George Combe

George Combe, Scottish phrenologist, ALS while on American tour, regarding Fanny Kemble and Catharine Sedgwick

1pp bifold ALS inscribed overall and signed by Scottish phrenologist George Combe as “Geo. Combe” in lower right corner of first page. Second and third pages are blank, while recipient’s name is inscribed on integral address leaf of fourth page. In very good to near fine condition, with expected folds and isolated foxing. Most of impressed red wax seal present on last page, each page measures 7.75" x 10".

Nineteenth-century phrenologists like George Combe believed that the brain housed certain functions in specific centers, and that physical factors like the size, shape, and weight of the brain, along with the sex and race of the specimen, directly correlated with that person’s intelligence, inclination, or dysfunction. Although today it is relegated to the status of a pseudoscience, phrenology was an extremely popular field of study at its peak between 1810-1840. One of two German physicians who first articulated the ideas behind phrenology, Johann Gaspar Spurzheim (1786-1832), visited Edinburgh in 1816. Scottish barrister George Combe soon became an avid acolyte and one of its fiercest defenders. Combe founded the “Phrenological Society of Edinburgh” in 1820 and issued a society journal after 1823. He lectured and wrote extensively about phrenology, and explored its application to early education methods, the treatment of the mentally ill, and the criminal justice system.

George Combe embarked on a three-year-long tour of the United States in 1838, visiting insane asylums and prisons. His observations of the trip were published in “Notes on the United States of North America”, published in 1841.

Our letter dates from Combe’s American sojourn, where, from the context of the letter, we know he was in western Massachusetts. Writing on September 27, 1838, Combe asked “J. Turnbull Esq, Carlton House” to grant him several small favors. “I am obliged again to trouble you with the Packet to Mrs Butler. Since you left us, Mrs Combe has told me that Mrs Butler is visiting Miss Sedgewick [sic] at Stockbridge, & will be here in a day or two. If you could, therefore, leave the packet at M. Sedgewicks [sic] where we called this morning it would reach her soonest … ”

Although the letter doesn’t appear interesting at first glance, it does nothing less than reference two famous mid-nineteenth-century women, and encapsulate in a microcosm Combe’s struggle to legitimize phrenology. “Mrs. Butler” refers to feted British theater actress Fanny Kemble Butler (1809-1893), who was the cousin of George Combe’s wife Cecilia Siddons (1794-1868). “Miss Sedgewick [sic] at Stockbridge” refers to novelist Catharine Sedgwick (1789-1867). Fanny Kemble Butler and Catharine Sedgwick were two well-known female artists of the era, and, after Butler’s visit to her husband’s slaveholdings in coastal Georgia, fellow abolitionists.

 Did Combe’s “Packet” of letters reserved for Mrs. Butler contain another earnest defense of phrenology? It is possible, as Combe tried to convert many to its study. In a letter dated September 30, 1839 later published in her “Records of Later Life”, Fanny Kemble Butler wrote to a correspondent named Harriet: “Your saucy suggestion as to my having conciliated his [Combe’s] good opinion by exhibiting a greater degree of faith in phrenology is, unluckily, not borne out by the facts; for, instead of more, I have a little less faith in it … ” Kemble’s reluctance to endorse phrenology apparently stemmed from Combe’s recent dismissal of her intelligence!

 A remarkable letter linking 19th C. America’s scientific, literary, and acting worlds!



Item: 63099

Price: $350.00
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George Combe
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