How can good science be distinguished from bad? Philosophers of science call this the “demarcation problem.” Like most problems about distinguishing parts of spectra, sharp definitions are impossible, but from hazy borders it doesn’t follow that distinctions between extremes are useless. Twilight doesn’t invalidate the contrast between day and night. The fact that top scientists disagree about many things doesn’t mean that terms like pseudoscience, crank, and charlatan have no place in the history of science.

Naturally it takes knowledge to make sound judgments. Nineteenth-century Americans were mostly poor and untutored, and even the few who made it to college learned almost nothing about science. It is hardly surprising that the age, like earlier ages, swarmed with scientific claims easily recognized now as absurd. Arthur Wrobel, who teaches American literature at the University of Kentucky, is to be cheered for this long overdue study of the period’s bogus science, an anthology whose nine contributors range in fascinating, sometimes frightening, detail over most of the outrageous theories that bamboozled millions of our ancestors.

One might imagine that fringe scientists would be indifferent to social and political trends, but a surprising thing about the nineteenth century is that the opposite was true. It was a time of great millennial hopes. For conservative Christians hope lay in the return of Jesus, but for more enlightened Christians the Second Coming had become a symbol of humanity’s march—onward Christian soldiers!—toward liberty and justice. When Unitarian Julia Ward Howe opened her great hymn with “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” she was not speaking of the literal return of Christ but of the widespread expectation that the Civil War would hasten fulfillment of the American Dream. Abolition of slavery was only part of a larger complex of causes that included women’s rights, temperance, health, better treatment of criminals and the insane, elimination of poverty, and more compassionate government. All these humanitarian ideals found their way into the rhetoric of the fringe sciences.

Influences went also in the other direction. Reformers were as eager to rebel against mainline science, especially medical science, as they were to challenge the government. Many political radicals embraced one or more pseudosciences. Robert Owen, the Welshman who founded the socialist community at New Harmony, Indiana, in the 1820s, and his son, like another socialist, Upton Sinclair, in this century, became ardent spiritualists. This intermixing of social forces with fringe science makes Wrobel’s book much more than just a compendium of strange beliefs. His book is of special interest to historians of the period whether their concern is with science, literature, religion, or politics.

Robert Collyer, a now-forgotten mesmerist and phrenologist, is the subject of a contribution to Wrobel’s book by Taylor Stoehr, a professor of English. Stoehr sees Collyer as a prototype of the mad scientists who figure so prominently in the fiction of Hawthorne and Poe. Indeed, so many writers of the period were influenced by pseudoscience—Chapter 80 of Moby-Dick is devoted entirely to a satirical phrenological analysis of the white whale—that one of the book’s persuasive themes is that knowledge of fringe science is essential to understanding the century’s literature.

Collyer came to America in 1836 from England to become a traveling mesmerist. On the platform he would put his brother Fred into a trance. Then after Fred clairvoyantly diagnosed the ailments of spectators, Collyer would heal them with hypnosis. He also practiced painless dentistry, extracting teeth from dazed patients, their trances intensified by booze and opium.

Collyer claimed he was the first to unite mesmerism and phrenology. When he massaged the bump for “mirthfulness,” the mesmerized subject would burst into laughter. Fingering the bump for “tune” made the subject sing, and similarly for the other traits. Mesmerized patients were believed to have enhanced psychic powers. In England no less a scientist than Alfred Russel Wallace became a firm believer in what Collyer called “psychography”—a blend of mesmerism, phrenology, and ESP. In his 1899 book The Wonderful Century, Wallace tells of touching the outlined regions on a model head and seeing his mesmerized subject instantly make correct responses.

Phrenology spread from its Austrian founders Franz Gall and Johann Spurzheim, and their Edinburgh disciple, the barrister George Combe, throughout the US and fell into the hands of traveling mountebanks like Collyer. Orson Fowler and his brother Lorenzo were the most famous. Sometimes they would have themselves blindfolded. Orson would skull-read a group of strangers. Then when the same persons were randomly presented to Lorenzo, he would deliver identical readings. One suspects that simple conjuring methods—ranging from trick blindfolds to peeking down the side of the nose—were essential for these dramatic “proofs” of phrenology’s claims.*

The Fowlers later teamed up with a businessman to form Fowler and Wells, a Manhattan firm that booked hundreds of cranium readers around the country’s cities and hamlets. It quickly mushroomed into a vast publishing enterprise from which streamed hundreds of books on phrenology, hydropathy, and other fringe sciences. England’s prestigious Phrenological Journal lasted only about two decades, but Fowler and Wells’ American Phrenological Journal flourished from 1838 to 1911. Fowler and Wells published the first two editions of Leaves of Grass. So smitten was Walt Whitman by the wonders of phrenology that he scattered its phrases throughout his poetry—“O adhesiveness—O pulse of my life”—and proudly reproduced in his book a chart of his own head displaying the prominence of various admirable bumps.


