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Sibly irresistible

by Alexandra Roginski, 21 January 2019

Madame Sibly, Phrenologist and Mesmerist, 1870's by James E. Bray
Madame Sibly, Phrenologist and Mesmerist, 1870's by James E. Bray

On a winter’s evening in 1870, a female lecturer surveyed the six or seven audience participants gathered on the stage with her in a hall in the Victorian town of Bendigo. Madame Sibly – who often billed herself as the ‘Wonderful Woman’ – had just mesmerised these volunteers with dramatic hand gestures, and now endeavoured to prove their insensibility to pain as a result of their trance states. But just as she prepared to run a pin through the arm of one volunteer, an interloper launched himself onto the platform and bit Sibly’s mesmeric subject.

Infuriated by the disruption, Sibly punched the attacker in both eyes and gestured for her mesmerised volunteers to rush at him ‘like a pack of hounds’. A regional newspaper described an ‘extraordinary scene’ erupting with ‘the upsetting of seats, the screaming of females, and the crying of children’. It was a thrillingly successful evening.

Madame Sibly dashes through colonial newspapers as one of the most famous popular science lecturers of the mid-to-late nineteenth century in colonial Australia. A canny itinerant whose claims to scientific authority were a sheen for her show-woman’s life, Sibly combined two of the period’s great scientific fads – phrenology and mesmerism – into displays that tested the boundaries of identity and mind control.

Professor Pepper and his ghosts, 1879 by David Syme & Co.

Sibly was a female rarity among the silk-hatted popular scientists who followed the mining rushes, and whose informal circuits of travel connected burgeoning cities in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand – Melbourne, Sydney, Wellington and Dunedin – to each other and to the wider British Empire. They toured at the zenith of stage science, when claims to specialist knowledge came paired with dazzling light displays, fully-materialised ‘spirits’, gothic props and stirring narratives of discovery and conquest. Stars such as Henry Pepper, an instructor at London’s Polytechnic Institution who toured his ‘ghost illusions’ through the Australian colonies from 1879, invited audiences to share in public experiments where each onlooker became their own arbiter of scientific truth.

Mechanics Institute, Ballarat, 1868 by W H Harrison

Among such spectacles, phrenological lecturers became recognisable figures in the public lives of most towns. They peddled a science devised at the end of the eighteenth century that claimed the brain was divided into multiple smaller ‘organs’ responsible for particular functions, and that because the brain pushed against the skull during development, each organ could be judged by a visual and tactile examination of the skull.

Remembered primarily for its racial and criminological angles, phrenology also functioned as a system through which individuals could improve themselves or steer the life courses of their children. Always contested, it nevertheless enjoyed widespread infamy (if not always popularity), and its practitioners, audience members and paid performers included non-Europeans. In 1867, for example, members of the famed Aboriginal cricket team attended a lecture on phrenology and mesmerism at the Ballarat Mechanics’ Institution, just months before sailing to England for their historic tour.

Lectures on Phrenology, c. 1860s by S R Wells and New York phrenological journal

While the most common ritual of a phrenological lecture was the on-stage reading, which involved the phrenologist pronouncing the strengths and shortcomings of nervous locals in often-chaotic scenes, those phrenologists with some means also boasted skulls, diagrams and lantern-slide projectors that could turn poky halls into castles of visual wonder. Many phrenologists bolstered the science of skulls with physiognomy, the science of face reading, with their lectures turning into extended displays of portraiture. One lecturer in the 1880s promised ‘3000 feet of paintings and over 700 figures’ cast by a powerful scioptic lantern. Another displayed full-sized oil paintings ‘mostly of Grecian statuary’.

Phrenological chart and analysis of David Jones, 1871 by Marie Sibly

A broadside with an army of miniature portraits manufactured by the US Fowler family provides an insight as to how these lecturers could have displayed such multitudes. Common phrenological lithographs jostle for space within its borders – American presidents, phrenology’s Germanic founders, indigenous peoples, animals, busts and a half-dissected head and skull.

