Long before modern studies of the brain, phrenology claimed to have the power to determine who was afflicted with badness and who was suffering from madness.
When creating an image or picture of a criminal, scientists and criminologists are looking for a model of who is and who is not a criminal. Are lawbreakers anatomically similar? Do they constitute a class of people? In short, is there such thing as a criminal ‘type’?
Could a bump on the back of your head offer a clue to your character?
Bradley and O’Connor were responsible for one of the lesser known, but more spectacular outbreaks of bushranging in the early period of the Gold Rushes, and paid the ultimate penalty for their violent crimes.
Having murdered a man in cold blood, they piratically seized a boat in northern Tasmania, and crossed the Bass Strait, landing somewhere near Western Port. They then stole horses, held up travellers, and shot anyone who got in their way.
No one died, but that was through luck rather than judgement.
A different judgement
A phrenology chart. Heida Maria via Wikimedia Commons
After the execution, medical men descended on the corpses. They paid particular attention to the malefactors’ skulls, and the following day’s The Argus explained how “cerebral physiology” had revealed that both were, in effect, natural born killers.
O’Connor’s skull revealed that:
even if blessed by the controlling influence of a most powerful intellect instead of a very weak one, this would still have been a violent, murderous man.
Bradley’s case was worse:
Here … we have a person with all the passions and appetites of full-grown man, and controlling intellect of an average child — in fact a criminal idiot.
The newspaper concluded that the “pirate bushrangers”, as they had become known, “had not powers of self-control.” They were, in fact, “not so much criminals as state patients.”
“Their destination should have been the asylum not the gallows.”
In other words, they should have been treated rather than punished.
James BradleyLecturer in History of Medicine/Life Science, University of Melbourne 2014
In the nineteenth century, phrenology was hugely influential despite being totally invalid.
Phrenology, also referred to as crainology, is a theory of human behavior based upon the belief that an individual’s character and mental faculties correlate with the shape of their head.
In those days, the workings of the brain were largely unknown.
Feel the Bumps, Know the Man
Opponents of phrenology often referred to it as bumpology
But why did phrenologists think that bumps on your head might be so informative? Their enigmatic claims were based around a few general principles. Phrenologists believed the brain was comprised of separate “organs” responsible for different aspects of the mind, such as for self-esteem, cautiousness and benevolence.
They also thought of the brain like a muscle – the more you used a particular organ the more it would grow in size (hypertrophy), and less used faculties would shrink. The skull would then mould to accommodate these peaks and troughs in the brain’s surface – providing an indirect reflection of the brain, and thus, the dominant features of an person’s character Harriet Dempsey-Jones
Franz Joseph Gall
A German physician named Franz Joseph Gall in the late 1700s believed that an individual’s skull was the same shape as their brain and therefore reflected the characteristics of brain and thus the person.
He thought that regions of the brain corresponded to various personality traits and abilities. For example, if you are born with a gift for languages, that part of your brain will be well developed and mirrored in the shape of your skull.
He believed that bumps on the surface of the brain could be detected by feeling the bumps on the surface of an individual’s head.
After examining the heads of a number of young pickpockets, he found that many of them had bumps on their skull just above their ears. He then suggested that the bumps, indentations, and overall shape of the skull could be linked to different aspects of a person’s personality, character, and abilities. With his young pickpockets, for example, he suggested that the bump behind their ears was associated with a tendency to steal, lie, or deceive.
During the first half of the 19th century it offered a rational, scientific explanation for why people behaved in the way they did. After extensive study of criminals, most phrenologists agreed that some criminals were born bad, while others were made bad by life circumstances.
Phrenology is no longer regarded as a science but, in it’s day, it was on the cutting edge of brain science.
Is phrenology relevant today?
Phrenologists believed that bad or criminal behaviour was caused by defects in the brain. They broke with existing notions that bad behaviour was the result of “evil” or supernatural forces. They also disagreed with the idea that criminality was an exercise of the individual’s free will, something they chose freely to do and for which the only deterrent was severe punishment. Phrenologists believed habitual criminals were not necessarily responsible for their actions. Criminals behaved the way they did because of mental disorder(s) that could be addressed and treated.
It’s no coincidence that phrenologists were among the most vocal opponents of capital and corporal punishment and major proponents of rehabilitation in the middle of the 19th century.
Clarence Darrow, probably the most famous American trial attorney of all time, defended two young boys against the death penalty, arguing that the environment and biology had conspired against the boys, causing them to commit the crime. “Intelligent people now know that every human being is the product of the endless heredity back of him and the infinite environment around him.” Arguing to save the boy’s lives, he spoke for more than 12 hours, saying:
I do not know what it was that made these boys do this mad act, but I do know there is a reason for it. I know they did not beget themselves. I know that any one of an infinite number of causes reaching back to the beginning might be working out in these boys’ minds, whom you are asked to hang in malice and in hatred and injustice, because someone in the past sinned against them.
‘Punishment as punishment is not admissible unless the offender has had the free will to select his course.’
‘If you are unlucky enough to be the kind of person who commits crimes, you’ll have to be put away for it.’
Phrenology, make no mistake, was disproved and discredited by the 1840s but scientists, sociologists and the law courts are still battling with many of the questions raised by the phrenologists today. However, it has no basis in modern science.
Self-phrenology task – GCSE/L2 Criminology/science
Prepared by franticfrannie
Created: Jul 15, 2017
Natural born killers: brain shape, behaviour and the history of phrenology. James Bradley
Biological Theories of Crime. Criminal Justice
Phrenology. Public Criminology
Franz Joseph Gall & Phrenology Theory: Definition & Overview Sarah Collins
History of phrenology on the web. John van Wyhe
Criminal Phrenology. The NYC Criminal
Neuroscientists put the dubious theory of ‘phrenology’ through rigorous testing for the first time
January 23, 2018 by Harriet Dempsey-Jones, The Conversation