It has been said that anyone foolish enough to believe in phrenology should have his head examined, and of course that is exactly what millions of people of all classes did in Europe, England, and America. Couples consulted phrenologists to decide if they should marry. Corporations demanded head examinations of prospective employees. New regions of the cranium were added until the count passed 150, with bumps for such traits as love of pets and desire to see ancient places. It is hard to believe, but phrenology even influenced American art, and Charles Thomas Walters, who teaches and writes on art, has a chapter to prove it. Phrenology Applied to Painting and Sculpture was one of George Combe’s most popular monographs.

Combe studied the heads of leading Renaissance painters to determine how their character influenced their work. Michelangelo’s skull, he concluded, shows traits that made his work less graceful than Raphael’s. To analyze Raphael, he actually had the artist’s tomb opened and plaster casts made of Raphael’s skull. Several American sculptors of the day, notably Thomas Crawford and Hiram Powers, put head-bumps on their statues to correspond with the character of their subjects. Crawford’s bust of Beethoven, now at the New England Conservatory of Music, shows a prominent “tune” bump in the forehead. Powers’s most famous statue, The Greek Slave, shows the woman’s forehead to be high in spirituality.

Electricity, newly discovered and utterly mysterious, seemed to underlie mesmerism, and did it not also carry information throughout the nervous system? It is easy to understand how it would be looked upon as a potent healing force. An amusing chapter by John Greenway, a professor of English, surveys the century’s infatuation with electric therapy. Publications bristled with stirring ads for electric belts, rings, garters, corsets, brushes (for both hair and teeth), even an electric cigarette. Greenway reproduces a marvelous Sears Roebuck ad for the “most powerful” electric belt made. It had detachable pouches for carrying a strong current to the genitals of both men and women. The current was said to stimulate potency as well as to relieve genital ailments. A New York quack cured syphilis by seating a male patient with his back against a metal plate and his scrotum suspended in whirling water. Plate and water were wired to a power source, making it hard to comprehend how the poor fellow escaped electrocution. As with all crank remedies, the placebo effect generated many testimonials of miraculous electrical healings.

Hydrotherapy, crisply covered by the historian Marshall Legan, goes back to ancient times, but the nineteenth-century craze was kicked off by Vincent Priessnitz, an uneducated Austrian farmer whose institute in Gräfenberg became an international success. Only cold water was used. The therapy involved baths, the winding of wet sheets around the body, enemas, douches, and water dripping on ailing parts of the body. Hydropathic physicians popped up everywhere. Institutes were founded. Fowler and Wells took over the Water-Cure Journal. Many who spent weeks, months, sometimes years in the fashionable cold-water spas that proliferated around the nation were unquestionably invigorated. It was more than the placebo effect. Alcohol, tea, coffee, tobacco, and spices were forbidden. Food was served cold. There were gyms for exercise and wooded areas through which to stroll. No doubt many felt healthier. The movement came to a crest about 1850, leaving a legacy in the form of whirlpool baths and the fondness for drinking natural spring water.

The life of Andrew Jackson Davis, America’s first famous psychic, is the subject of the historian Robert Delp’s article. Known as the Seer of Poughkeepsie, Davis started out as a devotee of Emanuel Swedenborg, the Swedish mystic whose wild religious fantasies were inexplicably admired by thinkers such as Emerson and the elder Henry James. When Davis was twenty, and in a trance, Swedenborg’s spirit dictated Nature’s Divine Revelations: The Principles of Nature, the first of Davis’s many heavy tomes. The Poughkeepsie Seer claimed extraordinary powers of clairvoyance. Believers paid him to gaze into their bodies, diagnose diseased organs, and prescribe weird remedies. His visions produced detailed accounts of intelligent humanoids on Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.