When not lecturing, phrenologists also offered private consultations from their rooms, where they scribbled the measurements of particular ‘organs’ onto notepaper or into pre-printed booklets or charts. In the summer of 1871, a young man sought out Madame Sibly in the seaside suburb of Williamstown, leaving a lasting trace now housed at the State Library of Victoria. Perhaps David Jones agonised over career choice, as did many customers of cranial advice. Or perhaps he numbered among what one newspaper referred to as ‘the young gentlemen of Melbourne’ who found pleasure in being ‘manipulated by one of the fair daughters of Eve’.

Sibly, like many of her peers, also coupled phrenology with mesmerism – the eighteenth-century practice premised on the idea that ‘magnetic’ fluids existing in the spaces between bodies could be manipulated by a skilled practitioner through gestures known as ‘passes’. Mesmerism promised mind control, with practitioners bringing their subjects ‘under the influence’ or submerging them into ‘mesmeric sleep’. It also permeated medical practice, eventually spawning its somewhat less mystical descendant, hypnosis.

This was not slick laboratory science, but showmanship punctuated by gleeful disorder. The carte de visite of Madame Sibly that features in the National Portrait Gallery’s summer 2018-19 Carte-o-mania! exhibition reflects the theatrical reality of such popular science. Known for her French accent (the result of supposedly Scottish and French parentage), Sibly charmed audiences in diaphanous costumes that winked with elaborate adornments. This was the public face of a woman who also went by the names Marie Eliment or Mary Element – the other selves of a sometimes patchy life story.

It was through the powers of public mesmerism that Sibly managed her melee in Bendigo in 1870. While we cannot know whether her subjects truly felt the lecturer’s influence, their collective rushing at the attacker from the audience at the very least reflects a spirit of communal mischief.

And although such disorder characterised the participatory entertainments of the nineteenth century, the encounter’s violence also tells a deeper story about the insecurity that marred the lives of itinerant lecturers. Often broke, and sometimes skipping town with unpaid bills, many ascended the platform in pursuit of just the latest in a series of attempted careers that could range from gold mining to vagrancy. Their financial woes coexisted with the physical precarity of a traveller’s life – stolen cashboxes, transport accidents and aggressive tussles with rivals.

This lifestyle brought heightened threats for female lecturers. First confronted by prejudices about oratory as a ‘male’ practice, they then also faced the gendered violence normalised during this period, as well as scrutiny of their comportment and virtue.

Mind and Body: A Monthly Journal Devoted to the Study of Human Nature and the Laws of Health, 1904 Phrenological and Health Institute of Australasia

Jessie Fowler, a scion of the US phrenological Fowler empire, toured Victoria and New South Wales during the late 1880s, delivering lectures on head reading and physical culture complete with callisthenic demonstrations involving Indian clubs. Fowler embodied what the press and residents of affluent suburbs recognised as middle-class propriety, with mothers in Melbourne’s Brighton begging her to run gymnastics classes for their daughters. Her portrait on the cover of the Melbourne-based Mind & Body journal from 1904 captures this respectable intellectualism. While Sibly’s carte de visite invites onlookers to step closer and peer at her work of phrenological examination, and her dress and loose curls suggest sensuality, Fowler’s academic garb almost neutralises her gender, her clasped hands and sober hairstyle implying containment. And while Fowler earned fawning audiences, Sibly sometimes travelled under storm clouds.

Just months before her Bendigo brawl, Sibly marched to court in the Victorian town of Maryborough to seek the law’s assistance in separating from her de facto partner of three years, Henry Gardner. A tailor by trade, Gardner now lived from Sibly’s fame in his role as ‘manager’. He took money from audiences at the doors of her lectures. He also took money from Sibly more generally, stashing shillings in hiding places that included a coffee pot and a frying pan.

When Sibly attempted to break away from Gardner in a Maryborough hotel in the autumn of 1870, he beat her around the head so fiercely that the swelling kept her awake that night. The next evening, while washing, the lecturer told her partner that she would not go on to Ballarat. Gardner swore at Sibly and accused her of going into brothels. ‘He struck me, and knocked me down and jumped upon me in the bedroom’, she recounted.

