Ideas

The heady nature of pseudo-science

One of the most interesting things about being an archaeologist or a historian is seeing the development of ideas and knowledge throughout the ages. We are reminded, time and time again, that the ideas and theories that we consider primitive or even ridiculous in hindsight were the cutting edge of scientific enquiry or social theory at the time. It follows that at least some of the things we consider to be cutting edge here and now will be primitive or ridiculous to our children and grandchildren in the decades to come. comparativephysi00redf_0067

At the same time, it is easy to see the foundations of our current knowledge base and thinking in those same primitive or ridiculous ideas. Every theory or discovery that was later proven to be wrong or misapplied was still, in fact, part of a conversation – a social, philosophical and scientific discourse – that came to inform our understanding of the world in the present day. They either provided the building blocks for the development of an idea (the four humours of the body to miasma theory to germ theory, for example); a point of contention which forced the development of a more accurate theory; or used approaches and ideas that later proved to be useful, even if they were misapplied at the time. From geocentrism, the four elements of all matter (earth, fire, wind, water…heart! Oh wait…) and Copernican astronomy to the miraculous cough curing properties of heroin, our history is littered with theories and ideas that were wrong, but without which our current knowledge base would not be what it is.

One such subject – and the thing that got me thinking about this in the first place – is the now much maligned science of phrenology, a subject brought to our attention a while back by the discovery of a crumpled up poster inside the walls of a 19th century house in Christchurch. The poster depicted the head of a man in profile, with the skull divided into a quilt of small images, numbered and labelled with various character traits, including sublimity (“conception of the grand, awful and endless”), mirthfulness (“wit”), causality (“desire to know the why and wherefore of things”) and alimentiveness (“appetite”). Above this arresting image, a headline read “Phrenological Head of Charles Peace, The Burglar.”

The Phrenological Head of Charles Peace. Image: J. Garland.

As it turns out, Charles Peace was quite the well-known figure in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a sort of combination of Sherlock Holmes’ master of disguise and Catwoman (this is not at all an accurate description, but it amuses me). His fame – or infamy – was on par with what we now attribute to Jack the Ripper or Bonnie and Clyde and his story has all the elements of a great melodrama (which, indeed, it became later on). A cat burglar with a limp who “could scale a wall like a fly”, the “man with many faces”, a master of disguise who “could change his face in a moment”, the “prince of housebreakers”, betrayed by his mistress after a daring near-escape from the police, having evaded the police as a wanted man for years. It’s a blockbuster in the making. Probably starring Peter Sellers (or the current equivalent – Steve Carrell?).

Peace was a Sheffield-born criminal executed in 1879 for two murders and a long, long list of burglaries committed during his adult life. Having plied his thieving trade in Sheffield and its environs during the 1860s and 1870s, he shot the husband of a couple that he had befriended and fled to Peckham, London. There, he continued to rob the houses of the wealthy, while living under a pseudonym (and under the very noses of Scotland Yard). He was arrested in 1878 after an altercation with police during a robbery, and eventually hanged (Auckland Star 14/05/1932: 3).

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Contemporary and later newspapers described him as the “cleverest burglar that ever lived”, a figure so famous that “even Dick Turpin could not hold a candle to him” (Alexandra Herald and Central Otago Gazette 4/12/1929:1). He became the subject of waxworks, of crime fiction, a stage play (which outraged society by depicting his hanging on stage, carried out by an actual retired executioner) and increasingly outrageous and dramatised depictions and characterisations in popular culture. One 1930s newspaper, for example, said of him “Peace is shown as he was, a dwarf of phenomenal strength, a colossal braggart, repulsive in mind and body and a perfect burglar.” Another went even further and called him “almost a monkey of a man…an unrestrained savage.” More interestingly, from the perspective of our phrenological head, is an article that equates his prominent ears and “head of enormous size”, with his criminal proclivities.

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And this is the thing. It is no wonder that, notorious as he was, Charles Peace became the subject of phrenological investigation. The science of phrenology, particularly in its heyday, was often associated with criminals and criminal behaviours, used in an attempt to make sense of why certain people did such unreasonable things – and perhaps, to impose an order on a world that didn’t always seem to make a whole lot of sense.

The ‘science’ was first ‘discovered’ in the late 18th century, by Franz Joseph Gall, a German neuroanatomist and physiologist. It was based on the premise that the various personality traits of a person corresponded to different parts of their brains, the size and shape of which could be ‘read’ in the bumps and indents of their skull. While ultimately discredited, Gall’s theories influenced the development of neurological science as we know it today, particularly when it comes to different parts of the brain being used for different functions (not a neuroscientist – am hoping I’ve paraphrased this correctly!).

