Phrenology, Pre-emptive Capital Punishment and the Prime Minister

This weeks blog is a part 2, but can be read as a standalone. last weeks is here if you want to catch up.

In between writing these two blogs, I was fortunate enough to be accepted to talk at the Lit and Phil on this very subject. It was a unique experience to be able to present a talk in the building that played such a big part in the talk itself. It was not lost on me, that I was presenting just a few feet away from where this second blog took place.

So, last week I left you with a group of prominent Aldermen, JPs and surgeons who had been enthralled by Edinburgh Phrenologist, George Combe’s lecture series at the Lit and Phil in October 1835. They had all managed to gain access, through George Fife – the then Newcastle prison surgeon – to Newcastle Jail and the heads of criminals there. I will pick up the story from here.

George Combe, Founder of the Edinburgh Phrenological Society. Image courtesy of
George Combe, Founder of the Edinburgh Phrenological Society. Image courtesy of

The combined effect of  George Combe’s lectures and the jail visit led to the formation of a Newcastle Phrenological Society a mere five days after his lectures had ended. Spence Watson, in his history of the Lit and Phil states that the group met in one of the “parent Society’s” rooms and kept their “phrenological busts there.”¹ Further examination following my talk, after helpful guidance from the Lit and Phil’s Paul Gailiunas, has led me to possibly locate the room. In the 1836 accounts for the Lit and Phil, we see the following statement.

Your committee have further to inform you, that since the establishment of a Phrenological Society, consequent on Mr.Combe’s lectures, the smaller apparatus room, which was not wanted, has been let by the committee to that Society, as the depository for their numerous casts and models:

Forty-Third Year’s Report of the Literary and Philosophical Society  Newcastle Upon Tyne, 1836 p.4

Further assistance from Paul led me to an architects drawing of the interior of the library from 1822, which has the apparatus room clearly marked.

Plan of interior of Lit and Phil Newcastle 1822  taken from the Reports, Papers & Catalogues of the Lit & Phil Society Newcastle upon Tyne 1822. Plus my eerily red fingers.
Plan of interior of Lit and Phil Newcastle 1822 taken from the Reports, Papers & Catalogues of the Lit & Phil Society Newcastle upon Tyne 1822. Anyone familiar with the building will see how the downstairs entrance looks similar, but once you pass the stairs the layout has dramatically changed. I think my talk this week would have been in the room on the left labelled Antiquary, so just a few feet away from the old Phrenological Society’s HQ.

In the wake of Combe’s lectures the Society grew very ambitious very quickly and under the Chairmanship of Alderman and Surgeon John Fife, went on to play an increasingly influential role in the North East’s criminal justice system. An influence that the Tory Newcastle Journal wanted to put in check.

Phrenology has long been understood as a ‘reform science’ and while this has recently been called into question, most notably by John Van Wyhe, there is one area of common consent in its study; namely that phrenologists shared a near universal opposition to capital punishment. Indeed, leading Criminologist Nicole Rafter goes so far as to state that, “curtailment of capital punishment in general was another legal reform that owed its success in part to phrenologists.” Rafter arguing that the phrenologists “dodged the full implication of their doctrine” by conceiving of “the brain as plastic, malleable and capable of change.”² However, in Newcastle’s case, this doesn’t appear to be so.

In April 1836, less than six months after the formation of the Phrenological Society a meeting was held, Chaired by Mr Alderman John Fife. His presentation was characteristic of many phrenologists, as it was singularly lacking in humility. By way of introduction, Fife presented his plans as being

 the most important and…feasible measure of practical utility that ever entered the imagination of any great public character.

Mr Alderman John Fife to the Newcastle Phrenological Society taken from the Newcastle Journal 30th April 1836. P.1

The plans were documented in the Newcastle Journal and were as follows.

We should memorialize (Prime Minister) Lord Melbourne to cause a bill to be passed, authorizing (sic) Commissioners to examine the head of every man, woman and child in the empire on the principles of phrenology. We know that those who have “combatitiveness” large have either already committed murder, or will do so if suffered to live. On the grand maxim, then, that it is better to prevent crime than to punish it, all such people should be at once consigned to the gallows and the gibbet. (Loud cheers)


Fife’s plans for pre-emptive capital punishment are nakedly deterministic and as such at odds with our understanding of the phrenological movement as abolitionist. The plans were submitted to the Prime Minister via phrenologist MP Joseph Hume and the Prime Minister’s reply was read at a reconvened meeting of the Society on April 26th, 1836. The Newcastle Journal reported that Hume described Fife’s plans as “the grandest ever conceived by mortal man” and went on, somewhat worryingly, to state that his views appear to have been initially shared by the Prime Minister who, Hume claimed, was “overjoyed…that the Government, of which his Lordship is the head, should be enabled to signalize itself by passing an act so memorable.” However, Lord Melbourne’s official reply was utterly damning, Hume stating that “you will however, observe from the enclosed note….that Lord Melbourne has seen reason to alter his opinion.” Hume believed the change of heart to have been brought about “by some of his unscrupulous colleagues” who had “wrought upon his sensitive nerves.” This is something of an understatement, Melbourne’s reply opening as it did.

 Upon reflection, I am astonished that any person, professing to be a supporter of my government, should have concocted so monstrous a scheme as that set forth in the memorial from the Phrenologists of Newcastle…I have therefore to beg of you to convey to the individuals alluded to, and more particularly to its author, Mr. Alderman Fife, the expression of my high displeasure at the mere contemplation of such a project.

