Academic journal article Journalism History

"Voices from the People": Letters to the American Phrenological Journal, 1854-64

Academic journal article Journalism History

"Voices from the People": Letters to the American Phrenological Journal, 1854-64

Article excerpt

This article examines letters sent to the editors of the American Phrenological Journal, a monthly periodical dedicated to the pseudoscience of phrenology. This "rebel medical journal," which existed on the fringes of nineteenth-century American medical journalism, demonstrated remarkable longevity, remaining in print for more than seventy years. While phrenology is largely remembered because of its prominent practitioners and well-known supporters, letters sent to the journal provide insight into how ordinary individuals engaged with phrenological ideas. Three types of letters were common: those that sang the virtues of phrenology and the APJ; those that contained questions; and those that pointed out problems or concerns with phrenology. The letters showed that readers were drawn to phrenology as an overarching system with far-reaching explanatory power but troubled by its contradictions in detail.

Having had just about enough from their impertinent readers, the editors of the American Phrenological Journal published a column in May 1859 indicating that they would no longer answer letters from individuals seeking phrenologicallybased career advice. They explained that, "in consequence of answering questions in a few such instances, we have become flooded with applications from Maine to Texas, and from Cape Cod to California." They included a "specimen" of one such letter:

EDS. PHRENOLOGICAL JOURNAL- -I inclose [sic] to you the numbers of my organs as marked in a chart by _____________ , a practical phrenologist. Please answer through the JOURNAL the following questions:

What condition in life am I best calculated to fill?

What would be my talents in Phrenology? what in Language?

How do they stand as painter or artist?

Would I make a mechanic? if so, what branch is best?

Would I do as an operator or employer?

Would I be likely to succeed as a merchant or trader?

Am I a reliable character?

As the editors indignantly observed, such letters made sizeable demands of their time and offered no compensation in return. While they would provide phrenologically-based career advice, the editors clarified, they would do so only for payment and only by the usual channels; requests should not be couched as questions to the Journal. Rather, "any questions, the answers to which legitimately come within the scope of this JOURNAL, and which will be interesting to the general reader, may properly be asked."1

Nineteenth-century America suffered from no shortage of phrenologists who would, for a fee, examine the shape of someone's head and, based upon it, make observations about his or her character. As John Davies noted in 1955, "During the 1830's and 40's there was probably not a village in the nation that did not entertain at least one visit from an itinerant practical phrenologist."2 They performed analyses based on the principles originally outlined by phrenology's founding father, Franz Joseph Gall. As a young man in Vienna, he surmised that those of his classmates who had good memories also had prominent eyes. This led him to speculate that distinct areas of the brain, such as behind the eyes, were responsible for particular mental processes, such as memory. He proposed that there were twenty-seven brain areas, or, as he called them, "organs," and noted that an organ's size was an indication of the power of its associated mental faculty.3 Although he published his earliest writings on phrenology in the first few years of the nineteenth century, it was not until 1832, when Johann Gaspar Spurzheim, a one-time assistant and collaborator of his traveled to the United States to tour and lecture, that a popular American enthusiasm for phrenology was generated.4 As one contemporary acknowledged, "When Spurzheim was in America, the great mass of society became phrenologists in a day, wherever he appeared."5

The American Phrenological Journal began in 1 838, serving as a home- grown vehicle for the populariza- tion of phrenological ideas. …

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