Phrenology in Victorian America

Phrenology, the study of the contours of the skull and how they relate to personality traits, represented an early attempt at understanding human behavior. The “new science” was all the rage in mid-nineteenth century America. Phrenology attracted and inspired some of the greatest minds of the early Victorian age, including our twentieth president James A. Garfield. Once considered a medical discipline, phrenology is today regarded as a pseudo-science.

Phrenology busts were as common as world globes in 19th century libraries. (

Founding Principles

Phrenology was founded by German-born physician Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828). In 1810 Gall published his principal work The Anatomy and Physiology of the Nervous System in General, and of the Brain in Particular in which he stated the following doctrinal thesis of phrenology:

• That moral and intellectual faculties are innate;

• That their exercise or manifestation depends on organization;

• That the brain is the organ of all the propensities, sentiments and faculties;

• That the brain is composed of as many particular organs as there are propensities, sentiments and faculties which differ essentially from each other;

• That the form of the head or cranium represents the form of the brain, and thus reflects the relative development of the brain organs.

Franz Joseph Gall, founder of phrenology.
(Sidney University,

Gall ascribed personality traits such as “Reverence”, “Destructiveness”, “Firmness”, “Mirthfulness”, and “Caution” to specific areas of the brain. If a trait were especially well developed, that area of the brain would be larger, causing a bump in the skull. Likewise, if a trait were underdeveloped, that area of skull would be flat or possibly compressed. Phrenologists hypothesized that by palpating one’s head they could identify one’s parental aptitude, artistic talent, intelligence, propensity to crime, and other mental and moral faculties.

Acceptance in Victorian America

Phrenology asserted that the brain, a physical organ, and not the soul, was the center of moral reason and character development. Mainstream Victorian society was offended by and skeptical of any discipline that was not in harmony with religion. Phrenology could not have enjoyed such enormous popularity had it not made the effort to reconcile the dichotomy of God and science. The movement had to place less emphasis on scientific research, and its doctrines had to be in accordance with scripture and the laws of nature.

British phrenologist George Combe (1788-1858) is recognized for popularizing phrenology in America. His classical exposition, The Constitution of Man, served as a guide for conduct and was one of the bestselling books of the nineteenth century. Combe’s treatise promoted naturalism, a philosophy that “nature is all there is and all basic truths are truths of nature.”

Orson and Lorenzo Fowler’s “Phrenological Cabinet” in New York housed a huge collection of skulls and served as a publishing house and mail-order business. (

Orson Squire Fowler (1809-1887) and his brother Lorenzo Niles Fowler (1811-1896), two of phrenology’s pre-eminent promoters in the United States, are widely credited with cracking the “science vs. religion” paradigm. Both men studied for the ministry before becoming interested in the new science. Their books and lectures on the subject made many references to God and “the truth.” The brothers touted phrenology as a practical tool for self-improvement.

James A. Garfield and Phrenology

As a student of The Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (now Hiram College), James A. Garfield attended several lectures on phrenology and even debated on the resolution that phrenology was a science – Garfield in the affirmative. In July 1850, the future president attended a lecture on the subject in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. The speaker, Nelson Sizer, was a leading phrenologist in the “Phrenological Cabinet” founded by the Fowler brothers. Four years later, Garfield made a trip to the Fowlers’ establishment in New York. In his diary, dated July 10, 1854, he wrote about the experience:

(I) had my head examined by Mr. Lorenzo N. Fowler. In the main he agreed with others. He said I was inclined to be mentally lazy, and had never called out my powers of mind, that they were greater than I supposed. He told me to elevate my standard of aspiration and thought. I had better aim at the Judge’s Bench. Said I needed to be more spirited in resenting an insult.

As a young scholar seeking knowledge and direction in life, Garfield explored many ideas, including spiritualism, mesmerism, and phrenology. (Corbis-Bettman)

During another visit to New York in the summer of 1857, Garfield would again have his head examined by Lorenzo Fowler. In his diary, dated July 28, is a dictation of the diagnosis:

Brain very large – too large. Great amount of vitality. You cannot wear out if you have any regard to physical law. You will not reach your meridian of life and strength till you are 45 years old.

Your strength lies in your general power. The whole of your machinery comes to the help of any one part, thus giving great force. When your intellect is engaged your feelings are too, and when your feelings are engaged so is your intellect.

Remarkable power of accumulating knowledge. Bent of mind for Science but is getting more and more for Literature. In faith you are a Thomas Didymus. Wonderful memory. Ear for music good. Talent for it ordinary. Enjoy fun and make it. Your fun is the offspring of Wit and Fancy.

Have high ideas of worth in Character, a Disposition to do good.

You have a great a great deal of poetic talent. You have a good degree of self esteem. Are very warm hearted. Always had to love something. Should have a wife to keep you in the right place. You have the powers and qualities to be a good general. Your mental grasp equal to any task. Can accomplish whatever you undertake and determine to do. Set your mark as high as it can be placed and then work up to it. You want a wife – refined, genteel, graceful, of a philosophic mind, sharp, lively, sprightly, forehead high and broad.

In the department of Science you would become an Agassiz. The profession of the Law for you should only be a steppingstone to something else higher.

In speaking you need the stimulus of opposition.

There is no other mention of phrenology in the twenty-four years of journal writing that followed this entry. There is evidence, however, that Garfield had at least one more reading. A record of this event, a phrenological chart, is on exhibit at James A. Garfield National Historic Site. The book containing the chart is inscribed by Nelson Sizer and is dated May 14, 1864. Though no diaries exist for this year, Garfield’s letters to family, friends, and colleagues suggest that this was a particularly conflicting time professionally and personally for the young congressman, husband, and father. One can only speculate if Garfield’s phrenological readings had any influence on his future pursuits.

Garfield’s phrenology book on exhibit at James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio. (National Park Service)

Garfeild’s phrenology chart. He scored high marks for “size of brain,” “benevolence,” and “vitality.”  (National Park Service)

Charles Guiteau

Taken quite seriously by numerous Victorians, phrenology naturally extended to the diagnosis and treatment of criminals and the insane. One such example leads us back to the life, or more appropriately, the death of James A. Garfield.

By 1881, the year the president’s assassin Charles Guiteau was put on trial for murder, interest in phrenology was fading. Nonetheless, the correlation between the physicality of the head and the processes of the mind continued to consume neurologists and psychiatrists. Several physicians who examined the accused were called by the defense to give their expert testimony. Dr. Edward Spitzka gave a lengthy analysis based on what he considered correlative neuroanatomy. Spitzka commented on Guiteau’s cranial asymmetry, but conceded that the difference between the two sides of the brain did not “constitute a diseased difference”.

The “Truth”

Before advancements in the field of science and medicine discredited the claims of phrenology, its reputation was sullied by disreputable people who exploited the “science” for profit, or used its tenets to promote racism. The profound effect it had on Victorian culture cannot be denied. Phrenology played a huge role in motivating, shaping and coloring the minds of some of the era’s greatest thinkers and literary artists and it helped advance the study of human behavior. Perhaps most importantly, it brought to light the need for serious critical analysis in all we accept as “truth.”

-Mary Lintern, Park Ranger

“If Any Outsider is Taken, I Hope it Will be Garfield”: The 1880 Republican Convention

         Every four years, America’s political parties hold national conventions to nominate candidates for President and Vice-President. Cities vie to host the event, and convention week is always full of rallies, parades, demonstrations and buzz. Until the second half of the 20th century, conventions actually did choose the presidential candidates. Nomination battles, now decided in primaries and caucuses, were fought out on the convention floor and in back rooms. Rumors flew, reporters listened, delegates caucused, supporters rallied. The sense of possibility and opportunity for surprise gave conventions a kind of excitement seldom seen in political gatherings today.

          Republicans met for their seventh national convention in Chicago in early June, 1880. They convened in the brand new Industrial Exposition building, called the “Glass Palace” by locals for its enormous windows and skylights. It could hold 15,000 delegates, dignitaries and spectators. Some 500 reporters were provided tables right below the speakers’ platform where they could hear every word; they could report to the country by telegraph directly from the convention hall. Ladies filled the galleries while delegates settled under their state flags on the convention floor. The stage was set for the longest nominating battle in the history of the Republican party.

The “Glass Palace” on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, site of the 1880 Republican convention.

          In 1880, the Republican Party had no clear leader. Rutherford B. Hayes (R., Ohio) was president, but his term in office was tainted by the bitter battle that put him there. He had announced that he would not seek re-election. U.S. Grant (R., Illinois) had been president before Hayes. He left office after two terms under a cloud of scandal. But he had just returned from a triumphal world tour and was anxious to return to the White House for a third term as President.

