Monday, April 10, 2017

The Bumps On Your Head: The Phrenological Reading of Edward Billings

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

In 1861, Edward B. Billings had his head “read” by Prof. Orson Squire Fowler in Elmira. Fowler was a renowned phrenologist who published and lectured extensively on the pseudoscience. Phrenology, the study of what the physiology of peoples’ heads could reveal about their character and abilities, was all the rage in the early 19th century. Elmirans were familiar with phrenology so it makes since that Billings would have had his own reading done when Fowler came to town (Elmira had its own self-proclaimed phrenologist around the turn of the 20th century. You can read all about Professor Smokeball in my book Curiosities of Elmira).
The cover of Billings' handwritten reading
We have Billings’ phrenological reading in our archival collection, and let me tell you, it doesn’t disappoint. The report reads like a series of bizarre fortune cookie predictions that were allegedly based on the good professor’s expert findings. Fowler didn’t mince words and one has to wonder what Billings reaction was to the report (since it was preserved all of these years, he must not have minded too much). I’ve pulled some of the best excerpts below for your reading pleasure:  
You inherit your characteristics from your father’s mother. This in part also from your own mother and are consequently more sentimental and effeminate than powerful and need force more than any other quality.”

“Before you were born, your mother was rather weakly and has transmitted rather small and feeble vital organs to you and hence ought first and mainly to take special pains to supply yourself with force.”

“Tell your wife, from me, not to scold you for your never can love a scolding woman, and see to it that you marry one who praises all she can but blames none, and see to it further that you do not trifle with your affections for they are very hardy and will render you correspondingly happy when happy but miserable when miserable.”
“Are very fond of children, home, and friends, quite fond of the girls, should go into their society in a genteel way and cultivate gallantry. Should be especially careful not to allow affections to fasten except where they can remain.”

“Are very well adapted to traffic, particularly good in buying and selling, are calculated to get rich, are candid and frank; are a little vain, wanting in dignity to apt to play with boys beneath you; to much a recipient of character instead of an author of it.”

“Are best of all adapted to business but better adapted to take a business already established than establishing a new one.”

“Could make a good literary man if you had the brass but you have not.”
So was Professor Fowler right? For the most part, it’s impossible to tell how much of the report was nonsense (I’d wager a large part of it falls under that category). But, Billings did end up in the coal and wood business, so I guess the “buying and selling” and “adapted to business” bits rang at least a little true.

1 comment:

  1. never knew that there were people who did that sort of thing back in the day, today we have counselors, therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists who earn big bucks trying to figure out and help people !!