Palmer’s Head: Victorian Postmortem Physiognomy

In revising one of my dissertation chapters into an article, I had to cut some research on poisoners and physiognomy.  One of the most interesting discoveries I made during research is the Victorian practice of postmortem physiognomic readings.  After the execution, physiognomists would sometimes be given access to the body in order to make casts of the heads. Below is brief account of the poisoner William Palmer’s case and the postmortem reading of his head:













Even before Cesare Lombroso developed his theory of criminal anthropology, which suggested that criminals could be identified from physical characteristics, devotees of the “science of physiognomy” promised that the practice could “reveal the guilt of the criminal” (Stanton 472).  By reading a person’s physical features, with a consideration of their dress and manners, the physiognomist could predict their subject’s character and even protect themselves from crime.  Now recognized as a pseudo-science, physiognomy was heavily reliant on stereotypes for its assessments.  For example, guidebooks warned that people with highly developed areas of secretiveness (a characteristic of the most cunning criminals) would have drawn mouths and a “close, sly look” to their faces (Wells 63).  These physiognomic assumptions, however, were challenged by several mid-century cases involving seemingly innocent-looking defendants.  One such case was that of William Palmer, who in 1856 was accused of poisoning his business associate John Parsons Cook.  As a surgeon and the second son of an upwardly mobile lumberman, Palmer by all accounts seemed to be an ordinary, middle-class professional—except for the string of suspicious deaths that followed him throughout his adult life.  Along with a financially-burdensome mother-in-law, both Palmer’s wife and brother, whose lives were each insured for £13,000, also died.  Yet it was not until early in 1856 and the strange death of Cook that Palmer was finally investigated for murder.  Cook had mysteriously died shortly after a winning-streak at the races.  When his money was discovered to be missing after his death, suspicions soon rested on the man who attended him in his last illness: Palmer.  When the details of Anne and Walter’s deaths were brought to light, Palmer was indicted for Cook’s murder. A multi-day trial resulted in Palmer’s conviction and subsequent execution.

The case created a sensation, with one commentator writing that “in the criminal history of this country there never was a case that has excited so much interest throughout the length and breadth of the land.”  The interest in the Palmer trial can certainly be attributed to growing mid-century fears about middle-class domestic crime, but Palmer’s appearance and social position as a professional family man also drew widespread attention.  Palmer did not fit Victorian stereotypes about murderers: instead of lower-class, ignorant, and brutish, he was middle-class, educated and socially polished.  Reports of Palmer at court emphasize the physiognomic disjunction between his alleged crimes and his appearance: “He is a man rather under than over the middle height, of fair florid complexion, and sanguine temperament, and with nothing in his round, ordinary face to indicate criminal inclinations or dark and deep designs.  A casual observer would set him down as a respectable, good humoured farmer; and a physiognomist would be more inclined to give him credit for social and convivial habits, than those elaborately planned crimes which the indictment lays to his charge” (“Trial of William Palmer”).  As this quotation suggests, there was nothing about Palmer’s appearance that signaled his murderous propensities and the case evoked anxieties about criminals who were “invisible” to ordinary methods of visual detection.  If even the physiognomist would be mistaken in his assessment of Palmer, what hope did the general public have in recognizing and avoiding these criminals?

To help assuage some of these fears, a post-mortem examination of Palmer’s physiognomy was conducted by Mr. Bridges, a noted phrenologist.[1]  Palmer’s body was cut down from the scaffold and Bridges had access to it before its burial.  After shaving the head and preparing it “in the usual mode operation” Bridges took a cast.  His scientific analysis, which was published in The Medical World: A Journal, revealed Palmer’s “extreme predominance of secretiveness; his utter want of conscientiousness; and his defect in the higher reflective powers” and noted that he was “the real type of the secret and subtle poisoner” (“Palmer’s Head” 34).   In other words, Bridges found the head to exactly correspond to Victorian stereotypes of the poisoner as secretive and heartless.  Despite his manner or his dress, Bridges work suggests that the poisoner was not invisible as some feared, but could be detected by the skilled practitioner.

Looking back at this article from a twenty-first century perspective, it is easy to see Bridge’s readings as a revisionist–Bridges can’t help but to find the features of the typical poisoner in face of a man executed for poisoning.   Postmortem physiognomic analyses of famous criminal’s heads it seems were commonly reported in periodicals and newspapers and provided a way to confirm the guilt of the executed.  They also provided a venue for showcasing the effectiveness of physiognomic and phrenological techniques, since the results inevitably conformed to the facts of the case.

A photograph of Palmer’s death mask can be seen here.

Works Cited:

“Palmer’s Head.” The Medical World.  1.2 (1857): 34-5.  You can find this article here.

Stanton, Mary Olmstead.  A system of practical and scientific physiognomy: Or, how to read faces.

“Trial of William Palmer.”  Daily News.  1856.

Wells, Samuel. How to Read Character.  New York: Fowler and Wells, 1894.

[1] The “Mr. Bridges” of the article is certainly Francis Bridges, author of Popular Manual of Phrenology, from which the image is taken.

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