Skull Bumps and the "Criminal"


Review of An Organ of Murder: Crime, Violence, and Phrenology in Nineteenth-Century America, by Courtney E. Thompson

New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2021


In 1928 in Georgia, a woman on death row named Eula Mae Thompson was spared the electric chair because of the shape of her skull. The Governor, Lamartine Hardman, stayed the execution after being persuaded by phrenological analysis that the bumps on Thompson’s cranium suggested she could be redeemed. In the epilogue to An Organ of Murder, Courtney E. Thompson considers the death of phrenology in the nineteenth century, and its strange afterlife in the twentieth. Phrenologists posited that a person’s personality and other characteristics were reflected in the size and orientation of bumps on the skull. These bumps–or “organs”–were associated with qualities such as “Destructiveness,” “Secretiveness,” “Combativeness,” or, more positively, “Veneration” and “Parental Love” (19-20). But by the twentieth century, phrenology had lost most of its academic prestige; Eula Mae Thompson’s case was its “last gasp” in American courts (158). Or was it? 

As Courtney Thompson notes, contemporary criminal justice owes more to phrenology than we might like to admit. In his essay on the concept of the “dangerous individual” and its roots in nineteenth-century psychiatry, Michel Foucault argues that criminal justice in the present has “at least as much to do with criminals as with crimes.” Despite the efflorescence of technologies and sciences that can draw evidence from objects and places–ballistics, toxicology, closed-circuit television networks–courtroom officials and members of the public alike remain preoccupied with questions of criminal character, motivation, and intention. Lawyers request psychiatric evaluations of the accused, enlisting medical experts to testify about issues from intelligence and insanity to trauma. Witnesses are asked to comment on a defendant’s disposition and personal history. Scientists search for “violent” genes or brain structures, while social scientists develop checklists to sort “psychopaths” from more mundane criminals. The crime itself fades in importance. Instead, if we follow Foucault, it becomes just one indication of “the existence of a dangerous element…in the social body.” The “phrenological impulse” that attracted nineteenth-century doctors and lawyers to brain science as a means to explain and, they hoped, prevent criminality did not die (5). Instead, although we have traded the famous phrenological diagrams of earlier centuries for the familiar rainbows of modern fMRI scans, efforts to identify and sort “criminals” by neurobiological type continue.

Phrenology began in the late eighteenth century with the work of German physiologist Franz Joseph Gall, popularized in the early nineteenth century by his student Johann Spurzheim. The theory gained Anglo-American adherents, especially in Scotland. Phrenology was always controversial. In his recent book, On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (2021), historian Michael Gordin describes phrenology as an especially vigorous “counterestablishment science,” embraced in Britain by utopian socialists, members of dissenting churches, agnostics, radicals, social reformers, and other “non-elite” groups. By the end of the nineteenth century, phrenology had been largely displaced from elite medico-legal spaces by mainstream psychiatry and the growing field of positivist criminology. 

While phrenology lost much of its scientific prestige over time, Thompson argues that it constructed ways of seeing and describing criminals and criminality that still shape public and legal ways of understanding these phenomena. The story of phrenology in the United States is thus entangled with criminal law, penology, and early criminology, and should be better integrated into our understandings of the history of medical jurisprudence and the insanity defence (4-5). Phrenological “vocabularies,” Thompson writes, both “lexical and visual…enabled criminal profiling avant la lettre” (3). We still speak the language of phrenology, although we might not know it.

Unlike many existing studies of phrenology, which tend to focus on the science’s European fortunes, Thompson takes on the nineteenth-century United States, particularly the period from 1830 to 1860. The book situates phrenology in the history of American criminal justice and the emerging conceptualization of criminality as an innate biological predisposition. While today phrenology is often dismissed as a “pseudoscience” touted by sideshow hucksters, Thompson, like other historians of science, takes it seriously as a domain of scientific inquiry. Phrenology attracted the attention of doctors and scientists as well as lay persons. In the United States, professional, educated men first sought to establish phrenology as a reputable science in the 1820s and 1830s. As the efforts of these academic phrenologists foundered in the 1840s, a new breed of “practical phrenologists” recast phrenology as a popular entertainment through public lectures and offers to “read heads” for a fee (4). It might be hard to shake the image of the phrenologist as a carnival barker, but we should also recall that associating cognitive functions with specific areas of the brain is a core tenet of modern neurology. 