         Unfortunately for Grant and his supporters, many Republicans remembered the graft and corruption of his presidency. Some opposed a third term for any president, though it was then allowed by the Constitution. When the Republicans held their convention in Chicago in early June 1880, Grant was supported by the largest bloc of delegates. But he did not have enough votes to win the nomination on the first ballot.

          The “anybody but Grant” Republicans were led by Senator James G. Blaine (R., Maine).  A smaller group, led by Congressman James A. Garfield, supported former Ohio Senator and current Secretary of the Treasury John Sherman. Several “favorite son” candidates were also nominated. The anti-Grant faction could not muster a majority for any one of those candidates.

Roscoe Conkling, John Logan, and Don Cameron drive the Grant train into Chicago. Cartoon by Joseph Keppler. Puck magazine archives.

       Delegates to the National Convention were chosen in state and local caucuses, and their votes were usually pledged to one or another of the candidates on the first ballot. Those votes had been counted and analyzed by politicians and newspapermen for weeks. On the eve of the convention the Albany Evening Journal reported that 277 votes were committed to Senator Blaine, former President Grant could count on 314 votes, Secretary Sherman had 106, and 49 votes were scattered among several “favorite son” candidates. With 379 votes needed to win, a first ballot victory for any candidate was unlikely.

          But it was not impossible. The Grant forces at the convention were led by three important U. S. Senators: Don Cameron of Pennsylvania, John Logan of Illinois, and Roscoe Conkling of New York. They led three of the largest delegations at the convention, and if all three gave all of their votes to Grant, he could win on the first ballot. The delegations, however, were not unanimous. The three senators wanted the Republican national committee to invoke a “unit rule,” requiring that all the votes of a state delegation go to the candidate with the majority of votes from that state.

         James A. Garfield, an at-large delegate from Ohio, arrived in Chicago on Saturday, May 29, 1880.  The unit rule controversy met him as soon as he reached the city. He told a reporter for the Chicago Tribune that “all delegates…are political units, each one of which has a right to express his own political sentiment by his own personal vote…It is wholly un-Republican for one man to cast another man’s vote.” It was a principal of political autonomy that Garfield had held all his life and he told the reporter that for him it was “more important than even the choice of a candidate.” As an opponent of a Grant third term, and as chairman of the convention’s rules committee, Garfield spent the days before the convention opened working to block any attempt to impose a unit rule. Ultimately a compromise was reached that allowed all the delegates to vote on the question and the unit rule was defeated 449 votes to 306.

The interior of the “Glass Palace” on June 2, 1880 during the Republican convention. Library of Congress.

        Two of the party’s best speakers were on hand to present candidates. Roscoe Conkling of New York nominated “the man who can’t be defeated—General Ulysses S. Grant!” It was a speech interrupted over and over with cheers and demonstrations, and most reporters agreed that if the balloting had begun right after Conkling’s speech, Grant would have won the nomination by acclamation.

        James A. Garfield took the stage next to nominate his fellow Ohioan, John Sherman. He spoke calmly and thoughtfully, reminding the delegates that the presidential election would be decided “not in Chicago in the heat of July, but at the ballot-boxes in the Republic, in the quiet melancholy days of November.”

        As the evening ended, one delegate told a reporter, “If any outsider is taken, I hope it will be Garfield. If Ohio wants a man, let Ohio ask for her best.” That same night James Garfield received a letter from his wife. “I begin to be half afraid that the convention will give you the nomination,” Lucretia wrote, “and the place would be most unenviable with so many disappointed candidates. I don’t want you to have the nomination merely because no one else can get it, I want you to have it when the whole country calls for you…My ambition does not fall short of that.”

        None of the presidential candidates was in Chicago. Tradition demanded that they keep a seemingly disinterested distance while their political friends worked to secure the nomination for them. But the three major candidates were in close contact with their teams at the convention. Each had a dedicated telegraph line—Senator Blaine’s at his home on 15th Street in Washington, and Secretary Sherman’s to his Treasury Department office. Grant felt this was unseemly, so his neighbor in Galena, Illinois had a line brought to his home a few steps from Grant’s front door. With this rapid communication available, all three could be kept informed and send instructions to their forces in the convention hall. They could respond to events, propose strategies, and approve deals.

