If you’ve read The Charlatan’s Boy, you know that phrenology–the “science” of reading a person’s character by the shape of his or her skull–plays a significant role. A blogger brought to my attention the following account of one person’s run-in with a phrenologist. It comes from The History of Phrenology on the Web, which is interesting if you like that sort of thing. And I do.
A recollection of the Rev. G.C. Rankin, looking back on his school days in the eastern United States, circa 1870:

“Among the students was a bright young fellow who had been under the tuition of the old teacher three or four years and he had been making a specialty of phrenology, and occasionally the boys would congregate in one of the rooms and Bob Rutherford would examine their heads, especially the new boys. He would take the boy, measure his head, place his hand upon the several bumps and call them by name and then decide whether or not he had any aptitude for study or any outlook for development. I had to submit to this ordeal. It was not exactly hazing, but it was on that order. I was somewhat credulous and disposed to believe what was ordinarily told me and, in some sense, this was a serious matter to me. It was made such by those who witnessed the proceeding. The fellow proceeded to measure my head from the forehead to the back, and from one ear to the other, and then he pressed his hands upon the protuberances carefully and called them by name. He felt my pulse, looked carefully at my complexion and defined it, and then retired to make his calculations in order to reveal my destiny. I awaited his return with some anxiety, for I really attached some importance to what his statement would be; for I had been told that he had great success in that sort of work and that his conclusion would be valuable to me. Directly he returned with a piece of paper in his hand, and his statement was short. It was to the effect that my head was of the tenth magnitude with phyloprogenitiveness morbidly developed; that the essential faculties of mentality were singularly deficient; that my contour antagonized all the established rules of phrenology, and that upon the whole I was better adapted to the quietude of rural life rather than to the habit of letters. Then the boys clapped their hands and laughed lustily, but there was nothing of laughter in it for me. In fact, I took seriously what Rutherford had said and thought the fellow meant it all. He showed me a phrenological bust, with the faculties all located and labeled, representing a perfect human head, and mine did not look like that one. I had never dreamed that the size or shape of the head had anything to do with a boy’s endowments or his ability to accomplish results, to say nothing of his quality and texture of brain matter. I went to my shack rather dejected. I took a small hand- mirror and looked carefully at my head, ran my hands over it and realized that it did not resemble, in any sense, the bust that I had observed. The more I thought of the affair the worse I felt. If my head was defective there was no remedy, and what could I do? The next day I quietly went to the library and carefully looked at the heads of pictures of Webster, Clay, Calhoun, Napoleon, Alexander Stephens and various other great men. Their pictures were all there in histories.

Among them all there was but one that gave me any encouragement, and that was John C. Calhoun’s. My head, so far as I could observe, looked somewhat like his. Then I read a great deal about him and concluded that if John C. Calhoun had made the great man who figured, as he did, in National affairs, there was some hope for me! But the mischief done me by that foolish incident gave me anxiety for some time to come.”

-Rankin, The Story of My Life Or More than a Half Century as I Have Lived It and Seen It Lived. 1912, pp. 123-4.

  • Canaan Bound
    12:54 AM, 15 December 2010

    Wow. That’s tragic.

  • sally apokedak
    2:15 PM, 15 December 2010

    I don’t know.
    I wonder if these lessons on the ways of the world aren’t necessary.

    My son was about five when I had a friend with a sarcastic sense of humor babysit. My husband and I were not given to sarcasm so my son had never been exposed. Plus he’s always been a literalist.

    He apparently asked my friend one too many times, “What can I do now?”

    His eyes were wide with shock hours later as he told me about it. “She said, ‘Let’s pick our noses until your mother comes.'”

    He was amazed that a grown woman, and a friend of mine, would suggest that picking the nose was a good way to pass time.

    So, on the one hand I’m sorry for Rev. Rankin. But on the other hand a minister should be wise to the world. And he should be getting his sense of self from scripture not from phrenology. Maybe he needed to learn that.

  • Amy
    2:32 PM, 15 December 2010

    I still have about 50 pages left of TCB, but I wonder how Grady would have responded to having his own skull read, had he not known phrenology was a hoax. I am glad that Grady is learning about himself the hard way! BTW, I love the part where he is named a “friend”.

  • Canaan Bound
    11:34 PM, 15 December 2010

    Whoa, what? Phrenology is a hoax!?!???

  • Roberta Shoemaker-Beal
    10:11 PM, 2 July 2012

    Thanks so much for this information on the early attempts at understanding the last inner-sanctum of the body: the skull!
     As  a neuro-based art therapist, interested in brainmapping, I recently put together a short history of creating brain maps, which, of course began with phrenology.  My new Quatrune Brain Map supposes that the pre-verbal [read pre-school] levels of brain activation follow an evolutionary path that has been enabled by the progreesion of arts and artifact developemnt.   Be happy to share that slide show with you, if you like.  A thank you for this info.
    May I use this image you shared!  It is a great one…..

    What is its source of this iamge, if I use it …. the Watson book?

    Thanks so much, Roberta Shoemaker-Beal, MFA, ATR-BC

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