Head bumps

Friday , March 28, 2014 - 12:36 PM

Audrey Godfrey, Standard-Examiner

Elizabeth Treherne Griffin who arrived in Utah in 1866 settled in Clarkson, Utah. Before her journey she studied phrenology under the tutorship of Dr. Orson Fowler, a famous practitioner of the “science.” She often amused others by telling what the bumps and dips on people’s heads indicated.

One of the men in town, after seeing her perform, remarked, “Elizabeth is a phrenologist of ability. Many interesting times were enjoyed while listening to her tell what different people were best adapted to.”

So what is phrenology and how is it done? Webster says; “It is a system of character analysis based on the belief that certain faculties and personality traits are indicated by the configurations of the skull.” One practitioner said he read a skull by running his fingertips over the skull to feel enlargements or indentations. He often measured the head size with a measuring tape or used a caliper he called a craniometer. Based on his measurement he told the person what his inner strengths were and his capability to do various things.

Phrenology was fairly new in the mid-19th century, spreading from the British Isles to the United States in the 1820s. A school teacher in Illinois in 1845 wrote in his diary: “My time was spent, when not occupied with my school, in reading Fowler’s Phrenology, a very valuable work ... as it enables me to form a better opinion of the tastes, feelings, and powers of my little protiges [sic].” He decided to make a chart of their heads and then concoct a plan for their education in accordance with those principles.

A Salt Lake woman had much the same idea. She hung up large charts of heads around the house to catch the children’s interest. She believed that by degrees her offspring would acquire a knowledge of the science.

Salt Lake bookstore owners, Ottinger and Savage, catered to phrenologists such as Fowler by hanging paintings and photographs on their walls to interest them. In 1869, Fowler and Samuel Wells published a book which included a biography of Ottinger and the results of his phrenological studies. Yet, people differed on the verity of the scientific examinations. Some thought them to be a hoax, while others saw value in the studies.

Brigham Young described a visit to Fowler in company with three other men. After the examination Fowler gave each man a copy of the results for $1. Young said, “I will give him a chart gratis. My opinion of him is that he is just as nigh being an idiot as a man can be and have any sense left to pass through the world decently; and it appeared to me that the cause of his success was the amount of impudence and self-importance he possessed, and the high opinion he entertained of his own abilities.”

Humorist Mark Twain held the same opinion and joked that Fowler found a cavity “where humor ought to be.”

And John Quincy Adams wondered how two phrenologists could look each other in the eye without laughing. While yet another wit said, “Before phrenology all we knew about the brain was how to slice it.”

One person called it Bumpology.

This discussion has made me think of a poem about heads.

“There are heads and heads and heads, and heads.

Long heads, round heads, flats;

Some heads are meant to carry brains,

And some just carry hats.”


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