        When the balloting began on Monday morning, June 7, none of the candidates was far from his telegraph. The first ballot brought no surprises: U.S. Grant had 304 votes, James G. Blaine 284 votes, John Sherman 93 votes, Elihu Washburn 30, George Edmunds 34, and William Windom 10 votes. The chairman of the convention announced, “No candidate having received the 379 votes needed to nominate, the clerk will call the roll for the second ballot.” By the end of the day twenty-eight ballots had been taken, and the vote totals had barely budged. Grant had 307 votes, Blaine had 279 and Sherman 91. One vote had been cast for James Garfield on the second ballot, by a delegate from Pennsylvania. That delegate continued to vote for Garfield on every ballot, but no others joined him that day.

         Overnight, all three campaigns met in private caucuses to plot strategy for the next day. Telegraph lines to Washington and Galena hummed with news and advice. Each camp was sure that a break by one of the others would lead to the nomination, so in the end none was willing to cede votes and the stalemate continued. They began Tuesday with the twenty-ninth ballot, but there was no real change in the vote totals until the very end of the roll call for the thirty-fourth ballot. When the clerk called Wisconsin, the chairman of the delegation stood on his chair to announce “two votes for General Grant, two votes of James G. Blaine, and (pause) sixteen votes for James A. Garfield!”

          Garfield, at his place in the Ohio delegation, challenged the announcement, but was quickly overruled by the convention chairman. Telegrams flew to Sherman and Blaine. On the next ballot Indiana and Maryland switched their votes to Garfield. Blaine responded to his delegation and to Garfield, “Maine’s vote this moment cast for you goes with my hearty concurrence. I hope it will aid in securing your nomination and assuring victory to the Republican Party.” Sherman relayed this message: “Whenever the vote of Ohio will be likely to assure the nomination of Garfield, I appeal to every delegate to vote for him. Let Ohio be solid.”

        It ended on the thirty-sixth ballot when Wisconsin announced its 20 votes for James Garfield. That brought his total to 399, 20 more than needed for the nomination. Garfield sat stunned. The convention hall erupted with cheers. Outside on the lakeshore, cannon were fired. As the clamor subsided, Garfield was able to compose a telegram to Lucretia: “Dear Wife. If the result meets your approval, I shall be content. Love to all the household. J.A. Garfield.”

One party leader called it “the escape of a tired convention.” The Grant train derailed, Conkling, Cameron, and Logan limp out of Chicago. Cartoon by Joseph Keppler. Puck magazine archives.

-Joan Kapsch, Park Guide

A Double Wedding

Left to right: Mollie Garfield Stanley-Brown (Western Reserve Historical Society), Joseph Stanley-Brown (WRHS), Belle Mason Garfield, Harry Garfield (images from Lucretia Garfield Comer’s 1965 book Harry Garfield’s First Forty Years

            In the spring of 1888 Lucretia Garfield announced the upcoming double wedding of two of her five children to be held on June 14, 1888. The first marriage was that of Harry Garfield, the eldest son, and Belle Mason, the daughter of Lucretia’s cousin James Mason and neighbors to the family. Mollie, the President’s only daughter, was to marry Joseph Stanley-Brown, Garfield’s personal secretary in the White House and the person Lucretia tasked with organizing the President’s papers after his death. At the age of fifteen, Mollie wrote in her diary: “I don’t believe I will ever, [sic] in my life love any man, as I do Mr. Brown.” (December 14, 1882) The two ceremonies were to take place at the Garfield family’s Mentor residence in the Memorial Library, a room built by Lucretia to preserve her husband’s legacy. 

Lucretia Garfield’s announcement of her daughter’s marriage. Image courtesy of Western Reserve Historical Society.

          Enclosed in Lucretia’s Garfield’s invitation announcing her daughter’s wedding was a card admitting the guests to a special train running from Cleveland to Mentor and back again: “A special train for Mentor will leave the Cleveland Union Station at 3:15 P.M, Railroad Time, and returning, will arrive at Cleveland about 9:00 o’clock. The accompanying ticket must be presented to the Conductor of the train.”

Hand-colored illustration of wedding altar in the Memorial Library bay window. The original was accompanied by a wedding poem. Photo courtesy of Western Reserve Historical Society.

