Anna Cora Mowatt and the Power of Phrenology

The Industrial Revolution lured more people into living more closely together in bigger cities than at any previous point in human history in Western Civilization. The dynamic economic structures of these cities provided opportunities for rapid movement in socio-economic standing for individuals. In rural settings, people who were born poor tended to die poor. Misfortune was possible, but people who were born wealthy tended to die wealthy. In the big cities of the new Industrial Age, however, a fortune could be accumulated or squandered in just a couple decades of one person’s lifetime.

When historians look back at this time period, we see a lot of evidence of anxiety about the degree of social instability these urban Victorians found themselves navigating. This anxiousness manifested itself in the popular culture of the day in outlets as diverse as sermon topics, letters to the editor, etiquette and self-help manuals, as well as the emerging popularity of “true crime” and horror novels. (For more on this topic, I recommend Karen Halttunnen’s excellent “Confidence Men and Painted Women.”) People were very unsure of this new type of “self-made” person of wealth and power. Who were they? Were they to be trusted? How were they going to exercise their new power?

Phrenology was what we would today call a “pop psychology” movement that promised to relieve all such uncertainty for anyone who could master its techniques. Like similar quasi-scientific methodologies still advertised in magazines and on the internet today, Phrenology said, yes, you can read a book by its cover. Adherents believed that characteristics of different areas of the brain had a direct correlation to an individual’s outward appearance – particularly the arrangement of their skull. To condense the method greatly, they believed you could look at a person’s head and know what quality of brain an individual had. Today we look back at their conclusions and are gob-smacked with amazement with how nakedly they let their prejudices about the inherent superiority of white, wealthy men of Northern European descent color their opinions about what the ideal moral and intellectual human being should look like.

Now, before we get too snarky about how ridiculous all this was, we need to remember that both neurology and psychiatry were in their infancy at this time. Like a lot of the popular psychology fads of today, Phrenology was an effort of laypeople to come to grips with new ideas about the brain and make paradigmatic shifts in their thinking about human psychology. Although they came to a lot of wrong conclusions and two hundred years of hindsight lets us see very clearly how racist, sexist, and classist they were being, the phrenologists are still fore-runners of our contemporary understanding of the mind and how it directs behavior. Phrenologists were early advocates for more progressive treatment for neuro-divergent and developmentally challenged individuals, seeing them as people whose brains “lacked balance” instead of people who inherently evil, untreatable, or demon-possessed. Many of those cures would not meet today’s standards of moral or ethical treatments. However this did represent a sea-change in attitudes towards this population.

Although the phrenologists believed the shape of our brains determined the shape of the face we showed the world, they did not believe that shape was immutable. The brain could be re-formed and re-balanced. One method advocated by the phrenologists for calming and balancing a brain was Mesmerism. This may have been how Anna Cora Mowatt came to the attention of the American Phrenology society. When she first appeared in their journal in 1857, enthusiasm for the movement was beginning to wane. No measurements of Mowatt’s head accompany the articles about her. Her phrenological analyses are based solely on conclusions drawn from observations of an engraving composed for the article and another done for Howitt’s Journal ten years earlier. In 1857, she had retired from the stage and was financially secure. She may have agreed to lend her name to the articles merely because of her interest in the tangentially related field of mesmerism or to boost sales for her books.

Men outnumbered women by about ten to one as subjects in the pages of phrenological journals. This imbalance was because phrenologists thought most women had underdeveloped foreheads and frontal lobes which indicated an inaptitude for the arts and sciences. It was more typical to see well-developed areas in the back of the head in women. This indicated a propensity for nurturing and superior moral facilities. These characteristics, though laudatory, were apparently not worth spilling a great deal of ink to praise. In the issues that I read, although the writers don’t devote a great deal of time to talking about specific women, they do talk about generic women rather often. They spend a good deal of time lecturing the reader about not letting young girls run wild, cautioning men to pay attention to the head shape of the young woman they select to marry, and debating the notion of beauty being skin deep at great length.