Thompson adds a new, distinctively legal note to recent histories of phrenological science. She is most interested in how nineteenth-century Americans interpreted the so-called “animal propensities” clustered near the temporal bone. These included, most importantly, the organ labelled “Destructiveness.” A protuberance in this region did not doom a subject to criminality. “Destructiveness” could be a useful feature among slaughterhouse workers, for example. However, overdeveloped animal propensities could predispose a person to violence, even murder (20). Skull shape was not destiny. And yet, many phrenological studies claimed to find tight correlations between subjects with large animal propensities and low moral qualities and criminality, at least when probing the skulls of convicted murderers (21).

As medico-legal experts were increasingly called to testify in criminal trials in the 1820s and 1830s, phrenological knowledge made its way into the courtrooms of the early Republic. In criminal insanity trials, especially, experts were keen to assert the legitimacy of the developing field of mental science, which some held included the insights of phrenology (59). Some physicians rejected the suggestion that phrenological theory and the new mind sciences, pioneered at the turn of the nineteenth century by French physician Philippe Pinel and his students, Jean-Étienne Esquirol and Étienne-Jean Georget, shared features. James Cowles Prichard, the eminent English doctor whose work influenced Anglo-American and European approaches to non-delusional insanity and criminal responsibility, vehemently opposed phrenology. For him, the notion that a person might suffer from subtle disorders of mind that could lead to violence could not be collapsed into the language of animal propensities or palpated in skull bumps (64-5). And yet, Thompson writes, fine lines between phrenology and other medico-legal paradigms for explaining and diagnosing insanity were often erased in nineteenth-century textbooks, as well as in the public imagination (65). Early psychiatry and phrenology seemed to agree that many criminals were naturally predisposed to commit criminal acts, whether due to characteristics readable in their skulls or through the more secret action of nerves, brain structure, or heredity. 

Thompson also connects phrenology to the history of imprisonment. The rise of American phrenology in the early nineteenth century coincided with the advent of modern penitentiaries. America’s new prisons became laboratories for phrenologists, providing researchers with a ready supply of criminal subjects. Phrenologists also presented themselves to authorities and the public as experts in rehabilitation and scientific prison management (79). A tension common among nineteenth-century liberal penal reformers emerged. Their tremendous optimism about the possibilities of scientific institutional design was tempered by deterministic resignation; while most prisoners might benefit from enlightened management practices, the laws of nature could not always be defied. 

Phrenologists championed prisons as sites for the rehabilitation of prisoners, while simultaneously positing that some inmates–especially those with large “Destructiveness” organs–were helpless victims of their own skulls, predisposed so strongly to violence that they were both irresponsible for their actions and also irredeemable (82). This prefigured Cesare Lombroso’s late-century account of the “born criminal”–distinct from the reformable “occasional criminal”–and echoed psychiatric descriptions of the “morally insane,” both of which identified a subset of offenders who were biologically impelled to commit crimes. Phrenology could thus support arguments against the culpability of recidivists or particularly violent offenders, but could also be marshaled to justify their indefinite detention or even execution. Thompson notes that most phrenologists opposed capital punishment as barbaric and antiquated, even as their arguments about innate and unreformable violence could be used by others in support of the practice. Still, she notes, phrenologists coveted the death masks and skull casts of executed prisoners that often filled their cabinets (94). 

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Thompson writes, phrenologists had become deeply invested in the moral distinction between “good” and “bad” heads. They filled their pamphlets and journal publications with drawings of the skulls of artists, statesmen, and geniuses, which they contrasted with those of criminals and the insane. Their shelves and desks were crowded with phrenological models, including replicas of the heads of the famous and infamous alike (103). Phrenological diagrams and busts remain a relatively common cultural referent, still what Thompson calls a “salient shorthand” for the science as a whole and even for broader understandings of bio-psychological predispositions or “character” (108). Often, a picture was enough to ground sweeping pronouncements about a person’s mental and moral nature. Although nineteenth-century practical phrenologists made much of “manual examination,” charging fees to feel the skulls of customers, phrenologists also often claimed to be able to assess a person’s character based only on a portrait or visual assessment (108). Thompson argues that this contributed to the creation of a “culture of vision,” in which Americans increasingly believed that outward appearances signaled moral and intellectual status (110). 