As the wedding date approached, the Mentor Farm was transformed into an inside garden, decorated with palms, potted plants, and cut flowers. Festoons and pendants of intertwined daisies filled the house. In the Memorial Library, the mantels were adorned with roses, white carnations, and maidenhair fern, and the large bay window, where the wedding parties stood during the ceremonies, was canopied with roses and smilax and lined with palms and semi-tropical plants. Here and there on the low bookcases stood large vases filled with red or white peonies and spikes of dark blue lupine. The Cleveland Leader reported that 6,000 rosebuds, 3000 carnations, 2000 daisies, and 200 yards of smilax were used in the ornamentation of the house. The bust of President Garfield that sits in the northeastern corner of the library was draped with the flag of the Williams College class of 1856 (Garfield’s alma mater).       

         At five o’clock P.M., the first ceremony began between Harry and Belle. The bride’s younger sister May was the maid of honor and Harry’s brother James was the best man. Belle walked down the aisle unaccompanied to the Wedding March from “Lohengrin.” Once the vows were made, May changed bouquets for the second ceremony, where she was maid of honor to her best friend Mollie. May had provided much comforted to Mollie after the death of President Garfield, prompting Mollie to write in her diary, “How nice it is to have one person to talk freely, as I do to Puggy [Mollie’s nickname for May]. It always does me so much good to tell my little secrets & things to her. I wonder if she knows how much I love her.” (December 15, 1882)

Brides Mollie Garfield Stanley-Brown (left) and Belle Mason Garfield. Mollie wore a gown made of delicate india silk crepe, with an overdress gracefully draped above a long-trained white underrobe in a princess shape. Joseph objected to a veil because he thought his bride would look “unnatural.” In her white-gloved hands Mollie carried June roses.
Photo courtesy of Western Reserve Historical Society.

        Following the two ceremonies was a wedding supper on the main floor, where curtains of daisy chains decorated the doorways of the parlor, dining room, and entry hall. Guests were seated at a table beautifully adorned with flowers and lights where they enjoyed a meal of bouillon, supreme of sweetbreads, Italian salad, personal ice cream, café, and two wedding cakes, one for each couple. Among the wedding guests who enjoyed the supper were ex-President Rutherford B. Hayes and Mrs. Hayes, and ex-Postmaster General Thomas L. James.

        At nine o’clock p.m., a return train carrying most of the joyful and well-fed guests departed for Cleveland. The two couples had their own departure plans. Hal and Belle left that evening for their honeymoon in northern New York, while Joseph and Mollie embarked on a trip to Kansas to visit Joseph’s mother and then onward to Europe where Joseph could continue his studies in geology at the University of Heidelberg in Germany.

Joseph and Mollie Stanley-Brown (left) and Belle and Harry Garfield reading congratulatory notes from President Franklin D. Roosevelt at their 50th wedding anniversary. The Charlotte Observer, June 16, 1938.

        On June 14, 1938, the two couples celebrated a momentous milestone – their 50th wedding anniversary – by recreating their 1888 double wedding. Mollie, Joseph, Harry, and Belle hosted a luncheon for fifty guests followed by a tea and reception for two hundred guests. Friends and families gathered at Harry’s summer home in Duxbury, Massachusetts for the joyful occasion. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife were invited, but sent their regrets and congratulatory notes to both of the couples that they read at the reception.

-Stephanie Gray, Park Guide

Was the Civil War a “War of Choice?”

        David Goldfield, a historian at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, recently penned a column that has appeared in several major newspapers this summer, including the July 22 edition of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. (Link is to, where Goldfield’s article first appeared.)

        In the column, entitled “Give Peace a Chance: Avoid the Carnage of War,” Goldfield bluntly states, “The Civil War was not a just war. It was a war of choice brought on by the insidious mixture of politics and religion that caused our political process and, ultimately, the nation to disintegrate.” As the U.S. commemorates the war’s 150th anniversary with battle reenactments, scholarly lectures, new books, and feature films, the question Goldfield poses is a legitimate one: was the Civil War truly necessary?

        Obviously, Goldfield believes it was not. His objection to the war stems from his belief that by the year 1861, “the Bible had replaced the Constitution as the arbiter of public policy, particularly over the issue of extending slavery in the Western territories.” The Second Great Awakening had swept across the United States in the early nineteenth century, and the evangelical Protestantism that resulted was a leading cause of the rise of social reform movements, including abolitionism. At the same time, anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant groups emerged as well, eventually resulting in the creation of the so-called “Know Nothing” political party. Evangelicals and Know Nothings sought to spread democracy across North America, and to do so meant that, in Goldfield’s words, “America must expiate its sins, foremost among them slavery and the Roman Catholic Church—two forms of despotism that undermined democracy and Christianity.”