[Again, before we laugh off the foolishness of this bygone age, bear in mind that many segments of today’s pop psychology, modern psychiatry, and neurology are all still tenaciously clinging to the idea that women’s brains are somehow substantially different than men’s despite slim evidence that neuroscience has been able to generate to substantiate this claim.]

Mowatt appears as one of the rare examples of a female intellectual presented in these journals. Apparently once she gave her consent for the article to run, the material was available for the publication to use however they chose. Slight re-writes of the same article ran in publications from the American Phrenological Society I have been able to find from 1857, 1870, 1871, and 1887. In the 1887 remix of the original article, she appears side by side with Edgar Allan Poe as twin examples of the “Nervous” mental temperament. Characterized by “a relatively large brain, brilliant expression, pointed features, fine hair and texture of skin, and not very large muscles. This is a preeminently thinking disposition. It is found in those whose chief power lies in intellect and sentiment, not muscular force and endurance.”1

I find this remarkable, not only because of the emphasis on her intellectual capacity but because the description is applied to Mowatt and Poe equally without distinction between the two author/poets. The writer of the article seems very comfortable ascribing to Poe a feminine emotional sensitivity and granting Mowatt unusually muscular brainpower.

The analysis from 1857 also acknowledged Mowatt’s status as an intellectual, but does so in a manner that positions her achievements more in the realms where the phrenologists expected women to excel:

“In this portrait we see indications of a very active temperament, enthusiastic emotions, earnestness and determination of purpose, intensity of thought and feeling, heroic courage and restless energy. The social organs appear to be very large, hence her happiness is, to great extent, derived from her friendships and social relations, and she lives and labors for those she loves with as much pleasure as she does for herself. Self-reliance and the desire to triumph over obstacles are prominent traits of her character. Her tophead is well-elevated, and expansive, indicating that the moral organs, as a class are well developed. Hope, Veneration, Spirituality, and Benevolence appear large; hence she expects future good even when adversity presses most severely; is respectful towards person of age and superiority, and reveres whatever is sacred and venerable. Her mind has an affinity for the ethereal, the spiritual, the imaginative and romantic, and cherishes sympathy for suffering and kindness to all. Ideality appears large, and gives her mind an expansiveness and love of the poetical, the perfect, and the polished, which impart grace to her words and actions.”2

As you see, the analysist is emphasizing Mowatt’s gender-expected strengths as a Victorian female for nurturing, spiritual development, and moral rectitude as source for her abilities as a writer and poet as well as an explanation for her ability to bounce back from personal crises and professional setbacks. However, despite the Phrenologists’ reputation for not being able to acknowledge mental capacity on par with men in women, the writer of the article doesn’t equivocate when they say of Mowatt:

“Her forehead is prominent across the brow and through the center, which evinces great intellectual sprightliness, quickness, and accuracy of perception, a ready and retentive memory, clearness of thought, sharpness of criticism, knowledge of human character, and talent to represent it, together with readiness and opulence of language.”3

Perhaps Mowatt was being offered in these articles as the exception who proved the phrenology rules about women’s woefully backwards brains – an example to the rest of us to not run wild as young girls and properly re-balance our disordered heads through Mesmerism so that we too can have beauty that is more than skin deep.

What these articles do hint at was that Anna Cora Mowatt was a remarkable individual in a way that our records of her cannot quite capture. To her contemporaries, she was as unique and brilliant as Poe – and just as norm-breaking. She was lightening in a bottle. Today, if she lived in a time and place where she was fortunate enough to find outlets for even a third of her talents, we would consider her a creative powerhouse. She would be unstoppable. To the Victorians, she was a phenomenon – something uncanny to be studied and admired, but never quite understood.

Collage of Anna Cora Mowatt and Phrenology ads

1. The Phrenological Miscellany, or The Annuals of Phrenology and Physiognomy from 1865 to 1873 Revised into One Volume. New York: Fowler and Wells. 1887. pp. 187-188.
2. The American Phrenological Journal, A Repository of Science, Literature and General Intelligence. Vols. XXV and XXVI. New York: Fowler and Wells. pp 11-12.