Phrenologists, Punishment and the Lit and Phil.

A Meeting of the Newcastle Phrenological Society 1825- British English School (c) National Trust, Cragside; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
A Meeting of the Newcastle Phrenological Society 1825- British English School (c) National Trust, Cragside; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Ruth Richardson in her remarkable work on death, dissection and the role of the 1832 Anatomy Act, remarked she was “horrified” by the “hero worship most medical history represents.” Labelling the authors as “hagiographers” who presented medical history as “an ever ascending line of evolution up to the glorious and smug enlightened present.”¹

This sense of enlightened smugness is particularly apparent in the case of the Newcastle Phrenologists – the subject of my next two blogs. I was lucky enough to give an expanded paper on the topic of this blog at the Lit and Phil archives open day, yesterday. It was a rare privilege to give a talk in the building that the talk is about and I am very grateful to the Lit and Phil and MEMS for allowing me to present there.

Frequent readers will know that during the course of my study, phrenology has become an unexpected area of importance and hence research. It began when I stumbled across a reference to a phrenological cast being taken of the executed prisoner Jacob Frederick  Ehlert, in 1839. Since then I have been keeping an eye on reports for additional examples of this practice and also evidence for how phrenologists gained access to the criminal corpse. This line of enquiry had been somewhat put on the backburner, until Christmas when a fortuitous choice of holiday reading brought it firmly back into focus.

Amongst other books (see recommendations below) I choose to read Robert Spence Watson’s 1897 History of the Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle Upon Tyne. Having frequented the Lit and Phil many times for my study, I have always been intrigued by its history, being such a remarkable building, and after taking a free tour I chose to loan a copy of Watson’s history – in what turned out to be a very fortuitous decision.

The book is a joyous thing in its own right, written in that sort of classically English and Victorian style that is at once slightly grandiose and knowing and yet peppered with humble apologies. The opening line of the preface perfectly sums this up and I am considering stealing it for the opening of my PhD.

A book which must perforce be written in the irregular and infrequent leisure of a busy professional life, is sure to be fruitful in faults.

Watson, R., The History of the Lit and Phil Society Newcastle Upon Tyne.  (Gregg International, 1970) v

What was of particular interest to me though, was Spence Watson’s comments about the dealings of the society in 1835.

In that year (1835) Mr George Combe, the well-known phrenologist, was the Society’s special lecturer.

Ibid., p.231

George Combe, an Edinburgh lawyer,  was one of the first converts to phrenology in Britain and according to leading Historian of Science John Van Wyhe “was the most prolific British phrenologist of the nineteenth century.”¹ His agreed series of sixteen lectures for the Lit and Phil

were so great a success that they scarcely cost the Society anything.

Ibid., p.232

We get an indication from Spence Watson as to why Combe’s lectures met with such large public demand.

People were impatient to know what stories their skulls told about them. As wee bairns, we were terrified by the horribly neatly numbered and departmentalised busts and casts which lay in waiting for us in dusky and unlooked-for places in many a Newcastle house.

Ibid., p.232

Watson is referring to phrenological busts, which were models of the human head with carefully demarcated and labelled areas denoting particular emotions and traits that were believed to be based in that location. Indeed, these are really the last surviving remnants of phrenology and are largely to be found in curio shops or hipster cafes (or available at John Lewis!)

Phrenology bust John Lewis
Phrenology bust John Lewis It is a mark of phrenology’s status that a phrenological bust can be bought in John Lewis’  Curiosity Shop gift collection. “A quirky collection inspired by vintage shops and flea markets you’ll find everything from gorgeous globes to handy wash bags, smart hip flasks to statement sailing boats. Crammed with curios and great gift ideas, Curiosity Shop is packed full of ideas for the person who has everything.”

What intrigued me about Watson’s quote was how “many a Newcastle house” had a bust. While, we must question what sort of houses Watson is including in this, it is interesting to note the popular spread of the practice of phrenology. Being born in 1837, 2 years after Combe’s lectures, we can assume that Watson would be referring to his own childhood which would be in the 1840’s and 1850’s a time when (towards the end of the 1850’s) Van Wyhe says “Phrenology died away in Britain.”² So, that is something for me to investigate further and any help would be greatly appreciated.

The hugely popular talks by Combe also led to the birth of a Phrenological Society

It was allowed to meet in one of the Parent Society’s rooms and there it kept its casts and models.

Ibid., p.232

Now having found this society through Spence Watson I started doing some digging to see what the society was, did and how it had got access to the heads of the executed. One of the amazing things about modern technology is the digitisation of books and the free availability of texts through Google. This sort of search, before the existence of Google, would have been a hugely drawn out process with no guarantee of a fruitful return. Using Google books, I started to word search the old phrenological journals and quickly started building a picture of the society, but it was an extract from a journal on John Van Wyhe’s website that really caught my attention.