Delp’s opinion of Davis is curiously sympathetic. He says nothing about the seer’s blindfold performances (which leave little doubt that he was in part a charlatan), nothing about his spying on extraterrestrials, or the childishness of his metaphysics. Instead, Davis is praised for emphasizing the harmony of body and mind (a central notion of his masterwork, The Great Harmonia), for his “ready wit and perceptive understanding,” for his support of humanitarian reforms, and for his attacks on mediums who produced physical manifestations. Instead of seeing Davis as a clever crank, Delp finds his life “characterized by extraordinary personal growth and maturity,” and one that “epitomized the spirit of his age.” On the contrary, Davis’s primitive occultism and crude psychic demonstrations were aberrations. Even in its heyday spiritualism had a smaller following than Christian Science or Seventh-Day Adventism, not to mention the all-pervasive fundamentalism of mainline churches.

Harold Aspiz, another English professor, has written the book’s drollest chapter—a survey of offbeat speculations about sex. Conservative preachers recommended strict monogamy, but cult leaders like George Rapp, who ran an Adventist colony at Harmony before Robert Owen took over the town, recommended total celibacy (the sect soon disappeared). The Fowler brothers had strong opinions about sex. They argued that electrical energy was released during orgasm, and that the longer a man conserved this energy, the more vigorous would be his copulation, and the finer his offspring. Women were said to become sexually aroused only when they passionately wanted a child, and for this reason husbands were urged never to force lovemaking.

Eugenics was favored by large numbers of pseudoscientists as a way to weed out undesirables and strengthen the nation. John Humphrey Noyes, a socialist and eugenicist who ran the Oneida community in central New York, distinguished between the phrenological traits of propagativeness and amativeness. Members of the colony could engage in as much amative play as they liked, with anybody, provided they blocked pregnancy with coitus reservatus. Alice Stockham, in a system she called Karezza, also campaigned for prolonged copulation without climax. Ezra Pound, Aspiz tells us, along with his “heavy burden of pseudoscientific baggage,” also believed that conserving semen increased mental powers, in turn boosting a nation’s racial destiny.

George Hendrick, another professor of English, gives a colorful account of Washington Irving’s illnesses and their treatment by a homeopath. After water cures, bleeding, and leeching failed him, he turned to homeopathy, the century’s chief rival to orthodox medicine. Its shibboleth was “like cures like.” If a drug produced symptoms of a disease, then that drug in infinitesimal amounts—the more minute the dose the greater its potency—would cure the disease. Thousands of compounds were tested and listed in the cult’s many materia medicas, all innocuous because of their extreme dilution, often to just a few molecules, sometimes to none at all. Homeopathy began its downward slide when orthodox medicine developed statistical techniques for evaluating remedies, but old cults seldom die completely. Homeopathy is now making a comeback among New Age junkies.

Robert Fuller, a professor of religion, skillfully sketches the history of mesmerism. The founder, Franz Mesmer, was a German occultist (surprising that so many of the nation’s pseudosciences were European imports) who believed that a force called “animal magnetism” flowed from the mesmerist’s hands into the subject’s brain. Like Wilhelm Reich, whose orgone therapy was one of the funnier follies of the present century, Mesmer was convinced he had discovered the fundamental energy of the universe. Fuller sees mesmerism as America’s first popular psychology, one that played a role in the emergence of experimental psychology as a discipline distinct from moral philosophy, and in Freud’s infatuation with the unconscious.

Wrobel, in his introduction, afterword, and a chapter on phrenology, rightly makes much of the fact that pseudoscience was far from confined to the poor and ignorant. “I look upon phrenology as the guide to philosophy and handmaiden of Christianity,” declared the noted educator Horace Mann. Horace Greeley wanted all railroad engineers to have their skulls examined for the sake of safety. In England, George Eliot had her head shaved twice for more accurate analysis. Among educated people, enthusiasm for fringe science was largely confined to persons outside the scientific community. Their respect for science was unbounded but their classical education provided them with little comprehension of the need for extraordinary evidence to support extraordinary claims.

The list of notables who took water cures and who shared Irving’s faith in homeopathy is very long indeed. Spiritualism won its most distinguished converts in England and Europe; they included several leading physicists and astronomers, and writers as famous as Yeats, Conan Doyle, and Elizabeth Browning. In America James Fenimore Cooper, Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Cullen Bryant, and scores of political leaders became believers.

