Book Review: An Organ of Murder: Crime, Violence, and Phrenology in Nineteenth-Century America

AuthorAndreas Kuersten
Published date01 November 2022
Date01 November 2022
Subject MatterBook Review
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, 2022, Vol. 49, No. 11, November 2022, 1720 –1724.
Article reuse guidelines:
© 2022 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
Phrenology and Criminality
Thompson, C. E. (2021). An Organ of Murder: Crime, Violence, and Phrenology in Nineteenth-Century America.
Rutgers University Press. 259 pp, $28.95 paperback. ISBN 978-1-9788-1306-9.
At the turn of the 19th century, an innovative new mind ‘science’ emerged: phrenology.
In practice, it entails “reading the shape of the skull to interpret and predict powers of
mind and character” (p. 2). Though now an exemplar of pseudoscience, phrenology experi-
enced a brief but impactful heyday in the West in the 1800s.1 During this time, phrenolo-
gists ardently deployed their specialty to describe and forecast human psychology and
explain a bevy of social issues. Nothing, however, “caught their attention quite like criminal
vice” (Beshara, 2010, p. 37). Enter An Organ of Murder by Courtney Thompson, Assistant
Professor of History at Mississippi State University.
Professor Thompson received her doctorate in history from Yale University through the
Program in the History of Science and Medicine and has published extensively on medical
history and historical intersections of medicine, criminology, and criminal law. An Organ of
Murder is the culmination of her doctoral dissertation. In it, across six concise and lively
chapters, Professor Thompson charts the rise and fall of phrenology in 19th-century
America, phrenologists’ consistent “focus on the problem of crime and the criminal,” and
their intimate interactions with and influence on criminal legal thought and institutions
(p. 3). Her chief contentions are that phrenology was built on and around the study of incar-
cerated individuals, affected follow-on theories of crime, and continues to meaningfully
undergird prominent contemporary approaches to criminality. The first two claims are cred-
ibly supported; the third, less so. Nevertheless, the book has important implications for
modern criminology and criminalistics: it serves as a cautionary tale of a particularly mis-
guided ‘scientific’ search for homo criminalis.
Conceived by German physician Franz Joseph Gall, phrenology rests on the shrewd
insights that the brain is the core machinery of the mind and that mental functioning in the
brain is, to a meaningful extent, localized (Rose & Abi-Rached, 2013, p. 61). But Gall
asserted three further (problematic) premises: (1) the brain consists of “mental organs” with
distinct and consistent cerebral locations, each responsible for a specific mental faculty
(e.g., combativeness, cautiousness, wit, etc.); (2) the relative sizes of these organs in a per-
son indicate the strength or weakness of a given faculty and, thereby, individual cognitive
capacities and character; and (3) the contours of a skull can reveal the proportions of the
mental organs housed therein such that cranial shape conveys psychology (i.e., the skull is
a viewport to the mind). Those criminally inclined, for instance, allegedly possessed rela-
tively large “animal” or “selfish” organs (e.g., “destructiveness” and “acquisitiveness”) and
relatively small “moral” or “religious” organs (e.g., “benevolence” and “veneration”),
which predisposed them to offensive conduct (pp. 20–21).
1110452CJBXXX10.1177/00938548221110452Criminal Justice and BehaviorBook Review

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT