Academic journal article Journal of American & Comparative Cultures

"Corroborating His Phrenology": The American Phrenological Journal, the Great American Crisis, and U.S. Grant

Academic journal article Journal of American & Comparative Cultures

"Corroborating His Phrenology": The American Phrenological Journal, the Great American Crisis, and U.S. Grant

Article excerpt

On May 18, 1875, so Nelson Sizer records in his memoirs, Forty Years in Phrenology, "a quiet gentleman in plain, citizen's dress" (360) presented himself at the New York phrenological depot of S. R. Wells at 753 Broadway for a complete cranioscopic character description. A major figure in phrenological annals, Sizer was said to have conducted over three hundred thousand examinations during a career that started in 1849 when he joined the pre-eminent phrenological firm of Fowler and Wells (Stem 79). Dictating his findings to a shorthand writer, the Pitman system being but one of the myriad enthusiasms the firm espoused during its long and colorful life, Sizer described, melodramatically, a person with a robust and energetic constitution coupled with excessive mental restlessness and excitability. Sizer counseled his client to "contrive to sleep an hour or two more every night" so as to rest the brain; to "avoid everything exciting in the way of luxury, condiment, food, or drink," for these, he said, set "your nerves on fire, worse than...those of most men"; and to "avoid overdoing" (360), observing that:

If you were an army officer and in active service, you would get as much work out of a horse as General Custer or Phil. Sheridan would, that is to say, as much as the horse could render. (361)

At the end of the examination and after his client revealed his name-Custer-and then his initials, "G.A.," Sizer must have been as awed as he was clearly self-congratulatory; without the benefit of Custer's trademark long locks to identify his client ("I have had that cut off," Custer responded to Sizer's query about the absence of long hair), Sizer's character description was uncannily accurate, while his naming his client as a type of Custer would have tickled any phrenological examiner's vanity. Custer headed off to Chicago to attend Philip Sheridan's wedding and from there to meet his doom, thirteen months later when, failing to heed Sizer's admonitions, he recklessly led his command to slaughter at Little Big Horn. Custer's outcome, Sizer crowed was "a verification of my description of his fiery energy which betrayed him to his doom" (Sizer 361-62).

The reading seems uncannily perspicacious. Or was it? Surely, phrenology's many supporters would have found in this profile confirmation of their faith in phrenology's ability to plumb depths of human character. But phrenology's critics would also have had good reason for skepticism. For them, that the full analysis was published two months after the Little Big Horn disaster raised the question of veracity. Could they be sure that the editors didn't add anything after the battle to make the original analysis seem all the more prescient? How likely, anyway, is it that the cabinet would have made a duplicate copy of the 1875 analysis and stored it? Further, they might well wonder, what prompted the publication of Custer's profile in the Journal in the first place? Was the profile published to reveal truths about Custer's character so as to explain the battlefield debacle, or to confirm the truth of phrenology as revealed through Custer's character that led to the ensuing disaster? As the article wasn't a tribute, which it surely was not, could it have been merely a tasteless act of self-promotion?

Such suspicions in addition to others dogged the century-long enterprise of "practical" phrenology or the practice of "reading" a subject's cranium to determine the character of a subject. These are evident in a series that appeared years earlier in the American Phrenological Journal which profiled senior members of the Union's officer corps. In the weeks following the firing on Fort Sumter in mid-1861, the phrenological publishing firm of Fowler and Wells ostensibly placed the authority of their science in the service of the Union. Starting with the June issue they profiled generals and commodores alike so as to determine, phrenologically, the suitability of each subject for command and bring this "insurrection"1 to a swift and triumphant conclusion. …

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