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Getting a head

by Alexandra Roginski, 9 December 2015

Alexandra Roginski gets a feel for phrenology’s fundamentals.

Ned Kelly death mask
Ned Kelly death mask, date unknown an unknown artist after Maximilian Kreitmayer

In the hours after Ned Kelly was hanged at the Melbourne Gaol in November of 1880, the owner of a popular waxworks museum stooped over his head to create the mould for the famous death mask. This object, depicting a Kelly shorn of his beard, today embodies the 19th century interest in criminal type, and the anatomical clues that doctors, scientists, and advocates of social reform tried to glean from measuring head shape. It also stands in for Kelly’s skull, which was separated from the rest of his remains and never recovered, a pawn in the period’s fascination with the collection of crania for analysis and display. 

The phrenologist Archibald Sillars Hamilton published his analysis of the death mask in the Melbourne Herald within days of the execution, feeding a public fascination with the fate of the bushranger. The skull was remarkable, he wrote. 'There is not one head in a thousand of the criminal type so small in caution as his, and there are few heads among the worst which would risk so much for the love of power.'

Hamilton, a bombastic Scotsman aged in his early sixties, had positioned himself at the centre of the protest movement against Ned Kelly’s execution, even accompanying Kate Kelly and other supporters to meet with the Governor to plead for a last-minute reprieve. In death, Ned Kelly provided Hamilton with a platform for preaching the anti-capital punishment values of the contested science on which he had built his career as a showman. 

Devised at the very end of the 18th century by Viennese physician Franz Joseph Gall, phrenology arrived in Australia by 1829, when the short-lived Australian Phrenological Society was born in Sydney. Phrenology soon forged a position as a reform science debated at the highest levels of colonial politics, and also as a moral philosophy that aligned with 19th century values of self-improvement. Its practitioners claimed that, by identifying inherent strengths and weaknesses, one could position him or herself for the greatest success. 

Phrenologists believed that the exterior of the skull directly reflected the surface of the brain, which itself comprised a multitude of organs responsible for functions ranging from love of children to religiosity, concentration, and social sympathy. Gall identified 27 such 'organs' within the brain, which - aside from a few coincidences - bear little similarity to the actual functionality of the brain as we know it today. The exterior of the head was mapped with the characteristic sections of the head that continue to symbolise this practice. 

And while today we might term phrenology a 'pseudoscience', it was in fact the subject of hot academic debate among doctors, anatomists and naturalists for much of the 19th century. 

Scottish lawyer George Combe was arguably phrenology’s greatest populariser. He expanded the system to include 35 organs, and penned the Constitution of Man Considered in Relation to External Objects, a book that adapted phrenology into a moral philosophy, and which - according to historian of science Roger Cooter - sold more copies during the 19th century than Darwin’s On the Origin of Species

Meanwhile, in the US, the Fowler family commercialised phrenology into an empire that centred on a prolific printing press that also advocated reformist causes ranging from anti-corsetry to the virtues of octagonal housing. It was the Fowlers who designed and manufactured the iconic porcelain phrenological heads that inhabit dusty shelves in curiosity shops today. Within this American milieu, explains art historian Charles Colbert, artists such as the painter William Sidney Mount and the sculptor Hiram Powers explored principles of phrenological composition in their portraiture. 

For phrenologists, the greatest prizes were heads that differed from the middling European type. Intellectuals such as composer Joseph Hayden, or even the phrenological superstar Johann Gaspar Spurzheim (sometime assistant and dissector to Gall), found themselves posthumously cut up and analysed. At the other end of the spectrum, criminal skulls and remains of non-European races were collected and shown as demonstrations of aberrance. Wax museums such as that operated by Maximilian Kreitmayer (who took Ned Kelly’s death mask) titillated the public with lifelike representations of celebrity criminals, and an economy of plaster casts also emerged to service the popular science. 

During the Victorian era, droves of phrenologists appeared in the Australian colonies. Enthusiasts ranged from low-level 'bump readers' that even other phrenologists did not take seriously, to administrators with interest in social reform such as Alexander Maconochie, superintendent of the penal colony of Norfolk Island between 1840 and 1844. Successful lecturers such as Hamilton displayed skulls and demonstrated on live subjects to fulfil the period’s entertainment genre of 'rational amusement'. Others offered divination from stalls in arcades or markets. 

This was science accessible to anybody who could pick up a book or attend courses at one of the many mechanics’ institutes that peppered Australian towns and cities during the period. Through the power of touch and observation, a practitioner could claim to offer insights into the most intimate secrets of the human mind, and assume the social authority of a scientist, often acquiring the title of 'Professor'. It became so popular here that, by the end of the 19th century, authors could casually drop phrenological terms or ideas into their work and expect comprehension from the reading public. Henry Lawson, for example, played on the trope of the skull-collecting phrenologist in his bitter-sweet Story of Malachi, published in 1896 in a collection of short fiction.

Archibald Sillars Hamilton, known professionally as 'AS', became one of the most famous phrenologists in colonial Australia. Born in or before 1819 in Ayrshire, Scotland, he grew up as phrenology reached a frenzy of popularity in his native country. His father, Edward Hamilton, was a muslin manufacturer, but it was the influence of his mother, the popular phrenologist Agnes Sillars Hamilton, that determined his future livelihood. Cooter writes that she attracted large crowds and even using a bag of marbles to represent the organs of the brain, but that other phrenologists regarded her as a 'quack', and that one client termed her a 'dirty old wench'.

Her son arrived in Launceston in November 1854, and over the next 30 years lectured and gave private readings across Tasmania, Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and both of New Zealand’s islands. In 1854, a private customer of Hamilton’s could opt for either a description of their character with advice (3 shillings, 6 pence), a written sketch of character (5 shillings), or a detailed character reading with a phrenological chart (10 shillings). 

