Collecting History: Phrenology and the Case of Major Mitchell

(CONTENT WARNING: The following blog post contains descriptions of violence. Reader discretion is advised.)

Franz Joseph Gall, the founder of phrenology (from nps.gov)

In 1834, a nine-year old boy in Durham, Maine named Major Mitchell committed a horrific crime on his eight-year old classmate, David Crawford. On a Monday when classes were not in session, Major had somehow convinced David to go with him to a pasture, even after Major had been taunting the younger boy with names. His intention, Major admitted, was to kill David. Why? He didn’t know.

Although the initial fight was broken up by a neighbor, while on his way home, David was again attacked on the road by Major who got him into the woods where he was beaten again (for a more detailed account of this very violent ordeal, click here). The attack lasted several hours until Major suddenly decided he didn’t want to be caught by the neighbor who had broken up the original fight, so he let David go.

The Fowler brothers: Lorenzo Niles and Orson Squire popularized phrenology in the United States in the 1830s and were responsible for the “head reading craze.” (from findagrave.com and wikiwand.com)

A Portland lawyer, literary critic, and avid advocate for phrenology named John Neal involved himself in Major’s defense. Phrenologists believed phrenology was “the only science of the mind” capable of explaining a person’s capability – or character – by the enhanced portions of the brain; they called these sections of the brain “organs.” As the skull takes shape around the brain, its surface becomes an index of a person’s physiological tendencies, according to phrenologists, via “bumps.” It should be noted, phrenologists only looked to confirm their own theories – a form of “confirmation bias” – and explained away any contradictions.

Scientist Isaac Ray. Ray founded forensic psychiatry in America and was a founding member of the American Psychiatric Association in 1844 (from aapl.org).

Neal befriended the boy and sought the help of scientist Isaac Ray, who was then interested in phrenology, and others who took phrenological measurements of Major’s head. In his writings, Ray revealed he could clearly see Neal had an interest in advancing phrenology as a credible science through the Major Mitchell case. In fact, Neal had read Major’s account of the attack – which remained consistent, even when told verbally – but considered it unreliable based on Major’s detached demeanor when repeating it; to counter this, he looked for physical reasons to explain why Major had such violent tendencies. Perhaps young Major had received an injury to the head at some point?

Nancy Plummer, Major’s mother confirmed that at only one week old, the boy had taken a fall off a high chest of drawers causing swelling to his head (why a one-week old baby was put atop of a high chest is another mystery). Ms Plummer blamed this event on her son’s aggressive behavior as he grew up. Neal deduced: if a small child is not responsible for falling on its head, it is not responsible for the consequences that follow; and if the attack on David was a consequence of Major’s head injury, then the boy couldn’t be legally responsible.

A phrenological sketch of Major Mitchell (from jaapl.org).

For the plea hearing, Neal had casts made of Major and his mother’s head to compare the differences: normal versus flawed. Isaac Ray and other phrenology experts testified, although their testimonies and measurements contradicted each others’ findings. The only link between all of them was the “organ” of the brain thought to be responsible for “destructiveness” located above the ears. In Major’s skull, they said, this area was quite accentuated.

Although Major Mitchell himself chose to plead guilty at the hearing, the plea was not accepted due to Neal’s self-appointment as his counsel. Earlier, he had advised Major not to plead guilty. As the trial moved forward, Neal prepared his case based on using phrenology for the first time in court by proving injury to the head. However, Major’s mother refused to be involved and doctors, who were not experts in phrenology, provided the expert medical testimony about the two boys. Neal was so determined to make his case using phrenology that he discounted other reasons for Major’s uncontrollably violent actions. For example, could the boy have had some congenital defect? Were there other disturbances?

Phrenology was used to support stereotypes about certain types of people (from Country Roads Magazine).

In the end, the judge refused to allow phrenological testimony based on the study being mere “theories” that had no place in front of a jury. The judge instructed the jury to discount any information they had heard based on phrenology and instead focus on the following: at the time of the assault, did Major Mitchell know right from wrong? The jury determined he did. Major Mitchell was found guilty and sentenced to nine years hard labor.

The case of Major Mitchell is fascinating. It marked the first time in United States history that a defendant’s attorney sought leniency based on there being a defect with a client’s brain. Or, another way of looking at it, the first time a form of “psychiatric” testimony was used in court, even if it was the pseudoscience of phrenology.

Phrenologists used sketches like these to reinforce racial stereotypes (from Crania America).

By the beginning of the 20th century, phrenology started losing support due to its inconsistent and weak methods of proving findings, as well as its use by certain classes of people to reinforce pre-existing stereotypes about humans who were not Caucasians. In today’s courts, we see more and more psychology-based forensic evidence brought before juries to determine whether a defendant is mentally fit to stand trial. It is interesting to speculate what would have happened if the Major Mitchell case were brought to court today. You think he would have stood a better chance?

Speaking of Major Mitchell, accounts have him turning up in his hometown around 1870, married and working as a farm laborer. There is no record to indicate whether the areas above his ears settled down or not.

If you would like more information on how psychiatry is used in legal cases, including the Mitchell case, visit the website of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law here: https://www.aapl.org/

Click below for a fun short film from 1936 about phrenology by British Pathe called “Just Bumps.” The title alone should entice you!

Below is our introductory video to phrenology featuring Villa Finale’s own original Fowler phrenology head.