Camp Meeting by A. Rider, ca. 1835. Collection of the New York Historical Society.

        Professor Goldfield makes some very compelling points about the ties between early political parties and evangelicals, and such observations are still relevant today. But are these ties the only reasons the nation went to war with itself in April 1861? To argue that they are greatly oversimplifies a century of conflict over the presence of slavery in America. It also seems to place the blame for the war directly at the feet of Republicans like Abraham Lincoln simply because they were Republicans. While Lincoln the politician was deft with his pen and able to incorporate biblical ideas and verses into many of his speeches, Lincoln the man was not an overly devout Christian and was certainly no evangelical. He is also the president that told the South in his March 4, 1861 inaugural address, “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict, without being yourselves the aggressors.” However, according to Goldfield, “When the Republicans, avowedly evangelical and proudly sectional, took control of the government in March 1861, Southerners were rightly concerned to expect the worst. And the worst happened.”

Bombardment of Fort Sumter by Currier and Ives. University of California-Davis.

        The worst did happen, and the war began on April 12, 1861. If one reads Goldfield’s assessment, one might be led to believe that Lincoln ordered the U.S. Army to invade the South as soon as he finished his inaugural speech. In fact, southerners fired on Fort Sumter, a federal bastion in the Charleston, South Carolina harbor. Regardless of how “evangelical” or “sectional” the Republicans were, the South fired the first shot of the war that would last four years and claim approximately 750,000 lives. And for what? Why did the Confederates in Charleston attack Fort Sumter? Why did southerners feel compelled to secede in the first place? In sum, for what did the South fight? Perhaps understanding this will shed light as to whether or not the war was truly necessary.

Lincoln as President-elect, Chicago, Ill., November 25, 1860. Photograph by Samuel G. Alschuler, courtesy of Library of Congress.

        Despite former Confederates’ postwar assessments that the South fought merely to defend itself from a tyrannical North or for the always vaguely-defined “states’ rights,” the war was fought primarily because the South wanted no part of a nation that questioned the value, morality, or legality of slavery. When Abraham Lincoln won the election of 1860, southern leaders—despite Lincoln’s constant assurances that he sought only to contain slavery in the South, not abolish it—convinced themselves and their constituents that the so-called “Black Republicans” would soon cross the Potomac and march through the South, freeing slaves and encouraging the twin horrors of black civil rights and miscegenation. Secession movements began in earnest before Lincoln’s election but picked up steam after it was confirmed that Lincoln would become president in 1861. Regardless of how passionately abolitionist they may have been, few northerners had ever openly threatened secession in response to outrages such as slaveholders being elected to the presidency or appointed to the Supreme Court.

        The South fought to preserve and expand the institution of slavery. While it is true that the majority of Confederate soldiers and sailors were not slave owners, they did fight for a government and a socioeconomic system built on slavery. If a war to preserve the world’s only working democracy and free people from bondage is not necessary or justified, then what war is? “I believe the war will soon take the shape of Slavery and Freedom,” wrote future Union General and President of the United States James A. Garfield just two days after Fort Sumter. “The world will so understand it, and I believe the final outcome will redound to the good of humanity.” Garfield also shared his opinion that “I hope we will never stop short of complete subjugation. Better lose a million men in battle than allow the government to be overthrown.”

        As further proof of his opinion that the Civil War was a conflict of choice, Goldfield includes this statement: “And what of the former slaves, on whose behalf this carnage was allegedly undertaken? The Civil War sealed their freedom, but little else. It would be more than a century before African-Americans attained the basic rights of that freedom.” True, but does Goldfield actually believe that the failures of the post-war era—which, of course, no one could know or envision before or during the conflict—negate the war’s necessity in the first place? Based on this line of reasoning, African Americans would have been better off to remain as slaves than to be free in an admittedly imperfect and unfriendly atmosphere at war’s end. One wonders how many slaves would have volunteered to stay in bondage had they known how difficult their path to equality under the law would be after the war. Goldfield appears to believe that since the “new birth of freedom” Lincoln spoke of in the Gettysburg Address was not immediate, it was not worth fighting for at all.