Homeopathy and hydropathy seemed to have firmer empirical support than orthodox medicine. In the first half of the century mainline medicine was more like astrology than science, favoring remedies that Wrobel summarizes as “blistering, puking, purging, cupping, bleeding, and poisonous doses of mercury and arsenic.” At least the effects of electric currents, homeopathic doses, and cold water were harmless. All true, but when Wrobel says of fringe scientists that “by nineteenth-century standards their empiricism was beyond reproach,” I must demur.

Although standards of science then were far lower than they are today, especially in medicine, the century was not without scientists who saw clearly how shaky the fringe claims were. Benjamin Franklin ridiculed the notion that mesmerism was anything more than psychological suggestion. Physician Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote blistering and accurate attacks on homeopathy and hydropathy. There were plenty of orthodox scientists around who had a good grasp of scientific methods, but like mainline scientists today they preferred not to squander valuable time opposing what they saw as nonsense. It is not easy to find establishment scientists of the period who tumbled for fringe claims.

It seems to me that Wrobel also over-does the extent to which fringe scientists were right. It doesn’t credit phrenology with much to say that it pioneered measurements of the cranium (as if physical anthropologists would not soon have gotten around to it), or that parts of the brain have specialized functions. Nor am I impressed by statements that a few homeopathic drugs later proved useful. Of thousands of homeopathic remedies, it would have been remarkable if all were worthless; moreover, they really were worthless in their extreme dilutions. I see the merits of pseudoscience less in its trivial anticipations of later science than in the way it encourages the pursuit of all leads no matter how bizarre, and in the fact that the refutation of false claims not only enlightens everybody; it often opens new paths to significant discoveries.

No anthology can cover everything, but perhaps it is worthwhile to mention some American pseudosciences not covered in the book: ignorant attacks on evolution and on the inferiority of non-Caucasians, physiognomy (reading character from facial features: William James took it with great seriousness), above all osteopathy and chiropractic. Osteopaths have since abandoned the crazy doctrines of Andrew Still, their founder, and half of today’s chiropractors are now little more than physical therapists, but in the past century both groups attributed all diseases to imaginary “subluxations” of the vertebrae—a medical delusion as unsupported by evidence as homeopathy. Spiritualism, on the other hand, seems to me more a fringe religion than pseudoscience. It claimed empirical support, but no less so than Christian Science or Theosophy.

None of the book’s writers considers the question of whether Americans today are more or less gullible than their forebears. My own opinion is that the gullibility of the public today makes citizens of the nineteenth century look like hard-nosed skeptics. A larger fraction of Americans now go to college, science has made astounding strides, popular books and magazines about science abound, and big newspapers have first-class science editors. The result? Almost every newspaper runs a daily horoscope, and astrology books, like books about crank and sometimes harmful diets, far outsell books on reputable science. A Gallup survey in 1986 found that 52 percent of American teen-agers believe in astrology and 67 percent in angels. A 1974 poll by the Center for Policy Research in New York reported that 48 percent of American adults are certain that Satan exists and 20 percent more think his existence probable. Electric belts are out but crystal power is in. Time-Life is vigorously promoting a set of lurid volumes about paranormal powers. Mesmerism now stimulates memories of past lives, and the recall of being abducted by aliens from outer space. The most preposterous book ever written about UFO abductions, Intruders, by Budd Hopkins, was published last year by Random House, with full-page ads in The New York Times Book Review. Acupuncture charts show paths of energy-flow as nonexistent as the paths of similar flow on chiropractic charts. The Hite Report and treatises on the “Gspot” are as comic as any sex manual of the past century. Spiritualism is back in full force in the form of trance channeling, and Shirley MacLaine has become richer and more influential than Madame Blavatsky ever was.

There is an amusing error on page 226. We are told that in 1933 J.B. Rhine, the father of experimental parapsychology, earned the first doctorate in psychical research ever given by an American university. Dr. Rhine obtained his Ph.D. in 1925, at the University of Chicago, with a thesis in botany titled “Translocation of Fats as Such in Germinating Fatty Seeds.” If fatty seeds are taken as symbolic of fat-headed delusions, in part translocated from the nineteenth century, they are germinating as never before throughout the land.

This Issue

March 17, 1988