Credit: Phrenological head of Sir Robert Peel as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Lithograph, ca. 1844. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Recent histories of psychiatry and phrenology have also emphasized the connections of these sciences to changing understandings of race and civilization. Indeed, it is difficult–and perhaps irresponsible–to distinguish nineteenth-century theories of mental and moral development and character from contemporary accounts of human difference, from evolutionary theories to justifications of empire and enslavement. Considerations of race and racism are, in turn, indispensable to histories of Anglo-American criminal justice. It is well-known that Western criminal justice systems, from policing to imprisonment and beyond, disproportionately surveil and punish racialized people, especially those who are Black and Indigenous. Many scholars have analyzed how popular perceptions of “dangerousness” and criminality are racially biased. That nineteenth-century phrenological accounts of criminality carried racial and civilizational meaning is, therefore, no surprise.

Thompson addresses the complex interactions between phrenology and nineteenth-century visions of racial difference. She is keen, though, to underscore that there was no easy equivalence between a person’s racial identity and the degree to which their skull was likely to be read as criminal. Phrenological analysis was flexible, and highly responsive to period and context. For example, Thompson describes the skull of Sauk leader Black Hawk (1767-1838), whose portrait was often used by phrenologists to illustrate a large “Destructiveness” organ. However, “Destructiveness” in Black Hawk did not signal the criminality and violence with which it was often associated in Europeans. Rather, the supposedly well-developed animal propensities in Indigenous and African American subjects’ skulls were understood to imply “a lack of civilization, not criminality; violence, but not murder.” Indeed, Thompson writes, this “racial relativism within phrenology indicates both the subjectivity at the heart of the phrenological enterprise” as well as the unstable relationship between criminality and race in the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century (23). 

This more fluid association between phrenology and racist conceptions of criminality became increasingly fixed throughout the nineteenth century. Thompson argues that the period after the Civil War saw the “racialization of criminality,” as white fears of emancipated African Americans drove the embrace of scientific theories that presented non-white peoples as biologically inferior (124). As in the first third of the century, phrenological knowledge could be used to support antislavery or other progressive causes, providing evidence of the ‘goodness’ and sophistication of African American and Indigenous peoples. But it was also, and increasingly, used to justify racist policies premised on imagined racial hierarchies. Historian James Poskett, who has charted the global circulation of phrenological objects and ideas, argues that industrialization, communication networks, and Euro-American imperialism spread phrenology around the world, such that “it started to become impossible to think of the mind as anything other than a marker of race.” Thompson astutely notes the through line from increasingly racialized nineteenth-century mind sciences to notions of biological criminality that consistently associated (non-white) race with risk. Like other scholars of race, racism, and law in the nineteenth century, Thompson argues that the racialization of criminality in America was not, as some have presumed, a product of the 1960s and 1970s, but of this earlier period. By the turn of the twentieth century, she writes, “blackness and criminality were…tightly linked together and overwritten with brutality and incompetence” (125).

Phrenology was less prominent in American racial and criminological theories by the last decades of the nineteenth century, as it lost its scientific veneer and as phrenologists, by then identified strongly with popular, practical phrenology, became objects of fun. But Thompson reminds us that this later association of phrenology with carnivals and charlatanism, more akin to fortune telling than neurology, should not obscure the early influence of the discipline on foundational understandings of crime and race in the United States. Phrenology’s core tenets–that different regions of the brain were responsible for specific cognitive functions; that people’s bodies were proxies for their minds, or their souls; that the neuro-psychological evaluation of “criminals” was a key criminal justice technology–endured. As we grapple today with the apparent rise of medical disinformation and longstanding inequities in the institutions of criminal justice, the history of phrenology offers a caution. We should not underestimate the power of popular or counterestablishment science, or scoff at “pseudoscientific” spectacle. If we do, we are likely to overlook continuities between mainstream and fringe, elite and non-elite ideas, practices, and vocabularies, and to delude ourselves into believing we have left the distortions of past centuries behind.



Posted on 9 December 2021

CATHERINE L. EVANS is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies at the University of Toronto. Her first book, Unsound Empire: Civilization and Madness in Late-Victorian Law (Yale, 2021), comes out this fall.