Everyone had their head examined in the 19th century. Phrenologists read the heads of common people and famous people, from President Ulysses S. Grant and poet Walt Whitman to nurse and Red Cross founder Clara Barton. Even Mark Twain, who was never quite sure what to make of phrenology.
Visiting London in 1873, Mark Twain saw an advertisement for the services of a fellow American who had hung his shingle on Fleet Street. Inspired and not a little skeptical, Twain appeared under a fictitious name in the offices of Lorenzo Niles Fowler, “practical phrenologist.”
Phrenology wasn’t new to him. It had captured the imagination of millions of Americans and made everyone a little head conscious. Twain remembered the itinerant phrenologists from his years in Hannibal, Missouri, giving demonstrations and offering advice.
Entering, Twain “found Fowler on duty, amidst the impressive symbols of his trade…all about the room stood marble-white busts, hairless, every inch of the skull occupied by a shallow bump, and every bump labeled with its imposing name, in black letters.”
Twain paid Fowler for a reading. It’s not clear whether he attempted to disguise his physical appearance or if he at least chose to wear something other than his trademark white suit. Either way, Fowler gave no indication that he recognized Twain.
The reading was fairly typical, a balanced stew of mostly generic, positive traits, save for one spot particularly galling to the famed humorist. “[H]e found a cavity, in one place; a cavity where a bump would have been in anyone else’s skull,” recalled Twain. “He startled me by saying that that cavity represented the total absence of the sense of humor!”