On Wednesday 28th October, Mr Combe, accompanied by the following gentlemen, visited the jail : viz. Dr George Fife, assistant-surgeon to the jail (who is not a phrenologist) ; Benjamin Sorsbie, Esq., alderman ; Dr D. B. White ; Mr T. M. Greenhow, surgeon ; Mr John Baird, surgeon ; Mr George C. Aitkinson ; Mr Edward Richardson ; Mr Thomas Richardson ; Mr Wm. Hutton; and Captain Hooke.

Mr Combe mentioned, that his chief object was to shew to such of the gentlemen present as had attended his lectures in Newcastle, the reality of the fact which he had frequently stated, that there is a marked difference between the development of the brain in men of virtuous dispositions, and its development in decidedly vicious characters, such as criminals usually are ; and that the moral organs generally are larger in proportion to the organs of the animal propensities, in the former than in the latter : and he requested that a few striking cases of crime might be presented, and that the heads of the criminals should be compared with those of any of the gentlemen present indiscriminately.

This was done; and Dr Fyfe suggested that it would be further desirable that Mr Combe should write down his own remarks on the cases, before any account of them was given, while he himself should, at the other side of the table, write down an account of their characters according to his knowledge of them ; and that the two statements should then be compared. Mr Combe agreed to this request ; and the following individuals were examined.

Account of Mr Combe’s Phrenological Examination of Heads of Criminals in the Jail of Newcastle-on-Tyne, October 1835. Extract from the Phrenological Journal, xol ix. p. 524. Taken from

The key figures mentioned in attendance, amongst them John Fife, all held prominent positions in the region, amongst the group were Town Councillors, Surgeons, JPs and future Mayors. It appears that Combe and the interested parties gained access to Newcastle Gaol through the non-phrenologist, surgeon to the jail, George Fife. Fife (George) appears to be something of a doubting Thomas here, perhaps allowing access to disprove or be enlightened on the merits of phrenology. What is particularly interesting here is this access is at a time when traditional chronology’s show that medical intervention on the criminal corpse, post death, stopped with the Anatomy Act of 1832. An act for which Ruth Richardson said, “what had for generations been a feared and hated punishment for murder became one for poverty.”³ However, it appears in Newcastle that phrenologists were not experiencing any issues with accessing the head of the condemned.

In next weeks blog I will show how this group of phrenologists went on to influence criminal justice in the region and reveal the diabolical plans that they laid before the Prime Minister himself!


I am currently becoming unstuck in my research, by the existence of the painting that opened this blog, A Meeting of the Newcastle Phrenological Society 1825. It is the date that is bothering me as it appears to be ten years prior to the establishment of the Phrenological Society as far as I can ascertain. I will continue to search, but I’m secretly hoping that it’s misdated! Any knowledge or advice would be greatly appreciated.


¹Richardson, R., Death, Dissection and the Destitute, (Penguin, 1988) p.xiv

2.John Van Wyhe’s History of Phrenology on the Web (a fascinating repository of information, overviews and texts on phrenology). Van Wyhe does note that phrenology has a sort of second wind in the 1860’s and 70’s when reintroduced by the American “Phrenological Fowlers”.

3.Richardson, R., Death, Dissection and the Destitute, (Penguin, 1988) p.xv

 Distraction 1: Holiday Reading.

This is a very belated recommendation from my holiday reading in January. I spent a very enjoyable week in Cornwall reading just for fun and although I had a few PhD related books, my favourite was one I got for Christmas from my girlfriend’s parents – they are excellent gift givers. It was called Tolkien’s Gown and Other Stories of Famous Authors and Rare Books by Rick Gekoski. Gekoski is a rare book trader and each chapter follows his interactions in his long career with particular novels. It’s packed full of fascinating insight into the history of the books themselves and their history as traded physical objects. It also set me on a wild goose chase as one chapter mentions the value of an original cover version copy of the Hobbit. I remembered as a child that we had that book with that cover and for a Del Boyish moment, i thought we would be millionaires – sadly, it was the right cover but a later edition (an edition that i found out goes for about £5.50 on Ebay!).

Distraction 2: Pyscho Killers Qu’est-ce que c’est

As no one track has been particualrly prominent in my mind this week, i thought i’d go for a classic that had a relevance to Ehlert’s case and phrenology. So, I went for Talking Head’s Pyscho Killer. This has extra relevance as my old band in my undergraduate days (the unbelievably pretentiously named Troubadores, did a very rough approximation of this song – great times).


2 thoughts on “Phrenologists, Punishment and the Lit and Phil.

  1. Pingback: Phrenology, Pre-emptive Capital Punishment and the Prime Minister | lastdyingwords

  2. Pingback: Conferences, Criminal Corpses and the Power of Communication – lastdyingwords

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