Union soldier reads Emancipation Proclamation to newly freed slaves. National Archives.

        Finally, Goldfield asks if peace, not war, might have ended slavery sooner and guaranteed the legal and political equality of African Americans. He does not define what he believes “peace” to be. Is it merely the absence of war? Or is there more to it than that? Consider that the North and South argued (relatively) peacefully about the existence, boundaries, and morality of slavery from before the Constitutional Convention until “Bleeding Kansas” in 1856—a period of 70 years. During that time, Congress forged many compromises that appeased both northerners and southerners, but none ever permanently held. Peaceful legislative compromises and solutions were pretty well exhausted by 1856, when pro- and anti-slavery settlers in Kansas brutally fought over whether that territory’s constitution would allow or outlaw slavery. This mini civil war was merely a preview of things to come on a national scale five years later. “Give peace a chance” is a great slogan and a great John Lennon song, but peace merely for the sake of avoiding war was tried for three-quarters of a century before the Civil War. As John Brown—one of the most violent of those who fought on either side in Bleeding Kansas—predicted on his way to the gallows in December 1859, “the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”

Confederate dead on the field at Gettysburg, July 5, 1863. Photo by Timothy H. O’Sullivan, courtesy of Library of Congress.

        This blog post does not mean to glorify or advocate war. David Goldfield is correct when he writes “Wars are easily made, difficult to end and burdened with unintended consequences and unforeseen human casualties.” As the Union General William T. Sherman told the citizens and leaders of Atlanta in 1864, “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.” This quote would help make Goldfield’s case if it ended there. But Sherman continued: “…but you cannot have peace and a division of our country…I want peace, and believe it can only be reached through union and war.”

        Perhaps David Goldfield is appalled by war in general and not just the Civil War specifically. If so, few would disagree. Based on his criticisms of the early Republicans’ ties to evangelicalism, he also appears to be repelled by religion. He is certainly not alone in that, either. However, is it possible that he is taking his personal distastes for war and religion in 2012 and using them to oppose the Civil War, which started over 150 years ago?

        The United States has unquestionably fought wars during its history for dubious reasons and unclear goals, but the Civil War was not one of them. That war began as a fight to preserve this union, but evolved into a conflict that sought to ensure that union’s liberties and freedoms were and are made available to everyone—thereby making it better by forcing it to live up to the promise of its Constitution. That is worth fighting for.

-Todd Arrington, Chief of Interpretation & Education

The Tragedy…and Triumph of President James A. Garfield and Alexander Graham Bell

Scene at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station after President Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau. Printed in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, July 16, 1881. Library of Congress.

       “I am a dead man…” said President James A. Garfield as he lay in a pool of blood on the floor of the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station July 2, 1881. As onlookers stared in awe and wept, several men accompanying the President apprehended the shooter, Charles Guiteau, and the others quickly swept up the President and transported him to the White House.

       The question of the bullet was a curious one. Exploratory surgery was not done in the 19th century and X-rays were not yet invented, so the doctors attending James Garfield used the most primitive instruments – their fingers – to probe the entry wound in his back and try to manually locate the bullet. Bedridden, stoic, and even conversational, Garfield endured this crude method of examination for three weeks with no firm conclusion.   Then a glimmer of hope came from an unlikely source – the inventor of  the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell.

Alexander Graham Bell in 1876, photo courtesy of IEEE History Center.

By 1881, Mr. Bell was at the height of his career. The telephone, patented in 1876, earned the Bell Telephone Company its first million, the first corporation to achieve that benchmark inside of one year. Bell constantly invented and improved his creations, and a week after the shooting Bell felt he could help the President’s case by applying his telephone technology to a machine developed by Simon Newcomb, called the induction balance machine. The idea was that the machine could create an electric current and by passing coils over a mass, in this case a human body, any trace of metal would be detected and create a sound by interrupting the current. The amplification device which allowed telephone users to hear a voice from the other end of a phone line would be used to magnify the sound of the interruption on the induction balance machine, thus allowing Bell to pinpoint the location of the bullet.

Professor A. Graham Bell’s induction balance for ascertaining the location of a bullet in a human body, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, August 20, 1881. Library of Congress.

