The Crime Readers' Association

Heads for Murder: The Victorian pseudo-science of Phrenology – Dr Keith Souter

16th June 2014

It was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who first attracted me to crime fiction and the Victorian age. I was eleven years old when I first read the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes and I was immediately hooked. I was fascinated by the idea of fog-covered London with its criminal underclass, the Hansom cabs and the great detective who lived at 221B Baker Street. I dreamed of one day writing a detective novel set in that great century.

Well, in fact I did become a novelist, but it took several years and eleven novels in several genres before I finally wrote that book set during the Victorian age. The Curse of the Body Snatchers, the first in a new series of YA crime novels has recently been published by G-Press.

I remember vividly the moment when the idea for the book came. It was a winter’s morning and I was actually working on a medical book when I gazed out of my study window and thought that I saw the figure of a young boy in the swirling mist. I had the distinct impression of a Victorian London urchin. And that was it, within moments my mind had started to sketch out a tale about an orphan in dangerous mid-nineteenth century London. It is full of ghosts, ghouls, body snatchers, mediums and phrenologists.


At the end of the eighteenth century Dr Franz Joseph Gall developed the system of phrenology. He proposed that the shape of the skull mirrored the convolutions and functions of the brain. The term was derived from the Greek phren, meaning “mind” and logos, meaning “study of, or knowledge”. In this it is notable that phrenology prompted the later science of psychology, which is derived from psychos, meaning “soul.” Hence psychology, to be correct, is the study of the soul.

From extensive anatomical studies and empirical observation Gall had concluded that the brain was made up of individual organs or faculties, each of which represented the various temperaments, emotions, mental abilities and controlling functions of the body. By assessing the shape of the skull, the size of its prominences, its lumps and bumps, he came to believe that it was possible to predict an individual’s strengths and weaknesses, their potentials and their failings.

Gradually, phrenologists built up a map of 46 of these faculties arranged over the skull. They grouped them into four main divisions, so that those faculties at the front of the head represented the intellectual functions and those at the back represented the domestic or social faculties. The top of the head included the moral and religious sentiments and the sides were occupied by the animal propensities.

In the Victorian era professional phrenologists set up in consulting rooms like any medical specialist or general practioner and made good livings. People flocked to them to have their heads read, to see what they should be doing with their lives, and to gain answers in matters of love, business and life in general. Children were taken to see what path of life they should be groomed for.


Phrenology seemed to be a highly plausible discipline, which fitted into the huge panoply of discoveries that were taking place during the Victorian era.

Four times Prime Minister William Gladstone said of it:

‘I declare that the phrenological system of mental philosophy is as much better than all other systems as the electric light is better than the tallow dip.’

The great inventor Thomas Alva Edison said that:

‘I never knew I had an inventive talent until phrenology told me so. I was a stranger to myself until then.’

And even Professor Alfred Russel Wallace, the explorer, geographers, naturalist, anthropologist and biologist, the contemporary of Charles Darwin, whose own work on natural selection made Darwin rush his Origin of Species into print, said:

‘The phrenologist has shown that he is able to read character like an open book, and to lay bare the hidden springs of conduct with an accuracy that the most intimate friends cannot approach.’

And it gained huge credibility when eminent members of the medical professional endorsed it. Dr Robert Hunter, the professor of anatomy at the Andersonian University Glasgow, who taught David Livingstone in 1836, wrote that:

‘I have examined Phrenology in connection with the Anatomy of the Brain, and find them beautifully to harmonise; and for the last ten years I have taught Phrenology in connection with Anatomy.’


In establishing its credibility phrenologists look for ways of demonstrating that the shape of the head, and the size of various prominences could equate with known characteristics. Accordingly, phrenologists took ever opportunity to examine and take casts of the heads of famous and celebrated individuals. The ideal opportunity was after death. The eminent phrenologist George Combe had a cast made of the great poet Robert Burns when his tomb was opened in order for his wife to be interred alongside him. Phrenological examination, of course, confirmed his obvious genius.

