Saturday, August 6, 2011

Phrenology: The Law of the Land in Plainfield

While checking out the Plainfield Municipal Code—Chapter 10, Morals and Conduct—I was surprised to discover that Plainfield had a law on the books concerning  phrenology.*
Sec. 10:7-12.  Fortunetellers, soothsayers, palmists and phrenology.13
 13State law reference: As to fortunetellers, See N.J.S.A. 2A:170-7.
     (a)     No person shall advertise himself or herself as a clairvoyant, soothsayer, seer, physiognomist, palmist, fortuneteller, spiritualist, spirit medium, or phrenologist or charge or receive any fee, reward, gratuity or anything of value from any person as such clairvoyant, soothsayer, seer, physiognomist, palmist, fortuneteller, spiritualist, spirit medium or phrenologist.
    (b)     Such a person shall be considered a disorderly person under the statutes of the State of New Jersey.
(R.O. 1957, 10:4-4(b))

Phrenology dealt with skull measurements and involved feeling the skull to help determine one’s character traits and tendencies. Phrenology, now regarded as a pseudo-science, was very popular in the 19th century, and especially so during the antebellum era in America. It also captured the literary imagination of many Victorian-era British authors as well as 19th Century American writers such as Melville, Whitman, Twain. Some explored it with a degree of seriousness, while others (especially Mark Twain) found it ripe for ridicule and parody. 

Phrenology also bears some relation to the other pseudo-scientific racial theories that gained force in the 19th century and which still resonate in the form of eugenics and other 20th and 21st Century racialized speculations. *The statute prohibiting phrenologists (as well as soothsayers, clairoyants, seers, spirit mediums, et al) was repealed by the state back in 1979. Here is a link to the Wikipedia entry on Phrenology, which offers a comprehensive view, along with good links to primary source material. Enjoy!

All best,




Anonymous said...

. . . were fortune cookies banned?
hmmmm . . .

Prof. Williams said...

Hahahahaha--I just wonder!