Prime Minister Lord Melbourne’s reply to John Fife’s plans taken from the Newcastle Journal 30th April 1836. P.1

Prime Minister Lord Melbourne (PM 1834, 1835-41). Courtesy of
Prime Minister Lord Melbourne (PM 1834, 1835-41). Courtesy of

The shame and shock felt by Fife from Melbourne’s reaction was palpable and the Newcastle Journal’s report went on to state that Fife “slyly left the room” using the cover of another members speech to prevent his retreat “from being observed”. The piece ends stating that, “The assembly then broke up in most admired disorder never to meet again.”

Despite the Journal’s assertion, the Society did not cease in fact it grew in stature and influence. Indeed the following week the Journal “proffered a charge against Mr Ald.Fife in his magisterial capacity.” Citing a police report in the Tyne Mercury, the Journal asserted that while acting as a sitting magistrate, Alderman Fife was presiding over the case of William Perry, a sailor suspected of stealing some clothes. Attempts to find the stolen clothes having failed and “no further evidence being produced”, the Journal claimed that Fife had “taken the liberty of examining his head with regards to the PRINCIPLES OF PHRENOLOGY.” Fife is recorded as having told his fellow magistrates, regarding William Perry, “the Organ of Secretiveness was very fully developed and he had no doubt but that he was a VERY CUNNING FELLOW!”The Journal made their feelings very clear on the matter stating, “We can scarcely restrain our feelings in characterizing such matchless absurdity.”³

One peculiarity of the rise of the Newcastle Phrenologists is that it coincided with a dearth in executions in the North East. In Newcastle, 15 years passed, following the execution of Jane Jamieson in 1829 without an execution and in Durham, following William Jobling’s execution in 1832 there was a seven-year gap. It is with this execution though that I will finish. In August 1839 a Prussian Sailor, by the name of Jacob Frederik Ehlert was sentenced to death for the murder of his ship’s Captain, aboard a Prussian vessel that had been trading to the Port of Sunderland. The case excited much public interest owing to a widely held presumption that Ehlert himself was innocent and his fellow shipmate Mueller was guilty, but the talk of Ehlert’s innocence was in a new discourse; a phrenological one.

Ehlert and Mueller trial sketch taken from the Newcastle Journal 17th August 1839 p.3
Ehlert and Mueller trial sketch taken from the Newcastle Journal 17th August 1839 p.3

The Newcastle Journal’s report on the 17th August, 1839, of Ehlert’s execution carried a sketch of both Mueller and Ehlert side by side for comparison. They prefaced their extensive report with the statement “we are not phrenologists” however, “if we were, the configuration of the skulls as above represented, would have led us to reserve the decision of the jury, and to have affixed guilt rather on the boy Mueller.” They went on to assert that “These are…conjectures in which we dare not indulge” but their inclusion alone indicates the extent to which phrenological assertions had become de rigueur. In the conclusion of their report, the Journal noted that, “Previous to the interment of the prisoner, a cast of his head in stucco was taken, with permission of the governor of the gaol, for the Phrenological Society of Newcastle Upon Tyne.”

The following year the Phrenological Journal reported extensively on the case. Their results had been delayed due to a combination of a lack of the “needful illustrations” and being “very little inclined” to present their findings “when the vulgar part of the pubic is delighting itself with a “full, true, and particular account of a most horrid and barborous murder.(sic)” Their cast had been obtained through the “kind exertions of Dr.Cargill of Newcastle” and after much deliberation and detailing of the trial and evidence of both sides their conclusion was inconclusive stating of Ehlert’s innocence, “On this point we confess ourselves unable to reach any perfectly satisfactory conclusion.”5

Four years after its establishment, the assertions of the Newcastle Phrenological Society had become an accepted facet of the reporting of the criminal trial, even in the anti-phrenological, Tory, Newcastle Journal. The terms in which Elhert’s relative innocence were discussed in the press were indicative of the rapid rise and increasing acceptance of phrenological assertions in the region. Furthermore, at a time when medical access to the condemned corpse is commonly thought to have been curtailed by the Anatomy Act, John Fife and his Phrenological Society established in the Lit and Phil, gained free access to the heads of criminals and the executed and played an increasingly influential role in the development of the criminal trial report.


1. Robert Spence Watson, The History of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle Upon Tyne (1793-1896), 232.

2. Nicole Rafter, The Criminal Brain: Understanding Biological Theories of Crime (NYU Press, 2008), 56.

3. Newcastle Journal 2nd April 1836 p.2

4. Newcastle Journal 17th August 1839 p.3

5. Phrenological Journal 1840 p.74

Distraction 1: Haydn’s head
My Dad is frequently reading drafts or giving helpful suggestions for my papers and, as such, is even tipping me off on all things phrenological. He came across a note about the composer Joseph Haydn that led me to do a bit of investigating and eventually led to this radio 4 programme. I won’t spoil it as it’s a really fascinating story. Enjoy.

Radio 4: Hunting Haydn’s Head 

Distraction 2:

Reginald D Hunter
Reginald D Hunter

I haven’t made a television recommendation for a while and this is mainly due to my being engrossed in The Sopranos (I’m only 10 years behind everyone else). However, I did manage to catch a great programme on the songs of the American South, presented by Comedian Reginald D Hunter. I was lucky enough to review Hunter when I lived in Edinburgh and have always enjoyed his work and this programme covered a genre of music that I love. There was a particularly interesting section on death, when Hunter visited Knoxville, famous in the era for a very high murder rate. The artists interviewed where saying how the legacy of that dark side of Knoxville had fed into and influenced the music of the region. 

BBC iPlayer:Reginald D Hunter’s Songs of the South


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