October 1988

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Mark Twain and the Fowlers


Marion Sauerbier

Phrenology 1. The theory that the mental powers of the individual consist of independent faculties, each of which has its seat in a definite brain-region, whose size is commensurate with the power of manifesting this particular faculty. This theory, which originated at the close of the eighteenth century, assumes, moreover, as an essential part, the plasticity of the cranial envelop, by which the skull conforms externally, in the normal subject, to the shape and configuration of the brain within, so that its form and faculties may be determined, with sufficient exactness, from the skull itself, whether in the skeleton or in the living person. . . .
—The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia, 1895

The theory that the faculties of the mind and the attributes of personality are localized in the brain and are discernible by examining the shape of a person's head is not very widely believed today. But from the 1840s until after the turn of the century there were many adherents to phrenology and many celebrated people had their character described by a traveling practitioner or went to a regular office such as the Fowlers maintained in New York and other cities for many years. Writers (Bryant, Whittier, Whitman), editors (Greeley, Dana, Bok, Curtis) musicians, and even philosophers had phrenological readings.

Emerson wrote that while it was "coarse and odious to scientific men," phrenology " had a certain truth in it; it felt connection where the professors denied it, and was a leading to a truth which had not yet been announced."

Mark Twain had his head read by the Fowlers a number of times and he recalled in his writing his first recollections of the traveling phrenologists:

In America, forty or fifty years ago, Fowler . . . stood at the head of the phrenological industry. . . One of the most frequent arrivals in our village of Hannibal was the peripatetic phrenologist and he was popular and always welcome. He gathered the people together and gave them a gratis lecture on the marvels of phrenology, then felt their bumps and made an estimate of the result, at twenty-five cents per head. I think the people were almost always satisfied with these translations of their characters—if one may properly use that word in this connection; and indeed the word is right enough, for the estimates really were translations, since they conveyed seeming facts out of apparent simplicities into unsimple technical forms of expression, although as a rule their meanings got left behind on the journey. Phrenology found many a bump on a man's head and it labeled each bump with a formidable and outlandish name of its own. The phrenologist took delight in mouthing these great names; they gurgled from his lips in an easy and unembarrassed stream, and this exhibition of cultivated facility compelled the envy and admiration of everybody. By and by the people became familiar with these strange names and addicted to the use of them and they batted them back and forth in conversation with deep satisfaction—a satisfaction which could hardly have been more contenting if they had known for certain what the words meant.

In later years when Lorenzo Fowler had an office on Fleet Street in London, Twain wrote again about phrenology:

I made a small test of phrenology for my better information. I went to Fowler under an assumed name and he examined my elevations and depressions and gave me a chart which I carried home to the Langham Hotel and studied with great interest and amusement—the same interest and amusement which I should have found in the chart of an impostor who had been passing himself off for me and who did not resemble me in a single sharply defined detail. I waited three months and went to Mr. Fowler again, heralding my arrival with a card bearing both my name and my nom de guerre. Again I carried away an elaborate chart. It contained several sharply defined details of my character, but it bore no recognizable resemblance to the earlier chart. These experiences gave me a prejudice against phrenology which has lasted until now. I am aware that the prejudice should have been against Fowler, instead of against the art; but I am human and that is not the way that prejudices act. . .
When I encountered Fowler's advertisements in London . . . I went to him under a fictitious name. . . I found Fowler on duty, in the midst of the impressive symbols of his trade. On brackets, on tables, on shelves, all about the room, stood marble-white busts, hairless, every inch of the skull occupied by a shallow bump, and every bump labeled with its imposing name, in black letters.
Fowler received me with indifference, fingered my head in an uninterested way and named and estimated my qualities in a bored and monotonous voice. He said I possessed amazing courage, an abnormal spirit of daring, a pluck, a stern will, a fearlessness that were without limit, I was astonished at this, and gratified, too; I had not suspected it before; but then he foraged over on the other side of my skull and found a hump there which he called "caution.' This bump was so tall, so mountainous, that it reduced my courage-bump to a mere hillock by comparison, although the courage-bump had been so prominent up to that time—according to his description of it—that it ought to have been a capable thing to hang my hat on; but it amounted to nothing, now, in the presence of that Matterhorn which he called my Caution. He explained that if the Matterhorn had been left out of my scheme of character I would have been one of the bravest men that ever lived—possibly the bravest—but that my cautiousness was so prodigiously superior to it that it abolished my courage and made me almost spectacularly timid. He continued his discoveries, with the result that I came out safe and sound, at the end, with a hundred great and shining qualities; but which lost their value and amounted to nothing because each of the hundred was coupled up with an opposing defect which took the effectiveness all out of it.
However, he found a cavity, in one place; where a bump would have been in anybody else's skull. That cavity, he said, was all alone, all by itself, occupying a solitude, and had no opposing bump, however slight in elevation, to modify and ameliorate its perfect completeness and isolation. He startled me by saying that that cavity represented the total absence of the sense of humor! He now became almost interested. Some of his indifference disappeared. He almost grew eloquent over this America which he had discovered. He said he often found bumps of humor which were so small that they were hardly noticeable, but that in his long experience this was the first time he had ever come across a cavity where that bump ought to be.
I was hurt, humiliated, resentful, but I kept these feelings to myself; at bottom I believed his diagnosis was wrong, but I was not certain. In order to make sure, I thought I would wait until he should have forgotten my face and the peculiarities of my skull, and then come back and try again and see if he had really known what he had been talking about, or had only been guessing. After three months I went to him again, but under my own name this time. Once more he made a striking discovery— the cavity was gone, and in its place was a Mount Everest—figuratively speaking—31,000 feet high, the loftiest bump of humor he had ever encountered in his life-long experience! I went from his presence prejudiced against phrenology, but it may be . . . that I ought to have conferred the prejudice upon Fowler and not upon the art which he was exploiting.

But once again on March 7, 1901, Mark Twain went again to a Fowler; this time, Jessie, the daughter of Lorenzo. She had come back from London to take over the family business in New York. The April 1, 1901, issue of the Phrenological Journal carried Jessie Fowler's observations:

Mark Twain
The World's Greatest Humorist
Twenty Reasons Why We Say So
If all the doubters of the truth of Phrenology had accompanied us the other day when we had the great privilege of examining Mr Clemen's head, they would, I think, have realized why there can never be a second Mark Twain, and would have agreed with us that there are reasons why he has made an indelible impression upon the public and, further, why other men who are equally humorous and funny will never be as great as he.
Mark Twain is really a very serious man. . . He says the most serious things in a way which is humorous. . . He does not write to make you laugh, but to make you think, and uses humor as a vehicle. . His popularity is not due to the humor of his writings, but to the undercurrent of serious thought to which the subordinating humor gives expression. . . His moral brain largely dominates over the remainder of his faculties, hence he is capable of suffering acutely through the influence of his Benevolence and Conscientiousness, while Hope and Veneration are the least developed faculties in this group. . . There is a remarkable fullness around the upper portion of the forehead, and a little on the lateral portion, which we do not always find. Jefferson has a square forehead, and is humorous . . . but Mark Twain, though he has a similar development of Mirthfulness, shows a deeper, more intellectual force of mind, literary criticism, and an ethical sentiment in his writings which we do not find in others who have written in the same vein. . . His sympathies are very strong, and he must have suffered considerably by and through their expression. He is a believer in humanity, and is tender toward those who are oppressed; he is a reformer at heart, and many of his remarks have been aimed against abuses and snobbishness. . The key-note of his character is his Conscientiousness. His ability to act as a citizen for other citizens—as every citizen should act for his neighbor.
© 1988, Marion Sauerbier
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