One of the things I wish I had known more about when writing the book was the connection between phrenology and mesmerism/animal magnetism. Particularly in the 1840’s, as Sir Thomas Browne’s head was being stolen, the long-standing interest in mesmerism was put to new uses with phrenology. Magazines like The Zoist and The Phreno-Magnet, along with James Braid’s book Neurypnology, reported instances in which phrenological “truths” could be proven through the use of mesmerism. Here’s one such example from Neurypnology, which I found in Frank Podmore’s Mediums of the 19th Century:
A gentleman who had been present at a previous demonstration “ was so much astonished and gratified with what he had seen that he begged I would try one of his daughters. I hypnotized the eldest, and all the manifestations came out quite decidedly as in her cousin. Under “adhesiveness” and “friendship” she clasped me, and on stimulating the organ of “combativeness” on the opposite side of the head, with the arm of that side she struck two gentlemen (whom she imagined were about to attack me) in such a manner as nearly laid one on the floor, whilst with the other arm she held me in the most friendly manner. Under “benevolence” she seemed quite overwhelmed with compassion; “acquisitiveness,” stole greedily all she could lay her hands on, which was retained whlist I excited many other manifestations; but the moment my fingers touched “conscientiousness,” she threw all she had stolen on the floor, as if horror-stricken, and burst into a flood of tears. On being asked, “Why do you cry?” she said, with the utmost agony, “I have done what was wrong, I have done what was wrong.” I now excited “imitation” and “ideality,” and had her laughing and dancing in an instant. On exciting “form” and “ideality,” she seemed alarmed, and when asked what she saw, she answered “The D—l.” “What colour is he?” “Black.” On pressing the eyebrow and repeating the question, the answer was “red,” and the whole body instantly became rigid, and the face the most complete picture of horror which could be imagined. “Destructiveness,” which is largely developed, being touched, she struck her father such a blow on the chest as nearly laid him on the floor. Had I not endeavoured to restrain her, he must have sustained serious injury. Having now excited “veneration,” “hope,” “ideality,” and “language,” we had the most striking example of extreme ecstasy, and on being aroused she was quite conscious of all that had happened, excepting that she had heard music, and had been dancing. Her “philo-progenitiveness” was admirable.
Shortly after my interview in the Boston Globe, I was contacted by Dr. Sue Lester, a descendent of the Massachusetts phrenologist Walton Felch (1790-1892), inquiring whether or not I knew what had happened to the two skulls he once possessed. Through a series of emails and some research, Dr. Lester and I have been reconstructing the history of Walton Felch—grammarian, cotton mill superviser, poet, phrenologist, and skull-thief.
Felch began his career as the superintendent at some of the earliest cotton mills; he was, according to his son Hiram, the master machinist at the Slatersville Mill in Rhode Island—which, at the time it opened in 1807, was the largest and most modern textile mill in the country. Felch would later incorporate these experiences into his poem, The Manufacturer’s Pocket-Piece; or the Cotton Mill Moralized. As the subtitle of this modest epic suggests, Felch saw the cotton mill as an allegory that could be used for moral instruction. In this he was not alone; the factory was becoming a major site for utopian longings in the early days of the industrial revolution. In Scotland the entrepreneur Robert Owen had turned his factory in New Lanark into a utopian community founded on socialist principles, and in New England the mill of Francis Cabot Lowell became a model of efficient and benevolent industrialism. Pilgrims came from all over to see and study Lowell’s factory; one such reformer, Henry Colman, reported that the “moral spectacle here presented is in itself beautiful and sublime.” In the cotton mill, “each part retains its place, performs its duty,” working in perfect harmony, acting as something of a model for human civilization at large.
Walton Felch saw similar utopian possibilities in the cotton mill. In his book Civilizing the Machine: Technology and Republican Values in America, 1776-1900, John F. Kasson writes that the “discipline of the factory, Felch suggested, might provide just the salutary influence to keep republican spirits from running to excess. He chose a cotton mill as an illustration and carefully traced the moral lessons of control taught by each of the various elements; then Felch solemnly gestured to the whole and instructed his countrymen:
Remark the moral order reigning here,
How every part observes its destined sphere;
Or, if disorder enter the machine.
A sweeping discord interrupts the scene!
Learn hence, whatever line of life you trace,
In pious awe your proper sphere to grace.”
The factory, Kasson writes, had become the symbol of a new kind of order, and a new kind of America, in which each had his/her appointed place, did one job to perfection, and thus became a cog in a larger machine. Fasson concludes that what “Colman and Felch described was essentially an industrial version of the Puritan doctrine of the calling, by which each person pursued his appointed vocation in the place which God had ordained. Factory discipline would provide social discipline as well.”
This early work in the cotton mill set the tone for Felch, who ardently believed in reform, and believed it could be attained through rational thought, an objective outlook, and a progressive bent. In 1841 he published his treatise on grammar, in which he argued that the “prevailing system of grammar, which in substance we have received from the ancients, will be found, upon careful inspection, to be radically defective and erroneous;—how defective and erroneous, no one is prepared to conceive, till he has given the subject more attention than a short essay like this article could evince.” Once again, one of his chief problems with grammar instruction is that it lacks a progressive or ethical agenda: “And in the first place, the purpose of grammar is not distinctly set forth. Indeed, it is proposed as ‘the art of speaking and writing correctly.’ Thus our grammarians would give us ‘the art’ without the science,—a heap of blind, and peradventure incongruous, rules of composition, with no principle for their basis. And it seems not to have entered their thoughts, that one may speak grammatically and yet incorrectly;—that his speech may be incorrect in point of perspicuity, meaning, fact, time, place, order, taste, manners, morals, &c.”