Among his many patrons, some of whom undoubtedly visited out of curiosity, were young adults who consulted Hamilton for career guidance, including aspiring actress Agnes Melville. As her biographer Jill Dimond describes, in 1878 this young woman, aged in her twenties, sat before the phrenologist, and quickly became his amanuensis and then wife. 

Parents took children to Hamilton for advice on future employment, with his summations of character seemingly general enough to apply to most boys or girls. For example, in an 1855 character sketch of Tasmanian Quaker boy Robert Walker, Hamilton wrote: 'He is fond of animals and passionately delighted with play... He requires a great deal of advice and guidance as he is so very impulsive.'

Such character readings, scattered through Australian archives, are pen portraits pieced together from abstract measurements. Perhaps the most significant of these was carried out on the head of Mr Wilson Esquire in January 1880. Hamilton advised this 23-year-old man: 'You are best fitted for a profession in which quick observation, penetrating intelligence, lively wit, good language and logical acumen are indispensible. You have more than ordinary courage and excellent self-possession... You require a little more patience, reserve, acquisitiveness, tact, diplomacy and management in the strict financial and prudential sense.'

Hamilton thought that Mr Wilson would make a good advocate, or that, with 'a few years study' of political economy, social science, natural theology, phrenology, psychology and human physiology, he could 'make [his] way successfully as a member of parliament'.

The assessment was correct in substance, but underestimated the potential of this singular young man. 'Yours is an intellect of ability, not genious' [sic], wrote Hamilton. But this tall, dark-haired person was in fact Alfred Deakin, lawyer, journalist, spiritualist, and future Prime Minister of Australia, who had consulted Hamilton under an assumed name. Deakin had already been elected to the Victorian parliamentary seat of West Bourke the previous year, but resigned in his maiden speech following claims about unfair polling. When he sat for Hamilton, his ideas and ambitions may have been in a state of turmoil. Just weeks after the phrenological reading, he would lose the election for his seat, only to regain it by July 1880.

Perhaps the phrenologist guessed the true identity of his sitter. After all, he took a keen interest in civic and political life, donating lecture proceeds to charity, running for public office, and campaigning against capital punishment. Hamilton argued that phrenology could be used to reform the characters of criminals, or applied pre-emptively to children to prevent the fulfilment of a sinister, destructive anatomy.

But Hamilton was not beyond moral reform himself. In his most famous transgression, in the regional centre of Maitland in 1860, he was charged with inciting to exhume corpses from a burial ground. His target in that case was the skull of the Aboriginal man Jim Crow, executed a few months earlier. Hamilton had approached the sexton of the St Peter’s Church of England Burial Ground and offered one pound if he would dig down and remove the heads of Jim Crow and the convicted murderer executed that day. Hamilton was acquitted by jury of the alleged incitement, and secretly returned at some point during the next two years to exhume the skull that was denied to him. In somewhat tangled reasoning, he used it to argue that the young Aboriginal man could not be legally culpable because of the 'moral idiocy' revealed by the skull, a judgment contradicted by a Hunter Valley local who knew Jim Crow and argued for his intelligence. 

In the guise of Victorian theatricality, Hamilton’s collection of human remains was a powerful drawcard to his lectures. By the time of his death, he had amassed some 55 skulls or parts thereof – about 30 Aboriginal, four Maori, one 'Hindoo', one Chinese, and the rest European. He sourced them not only through grave-robbing, but also through gifts and trades within the networks he forged in each new town. 

Three of his Tasmanian criminals were hanged and dissected, two of them at St Mary’s Hospital, a 60-bed institution for the labouring classes run by the City of Hobart’s medical officer, Dr Samuel Edward Bedford. Museum Victoria, in Melbourne, now holds the collection, and several of its non-European members, including Jim Crow, have been repatriated to country. 

The only surviving photograph of this fervent collector (to our knowledge) is a carte de visite taken by Archibald McDonald, whose studio was based in Melbourne’s St George’s Hall, Bourke Street East, between roughly 1864 and 1873. Newspaper advertisements and articles that reveal Hamilton’s movements suggest that he did not return to Victoria until the late 1860s after a stint in New Zealand, meaning that by the time he posed for McDonald he was in his late forties. Hamilton’s wavy hair had receded so far by this stage as to truly accentuate what his third wife, Agnes Hamilton, referred to as his 'colossal forehead'. His eyes sternly meet the viewer, and in a reference to his livelihood he grasps a miniature bust of Prince Albert (who dabbled in phrenology), pointing with his other hand to the prince consort's forehead. 

Perhaps it is the combination of the droopiness created by the full beard and moustache, the severe nature of Victorian-era posture, and the heavy lines that connect Hamilton's nose and mouth, but the expression in the phrenologist's wide eyes is melancholy. Although he attained a position of notoriety within the Australian colonies that sustained his profile and career as an itinerant lecturer, Hamilton never achieved financial stability. When he died in Redfern, Sydney, in 1884, he left his much younger third wife little in terms of material comfort, forcing her in the weeks after his death to advertise her own services as a phrenologist. 

In Australia, the science of head reading continued to be practised well into the mid-20th century, as an arcade or showground amusement, and as a tool in the emerging science of occupational psychology. But its most Gothic incarnation swirled around the gallows during the 19th century. Phrenologists in the Australian colonies lurked near these contraptions of death, arguing that their science provided a window into the most despicable minds, and hoping that these criminals would eventually pass into their hands as prized, silent objects. 

This article is derived from Alexandra Roginski’s book on popular phrenology in Australia, The Hanged Man and the Body Thief: Finding Lives in a Museum Mystery (Monash University Publishing, 2015). 

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