Johann Gaspar Spurzheim in 1829 to give a series of lectures on the subject in the Theatre Royal on Fishergate. Dr Sporzheim was the leading populariser of phrenology.

Phrenology maintained its hold on Prestonians well on into the nineteenth century, perhaps because its practitioners were more likely to flatter their subjects than to uncover darker sides to their character.

For example, the total abstinence campaigner Joseph Livesey was convinced of the accuracy of the technique when it confirmed his own view of his character, as he revealed in chapter twelve of his autobiography, which he devotes to his phrenological analysis and to the subject of his rather faddish diet. The chapter shows Livesey in pompous self-congratulatory mode:

When a man is induced to take a survey of his life, and of the part he may have played in the world, he is apt to consider what has led him into the peculiar line of action he has adopted. I was tempted the other day to refer to a “Phrenological” description of my character, presented to me by Mr. L. T. Fowler, as we are all curious to know what others say of us. And, I confess, my whole experience confirms what Mr. Fowler has stated in almost every particular. I will only instance two or three points. ‘You have the spirit of independence,’ says he, ‘and desire to have your own way—to rely upon your own strength and resources, and to carry out your own plans.’ Regardless of organization, my training from youth easily accounts for this. I had, so to speak, when young, to fight the world alone. Without help, and without association, my character and disposition must have chiefly grown out of my own reflections, arising from my isolated position.

Fowler was Lorenzo Niles Fowler, an American who came over to Britain in the 1860s to promote phrenology. As a student, he had formed a temperance society at his college. He also shared Livesey’s interest in hydropathy, a crank water cure for all sorts of ailments.

Right up until the end of the century, phrenologists were advertising their services in the local papers, and the connection between temperance and phrenology persisted, as in this report of a meeting in Longridge in 1893:

During the early portion of this week Professor Roberts has been delivering a course of lectures in the Wesleyan School on popular subjects, viz., ‘Temperance’, ‘Christianity and Phrenology’, ‘Love’, ‘Courtship, and Marriage’, ‘Faces,’ ‘Noses’ ‘Eyes and Brows,’ &c. Several well-known local gentlemen stepped upon the platform and had their heads examined …

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s