In his lectures on grammar, Felch often quoted the writings of Johann Spurzheim, who, with Franz Joseph Gall, invented the “science” that came to be known as phrenology. “All our learning ought to be useful, and we should obtain positive notions, instead of mere signs which convey no meaning.” It’s not surprising, then, that Felch also shared an interest in phrenology. The popular Scottish phrenologist, George Combe, had originally started in education reform, and particularly in the US phrenology was part of a massive reform movement. As I detail in my book, phrenology joined the pre-war craze of various cure-alls that claimed to heal the rifts growing in the country: “As it had in the British Isles, phrenology flourished by attaching itself to reform movements. The United States was being torn apart at the seams, the rift between North and South growing wider by the day. The division had become intractable, war was nearly a foregone conclusion, and everyone was looking for some kind of panacea to solve the nation’s woes. Transcendentalists, abolitionists, hydrotherapy advocates, antilacing societies (against corsets: “Natural waists, or no wives!”), teetotalers, and vegetarians—all lined up to promote their causes; phrenology took them all in and made them part of its grand scheme. The phrenological Fowlers published tracts from all manner of reformers and idealists in their Phrenological Journal, aggregating every movement under the banner of bump reading. In the journal’s tautological simplicity, all society’s ills could be explained through the skull.”
Felch committed his own act of grave robbing sometime between 1838 and 1844. In 1837 a monument had been erected at the battlefield of Concord, MA, commemorating the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, and marking the graves of the fallen British soldiers there. His interest piqued, Felch subsequently contacted the Concord Board of Selectmen, and, with their permission, set about acquiring the skulls of two soldiers—one with a bullet hole clean through the head—from the former battlefield graveyard. The circumstances of the actual theft remain murky, but soon thereafter Felch was using these skulls as examples in his lectures. The soldiers’ skulls, he claimed, showed both an over-developed bump of combativeness and a deficient bump of merriment—thus, Felch argued, soldiery was a natural fit for both men.
Felch continued to travel throughout New England, now with two skulls that he could use to illustrate basic phrenological principles. He also continued to lecture on mesmerism, another hobby of his, as well as hydropathy, geology, and astronomy. He was generally well received; after one of his geology talks, a reviewer noted that “we were instructed and well entertained by the Lecturer [and] we hope to be able to hear the gentleman further on this subject at future meetings.” But his life was not without controversy, and rumors followed him about his unorthodox methods. In 1847 a friend, James H. Desper, was compelled to publish an editorial in the Barre Gazette of Philadelphia, which ran:
Veto! Veto!! Veto!!!!
I, James H. Desper of Barre, having lately heard a variety of Reports apparently designed to raise a public prejudice against Dr. W. Felch, and thereby hinder him from giving proofs of the healing power of Mesmerism and Pure Water as applied by himself;—1st, that he was turned out of my house; 2nd, that he injured the health of my wife and others while boarding here; 3rd, that he has been suspected of breaking open our store, &c. &c. I hereby give notice, and my wife sets her signature with mine, that all these reports are most villainous falsehoods.
Felch died in 1892, leaving behind over 200 poems as his primary legacy. His phrenological collection fell to his widow, and shortly after his death the Worchester Historical Society came to her inquiring about the skulls. One of the Society’s members, George Hoar, described how as a boy, he had attended a lecture on phrenology in Concord, “where the lecturer exhibited a skull which he said was the skull of a soldier killed in the Concord fight.”
It was Hoar who contacted Felch’s widow, who agreed to turn over the phrenological materials for a small fee, but the Worchester Historical Society, upon examining the materials, found only one skull—the one with the bullet hole. The other was missing. Hoar spent some time searching for it, in vain, until he happened to bring up the story to Dr. Joseph N. Bates. Hoar knew that Bates was a collector of antiques, and related how, when he mentioned the missing skull to Bates, the doctor “smiled and said ‘I have got that one; I attended Mr. Felch in his last sickness and he gave it to me!’” The skull was ultimately lost, however; after Bates’ death Hoar was unable to recover the skull from the doctor’s belongings, and its fate remains unknown.
The one skull that they did have, however, was quietly repatriated to the cemetery; Hoar advised against any publicity: “I think this whole matter ought to be kept entirely private and by no means get into the newspapers as it would probably be a topic for some ridicule. My own idea is that it would be well to replace it secretly in the grave without even any ceremony of taking leave, and to make a record . . . kept private among the archives of your society.”
And so the society’s secret remained for much of the 20th century (though historian Douglas P. Sabin reported on some of this history in 1992). But while Hoar may have been a bit uncomfortable with Felch’s methods (or the Concord Board of Selectmen’s complicity), by the standards of the day none of this was particularly unusual. We tend to have a single view of American history in the nineteenth century, a well-established narrative that takes us from the Revolutionary War, through American transcendentalism and the horrors of slavery, towards the undeniable outcome of the Civil War. But while this is an important and true story of the United States’ coming of age, it’s one that was largely constructed after the fact, and s not by any means the only story to be told of that time. Walton Felch’s America is, after all, also our own.