Phrenology and Inmate Healthcare 


A phrenological diagram describing the location of different traits on the human skull (1)
A phrenological diagram describing the location of different traits on the human skull (1)

The pseudoscience of phrenology became an integral part of prison healthcare in the mid nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. Scientists, criminologists, and psychiatrists began to theorize that the shape of a person’s head directly correlated with their character and behavior. Phrenology asserted that the “brain is the organ of the mind…and without brain there is no manifestation either of feelings, or intellectual functions.” Earlier philosophers such as Hippocrates speculated that the brain controlled psychological properties, and phrenologists sought to understand this belief by providing scientific evidence. Specific portions of the skull were thought to control certain aspects of a person’s behavioral traits. Phrenologists believed the physical shape of the brain corresponded with physical bumps on the skull, and observing the external head could determine the internal mind.

Prior to the renaming of Sing Sing Prison, Eliza Farnham of Mount Pleasant Prison in Ossining, NY cited phrenology as an impetus to work with inmate populations. Scientists believed that careful analysis of the inmates’ physical characteristics might uncover a common criminal physique and allow for law enforcement to better apprehend the “criminal class.” Prison healthcare was approached from both a medical and scientific outlook, and inmates became research subjects. Cataloging the physical appearances and mannerisms of inmates upon their entry to the institution offered data suited for scientific inquiry.

General Phrenology

Phrenology “concerns the most important element in the nature of man: the manifestations of his affective and intellectual faculties.” A German physician, Dr. Franz Joseph Gall, developed phrenology in 1796. While studying anatomy as a medical student, Gall observed that classmates who were successful in memorization often had protruding eyes and began to connect the location in the brain with memory itself. The pseudo-science spread widely through Europe and the United States, where the American Phrenological Society was eventually established during the nineteenth century in New York City. Issues of race, gender, and the criminal class arose from the spread of phrenological research. Analyzing physical characteristics in order to establish a person’s intelligence led to a distinct separation between people with unique or uncommon appearances.

A phrenological diagram in Webster’s Dictionary. (2)

In order to examine a person’s phrenological features, the doctor or scientist was trained in the proper technique. The hands were used to gently feel the shape of the skull “with the inside of the fingers…as if [the scientist] loved [the patient].” For example, combativeness was believed to exist “behind the ear and above the mastoid bone.” “Destructiveness” was found inside the “helix of the ear.” Bumps or plumpness of a certain section of the skull alerted the examiner to a particularly strong behavioral trait.

Although this belief is relatively irreconcilable with modern medicine, certain notions of phrenology are still relevant today. Twenty-first century neurology asserts that different portions of the brain itself are responsible for controlling different aspects of a person’s capabilities, such as motor skills, memory, and even behavior. Amos Squire himself eventually concluded that no real correlation existed between the physical appearance of the person and their aptitude for criminal behavior.

Eliza Farnham: Sing Sing’s Pre-History

Mount Pleasant, later renamed Sing Sing Prison, detained women inmates as well as men for a brief period beginning in 1844. The matron of the women’s prison, Eliza Farnham, became interested in phrenology after reading the work of Franz-Joseph Gall. Within these essays, Gall described phrenological traits with reference to inmates in prisons and asylums. Crime was attributed to “the dominance or weakness of particular areas in the brain.” Farnham was interested in the potential for diagnosing and curing female prisoners of their criminal behavior. This sentiment continued throughout the nineteenth century as the idea of a “criminal class” developed: if scientists could determine the cause of criminal behavior, perhaps they could begin to lesson rates of crime.

Multiple diagrams from a scientific teaching manual on phrenology (3)
Multiple diagrams from a scientific teaching manual on phrenology (3)

Phrenology and Sing Sing Admission Records

Admission records from 1900 including detailed physical descriptions. (4)
Admission records from 1900 including detailed physical descriptions. (4)

According to the National Committee on Prisons in 1916, the purpose of a prison was uncovering the causes leading to criminal behavior in each individual. Physicians believed that conducting thorough physical examinations on incoming prisoners might offer insight to the cause of criminal behavior. In lieu of fingerprinting and portraits, written descriptions were recorded to identify prisoners. These admission records and the entrance examinations administered by the general physician were also modeled for phrenological research. Categories exceeded traditional identification to include minute details. The shape of the forehead, ears, eyebrows, mouth, nose, lips teeth, and general features were recorded with special attention to any scars or identifying marks.

A “practical knowledge of phrenology on the part of the…institution would [prevent] much deception on the part of the criminals.” By recording the shape and size of the facial features, the inmate was compared with others to determine any trends in data. Phrenology convinced physicians that certain head shapes were more likely to steal, commit violent crimes, or be deceitful. Creating physical identifiers for those who commit felonies allowed for a unique form of stereotyping based on supposed scientific research.

European scientists and penitentiaries employed similar tactics. A German professor wrote that phrenology can explain certain criminal motivations but causation is also rooted in the organs and “excitements.” The kinds of punishments given to inmates were modeled with the criminals “phrenological” record in mind in order to properly reform their behavior.

Written by Kathryn Ziegner

Image Citation

(1) People’s Cyclopedia of Universal Knowledge (1883).

(2) Webster’s Dictionary (1895).

(3) Manual of phrenology: being an analytical summary of the system of Doctor Gall (Carey, Lea, and Blanchard: Philadelphia, 1835), 262.

(4) Sing Sing Admission Records (1900).