Monday, February 22, 2010

John Brown and Phrenology?

Yesterday I spent much of the day at the University of Kentucky's Young Library looking through microfilm of 1859 newspapers searching for how Kentuckians reacted to John Brown's raid. Actually, I really only got through the second half of October and the first half of November. If you have never viewed period newspapers you don't know what you're missing. They are printed in tiny type and have a gazillion columns; it is enough to make you go cross eyed.

The editor of the Daily Louisville Democrat, as you might imagine, did not hold Brown in high esteem. He also did not hold dear feelings for other abolitionists such as Bostonian Wendell Phillips. On November 3, 1859 the editor wrote, "We see that Wendell Phillips has been making an ass of himself as usual, in pubic and speech. He has been long known as a crazy fool running at large about Boston, where there are a good many of the same sort. Phillips is valiant in words, and generally exhibits his prowess in that way. He is more guilty than Brown, but he knows what Brown doesn't, that discretion is be better part of valor."

Many abolitionist were considered mad or crazy or insane by those that favored slavery - both North and South. I am not aware of Brown or many other abolitionists receiving treatment for insanity (except for Gerrit Smith when he checked himself into an asylum after Brown's raid), but there is documentation that Brown visited a phrenologist in 1847.

Phrenology was a pseudo-science that was extremely popular in the nineteenth century. During that era it was believed that one could find out their natural attributes by having a skilled phrenologist "read" the bumps on their skull. In February, 1847 Brown's head was read by noted phrenologist Orson S. Fowler. To a large degree Fowler was spot on about Brown's personality. After feeling Brown's skull Fowler determined that Brown was "positive in your likes and dislikes, 'go the whole figure or nothing,' and want others to do the same." He also found that Brown's head bumps made him "practical rather than theoretical," and that he "would rather lead than follow." In addition, he saw that Brown possessed a "great sense of honor, and would scorn to do anything mean or disgraceful. You might be persuaded, but to drive you would be impossible. You like to have your own way, and to think and act for yourself - are quite independent and dignified, yet candid, open, and plain; say just what you think, and most heartily despise hypocrisy and artificiality, yet you value the good opinion of others though you would not stoop to gain applause."

Without the aid of hindsight that we have in examining Brown's personality and actions, Fowler made quite the prescient reading; even if his method was nothing but "hogwash," as my father used to say.

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