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(On a side note, I had great plans to apply the phrenological model to our office full of archaeologists in an attempt to determine the most criminal amongst us. However, as it turns out, practicing the science of phrenology involves feeling for the bumps and cavities of a person’s skull with your palms and fingertips, which seemed like it would cross a boundary from which there is no going back. We’re all friends here, but there’s a line, right?)

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Phrenology was most popular during the mid-19th century, but continued to be given credence by a small fringe of society through into the early 20th century. During the height of its popularity in various parts of the world, it was applied to criminal proceedings – both to understand the criminal defendant and to be assured of the character of the jurors, recommended to ladies as a subject of study that would ensure happiness in marriage and suggested as a way to “determine what should be restrained, what cultivated and the pursuit of in life best adapted” in children. One account even has it used to determine which of a lady’s suitors she ought to marry. It was also, in its most infamous applications, used to reinforce racial stereotypes, equating negative cultural and behavioural traits with physical – and racial – appearance. Essentially reducing human people, cultures and personalities to bumps on a skull.

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In New Zealand, phrenology makes an appearance here and there throughout the 19th century, with varying degrees of sincerity and skepticism. French naturalist and phrenologist, Pierre-Marie Dumoutier, for example, took four casts of Māori heads during his travels with Durmont d’Urville around the country in 1840, adding them to a collection of phrenological busts of indigenous peoples that he later displayed in Paris (photographic portraits of two of those busts, of rangatira Takatahara and Piuraki, are currently on display in the Christchurch Art Gallery). Several phrenological professors and consultants were active throughout the country, including in Christchurch, throughout the latter half of the century (sometimes these consultants also offered palmistry readings and séances, for what it’s worth). Demonstrations using “a large collection of the sculls of murderers, bushrangers, Maoris and notorious and eminent characters” were incredibly popular. And phrenological assessments of criminals and famous figures continued to turn up in popular culture well into the early 20th century.

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At the same time, in the 1840s and 1850s, jokes about the empty skulls of those who believed in phrenology and long arguments over the merits of the ‘science’ were being published in New Zealand newspapers. The lectures of a vocal and eminent phrenologist, Mr A. S. Hamilton, were treated and reviewed with a healthy degree of skepticism (and an appreciation for the appeal of spectacle) in the 1860s. In the 1870s, demonstrations of phrenology also included lectures on mesmerism, palmistry and electrical psychology. By the 1890s and early 1900s – both in New Zealand and throughout the rest of the world – it seems to have been more of a novelty than a science.

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There’s this great argument printed in the letters to the editor of the Colonist in the 1850s about the merits of phrenology as a science that really brings home the weird juxtaposition of ideas that it encapsulated in the subject. Because the arguments made in favour of it ring just as true to a modern scientific mind as those made against.

For example: “Phrenology depends neither on speculation nor on theory…it is essentially the science of observation, like chemistry and botany. It was discovered by observing facts, was perfected by comparison and induction, and every man with sufficient capacity may with his own eyes, test and verify its truth.” Colonist 9/02/1858: 3.

It’s just that as far as the application of phrenology went, those arguments simply weren’t true. Rather than being a ‘science of observation, like chemistry and botany’, it was actually a system of flawed assumptions and correlations, used to perpetuate a very narrow perspective of character and personality that failed to account for the effects of experience, cultural background, social upbringing and any of the other myriad factors that make a person who they are. Whoops, got a bit ranty there.

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The truth is, as an anthropologist and an archaeologist, phrenology both intrigues and terrifies me. Intrigues, because it is ultimately about understanding people, about trying to understand why and how people work. Because the analytical approach that it incorporates also forms the foundation of much of what I do as an artefact analyst, what so many analysts and scientists do (even little social scientists like us). But terrifies, because it is also so narrow, so rigid, so structural that it fails to employ the holistic approach necessary to truly understand a person – or, in our case, a culture or society. It sees correlation as cause, takes something – character – that is the result of a myriad of factors and experiences and distills it down to a series of boxes to check.

But it is, ultimately, part of that progression of ideas and knowledge that I talked about at the beginning of the post (remember that, doesn’t that seem like ages ago?). Call it a pathway, a tree, a foundation, whichever analogy or metaphor suits – however much of a misstep it was (and it really, really was), phrenology had its part to play in this ongoing human struggle to – and, ironically, I believe the definition of phrenological causality sums it up best – “understand the why and wherefore of things.”

Jessie Garland

References and Acknowledgements

Jeremy Habberfield-Short, for excavating and sharing his excellent discoveries.