‘I rushed to the door to get out, fearing he would kill me; he pushed me outside … with nothing but my skirt and stays, into the yard of the hotel.’ Before an assembled crowd of men and one laundrywoman, Gardner spat in his partner’s face. Sibly clutched at her whip but ‘he pulled it from me and beat me most unmercifully’.

The courtroom simmered with male justice, with the defence lawyer and magistrate making comic sport of Sibly’s ordeal. As part of a legal system that often fixated on female reputation when weighing up evidence, the magistrate assessed Sibly’s fallen virtue – the fact that she had left her own husband and now lived as a ‘paramour’. ‘The picture was not creditable to either party, but it was discreditable to one more than the other’, he concluded, referring with scorn to a letter that Gardner had sent to him outlining in ‘disgusting and painful detail’ how Sibly supposedly lured him from his wife.

The tailor’s bad character determined the case. For the magistrate, Gardner breached several codes of masculine conduct, including by ‘loafing’ on a woman’s income and by deigning to influence a man of the law through his filthy missive. ‘No matter how far this woman had fallen she was entitled to the protection of the law’, he concluded, ordering that Gardner ‘keep the peace’ in relation to Sibly.

Viewed against the context of this matter, Sibly’s decision to punch a man in the eyes in Bendigo can be interpreted as a tactic of theatrical violence used to deter potential abusers, if not to exact retribution against the male sex. It was just one of many attacks by Sibly. The week of the Bendigo event, she also threatened to horsewhip a former assistant. In 1874, she tried to employ this same weapon against a magistrate. In 1876, she knocked a paper clerk’s head into a wall when he presented her with a bill. And, in 1879, Sibly ended her decade of violence by beating two ‘jokers’ who harassed her at a hotel.

Sibly’s status as ‘Wonderful Woman’ therefore owed as much to her stage charisma as to her ability to navigate the perils of travel. She retired as one of the most successful colonial popular scientists of her time, finding peace in a rural living with Member of Parliament Alfred O’Connor in inland New South Wales. She still took to the road intermittently, and in 1885 toured with her daughter Blanche, who was known as ‘Zel the Magnetic Lady’.

When Sibly died of heart disease in the town of Drake in 1894, her death certificate recorded her status as a storekeeping matriarch with three grown children. Her supposed birthplace underscored an itinerant life – ‘At Sea Between England and France’.

If the theatre in Sibly’s demeanour and dress already placed strain on her claims to scientific credibility during the 1870s, by the end of the century the term ‘phrenologist’ became increasingly associated with arcades and fairgrounds. A generalised form of divination inflected with exoticism became the bread-and-butter of phrenologists such as professors De Weldon and D’James, who briefly collaborated under their unlikely names in Victoria’s western district before airing an epistolary spat in the Colac Herald in 1895. ‘My study, taught to me by an Hindoo prince, in both ancient and modern sciences … crowns me as the king of all so called palmists’, wrote D’James. For some practitioners, phrenology simply became a cover for fortune telling, which was then illegal under vagrancy laws.

And while a few head readers managed to maintain a whiff of professionalism in the new century, repackaging themselves as occupational psychologists, many more lurked in the demi monde, crawling into the light during such scandals as the murderous attack by phrenologist and astrologer Emery Gordon Medor (not his real name). He turned the stomachs of a continent when he shot two of his neighbours in Melbourne’s Eastern Market, a colonnaded leisure space in the city’s centre.

Yet the murkiness of the phrenological realm also explains why such consultations continued to appeal to customers well into the twentieth century. With their fictitious names and tall stories, phrenologists invited their clients to revel with them in artifice and transcendence of the ordinary.

Spruiker for Madame Carlreno, 1936 unknown photographer

In 1936, the crier for Madame Carlreno (a character reader who promised palpations targeted towards business and health at the Perth Show) squinted into sunlight that illuminated the weathered metal of his megaphone and the slap-dash application of costume jewellery to his turban. He and Carlreno worked in a ‘Pleasure Land’ that also boasted a ghost train and midget cars. Although the technological set-pieces differed, it was a playful thrust at science that the ‘Wonderful Woman’ might have appreciated.

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