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James Randi Educational Foundation

An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural

Introduction | "R" Reading | Curse of the Pharaoh | End-of-the-World Prophecies

Index | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | Y | Z

phrenology The German physician Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) invented the idea of studying the bumps on the human head, from which he believed character traits could be read. His theory of phrenology (meaning “mind system”) was first known as “organology” and was announced by Gall in Vienna in 1796, when he mapped twenty-six areas of the head that he said were assigned to certain aspects of human personality.
      After a falling-out with Gall, Dr. Johann Kaspar Spurzheim, a disciple of Gall's, took his own version of phrenology to America, where it became very popular, now with thirty-five areas of the head marked out. U.S. President Martin Van Buren, Henry Ward Beecher, Walt Whitman, and Daniel Webster endorsed it. Horace Mann declared:  

      I look upon phrenology as the guide to philosophy and the hand maid of Christianity. Whoever disseminates true phrenology is a public benefactor.

      Jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, known for his common sense, denounced the whole idea.
      In 1836, the Fowler brothers, Orson and Lorenzo, started a publishing house for the American Phrenology Journal. The business was expanded to include instruction centers, a museum, and all manner of props and devices. It continued to flourish until 1932 under the name Fowler & Wells, and original phrenological busts in porcelain made by the firm are sought after by modern devotees of the idea.
      A ponderous machine called the Psycograph was soon developed. It consisted of a huge hemispherical frame with thirty-two probes pointing inward at the victim's head. The contraption produced a printed tape that evaluated the character of the person whose head had been poked at. Several varieties of the machine are still in operation at the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where genial proprietor Robert McCoy demonstrates a variety of admittedly quack devices.

The Psycograph, a quack device.

      An exceptionally fatuous notion popular well into this century, totally unsupported by the most superficial examination of the evidence but therefore still quite popular among the uninformed, phrenology is another “science” that seems to satisfy the human need to solve the enigmas of character and fate.

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