        From the time he arrived in Washington on July 26, 1881 Bell worked tirelessly with his assistant, William Taintor. The pair scrounged for parts to connect the amplifier to Newcomb’s apparatus, and experimented with lengths and locations of the coils which would be used to scan the President’s body.  When the machine was in working order, they conducted several trial runs to test the ability of the coils to pick up the presence of lead. Both men hid bullets in their cheeks, in sacks of cotton, in corpses the approximate size of the President, and finally inside of raw beef. Met with success every time, the professors brought the contraption to the Army War Hospital and used it on Civil War veterans with spent bullets in their bodies. All trials were successful, and with some minor tweaking an anxious Bell was ready to try it on his most famous patient: the President of the United States.

       A confident Bell and Taintor arrived at the White House with high hopes the morning of July 26. Those hopes were replaced by shock as Bell caught his first glimpse of the sleeping President.  “His face is very pale – or rather it is of an ashen grey colour which makes one feel for a moment that you are not looking upon a living man,” Bell observed. Feeling the sense of urgency, the anxious orchestrator immediately began setting up the equipment.

       When Garfield awoke, his attending physicians prepared him for the experiment. His dressing gown was pulled to one side, and with support from an attendant, Garfield slowly rotated his body to expose the wound and surrounding areas.  “A calm peaceful expression” came across Garfield’s face, and he closed his eyes as the testing began. Dr. Willard Bliss, the doctor in charge of Garfield’s case, took the coils from the induction balance machine and scanned the President’s body near the bullet hole in his back. This puzzled Bell, since Bliss predicted the bullet was near Garfield’s abdomen in the front of his body. Nonetheless, Bell took his place behind the President, listening in anticipation of that magic sound coming through the telephone earpiece. 

Two scenes of Bell’s attempt at using his induction balance to determine where the bullet was lodged. Left: “The Wounded President: Ascertaining the location of the bullet.” Harper’s Weekly, August 13, 1881. Right: “The attempted assassination of the President – The Discovery of the Location of the Bullet by Means of Professor Bell’s Induction Balance.” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, August 20, 1881. Library of Congress.

        “THE PATIENT STILL MAKING GOOD PROGRESS – SUCCESSFUL EXPERIMENTS WITH THE INDUCTION BALANCE—THE BULLET IN THE PLACE FIRST DECIDED UPON BY THE SURGEONS” was the morning headline on August 1, 1881. The New York Times printed a report given by Alexander Graham Bell on his attempt to locate the bullet: “…on July 26, a feeble tone was perceived…but too feeble to be entirely satisfactory.” Based on Bell’s earlier attempts at concealing bullets in meat, corpses, etc, he expected a louder sound when the coils were placed near the bullet in Garfield’s body. Bell took the machine back to his lab, made some further modifications, conducted some more bullet-in-flesh experiments, and returned confidently to the White House on August 1 for a second try.   The Times reported after this attempt that “it is now unanimously agreed that the location of the ball has been ascertained with reasonable certainty…” in Garfield’s abdominal wall toward the front of his body below and to the right of his belly button. 

       Bell was guardedly pleased at the positive response from the doctors, although he himself knew the truth. The induction balance machine did not record a significant difference in sound when waved over different parts of Garfield’s body on August 1. Bell was not satisfied, but the medical professionals had closure and the matter was laid to rest. 

Headline from The Chicago Daily Tribune, September 20, 1881

       On the morning of September 20, 1881 the newspapers, which for 80 days had religiously detailed the President’s medical condition, had a new headline: “He is Dead.”  Upon autopsy of the President’s  body, the bullet was found to the right of Garfield’s spinal cord, rendered harmless by a layer of scar tissue that formed around it. Bell was understandably upset by these results, which showed the bullet was nowhere near where the doctors thought it was. Had he been permitted to scan Garfield’s body thoroughly during his examination, Bell quite possibly could have located the bullet. Despite the successes of his earlier experiments, Bell returned home a defeated man, fearing his reputation was soiled and the lifesaving potential of his machine’s lost on this bad news.

       After mentally healing from the death of President Garfield, Alexander Graham Bell rose above tragedy to triumph.  He mended whatever reputation he believed damaged from his failure to save the President and went on to perfect the induction balance machine, known today simply as a metal detector. These machines are commonly available and affordable. People use them as a form of recreation to find coins, old nails, and perhaps treasure, but very few hobbyists realize the contraption they are holding was first conceived to save a wounded and dying President.

-Allison Powell, Park Ranger