The Phrenology of Rev. Samuel Aaron

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An illustration from Rev. Aaron’s booklet

In the nineteenth century, many believed that an individual’s character was reflected in the shape of his or her brain.  By examining the shape of the skull, a person’s whole personality could be understood.  Known “phrenology,” this idea has been debunked today, but back then it was serious science.

The Historical Society of Montgomery County has a few examples of phrenology exams, including one of Rev. Samuel Aaron, a well known minister and educator in mid-nineteenth-century Norristown.

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The report was made in 1838.  It’s a printed booklet, in which the phrenologist, W. B. Elliot recorded numbers corresponding to the size (or “development”) of each segment of Rev. Aaron’s head. Elliott was a prominent phrenologist who ran the Phrenological Institute and Museum in Philadelphia, which was founded by the O. S. Fowler who wrote the booklet.

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Here are two sample pages from the booklet.  The handwritten numbers on the side correspond to the size of that segment of Aaron’s skull – the larger the number, the larger the section (seven is the highest).  At the bottom of one page, Elliot wrote, “Never see larger benevolence.”

Overall the report says Aaron is idealist, loving, hopeful, and not acquisitive.  How did that play out in his life?

As I said, Aaron was well known in Norristown.  In fact, he was so well known and respected that a collection of his sermons and correspondence was published in Norristown in 1890, twenty-five years after his death.  He was minister of the Baptist Church and famous for his sermons and speeches.  He was an abolitionist and involved in the local Underground Railroad.  One student reported that the reverend once handed all his money over to a runaway slave heading North.  He spoke out so strongly against liquor that two taverns keepers once attacked him with horsewhips.

in 1844 he left ministry and founded Treemount Seminary, a boarding and day school for boys, which would educate many of Norristown’s prominent young men.

Unfortunately, his benevolence was not coupled with financial savvy.  The Panic of 1857 hit Norristown hard.  Aaron had borrowed heavily to open Treemount, and his creditors took over the school in 1857 when he could no longer pay the interest on all the loans.  The reverend and his family left Norristown in 1859 when he returned to ministry at a Baptist Church in Mount Holly, NJ.  He died there in April of 1865, hours after hearing of Lee’s surrender.

He never recovered financially, and “Norris” (or Edward Hocker) wrote in the Times-Herald that his four daughters were left in penury.  In 1888, neighbors discovered that two had died of starvation and the remaining two were seriously ill.  The help of the two neighbors managed to save the remaining sisters.

Phrenology is certainly a pseudoscience, but in this case, it seems to have hit the mark

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