In 1809 the celebrated composer Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) died and was buried in Vienna. Unfortunately, Austria was at that time at war with Napoleon and the interment of the composer was only regarded as a temporary measure. Shortly after the burial two phrenologists bribed the sextant and then dug the grave and severed the head. After the war some years later Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy II ordered that the composer’s body should be reburied with honour and the absence of the head was discovered. A substitute head was quickly found, but it was not until 1956 that the whole grisly business was solved and the real head was united with the body.

Yet a rich source of heads from which phrenologists could make casts came from the gallows. And here all of the deficiencies of moral faculties, or the prominence of hedonistic and greedy ones were portrayed as giving legitimacy to phrenology.

William Calcraft was the most famous hangman in the Victorian era, who executed over 450 people the length and breadth of the land. He favoured the short-drop method, which often left the victim dangling so that they strangled rather than broke their neck. He supplemented his income by selling segments of the rope he used, apparently charging up to a pound an inch. It is probable that he also permitted phrenologists to take casts of the victims after their execution.

Ambrose Lewis Vargo, a pharmacist and phrenologist wrote a popular book in 1871 entitled Orthodox Phrenology in which he described the head casts of various types of people including many executed murderers. Indeed, at the back of the book he gives a list of phrenological casts ‘suitable for Public or Private Museums, Literary and Scientific Institutions.’ Priced at 3s, 6d or 30s per dozen. Of the 74 casts available 26 were murderers, including those of the West Port Murders William Burke and William Hare and their imitators, the body snatchers known as the London Burkers, John Bishop and Thomas Williams.

James Greenacre (1785-1837), the infamous Edgware Road Murderer was a grocer who lived on the Edgware Road. He murdered Hannah Brown, his fiancée and dismembered her body, throwing her head in Regent’s Canal. He was publically hanged at Newgate Prison by the incompetent hangman, William Calcraft. In his book, Vargo depicts Greenacre’s head with a low, prominent forehead, which confirms Shakespeare saying ‘Foreheads villainous low.’

Marie Manning (1821-1849) was convicted with her husband of murdering her lover, Patrick O’Connor. The case was called The Bermondsey Horror and ended with the public joint hanging of her and her husband by William Calfraft outside Horsemonger Lane Gaol. Charles Dickens attended the event and later wrote a letter to the Times, expressing his disgust at the glee that the crowd took at the execution. Vargo has an illustration of Ms Manning’s head in order to illustrate the well developed faculty of ‘Alimentiveness,’ which can lead to the taking of pleasures in excess. Her gluttony he felt was demonstrated by the hearty breakfast that she ate on the morning of her execution.

Dr William Palmer (1824-1856), known as The Rugeley Poisoner was publically hanged in Stafford in front of a crowd of 30,000. He was convicted of poisoning one person, but was thought to have been a serial killer, perhaps murdering a dozen more. Vargo has an illustration of his death mask and draws attention to the poorly developed moral faculties.

Another phrenologist, Frederick Bridges, studied the heads of several convicted murderers, including William Palmer and William Dove and concluded that the angle between the nose, the ear canal and the brow- the ‘basilar phreno-metrical angle’ gave an indication of the individual’s animal propensities. The greater the angle, the greater the animal desires and the less the moral quality. He found that an angle of greater than 35 degrees was a common characteristic in all murderers.


Of course, as medical knowledge advanced and it was shown that there was no correlation whatsoever between the bumps on the head and the shape and function of the brain, the whole system collapsed. Nevertheless, the phrenological chart and the busts that was so ubiquitous in Victorian times are still around. They have attained iconic status, not for phrenology, but as an image of the mind. Phsychology textbooks, popular self-help books, websites and all manner of adverts still use that phrenological head. The practioners have come and gone, the mountains of books they wrote are no longer read, and their philosophy has been derided and jettisoned to the footnotes of history, yet the iconic image persists. It does so, I think, because the whole thing did seem so plausible. And that is exactly why it found its way into my novel.

Another of Keith Souter’s recent books is Medical Meddlers, Mediums and Magicians, which contains a fuller account of phrenology.  To find out more about the author follow this link

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