Printing skulls: the transatlantic publication and reception of Crania Americana (1839)

James Poskett University of Cambridge 2013-2014 Dissertation Research Fellow
Printing skulls: the transatlantic publication and reception of Crania Americana (1839) My project explored how transatlantic connections shaped both the publication and the reception of Samuel George Morton’s Crania Americana (1839). In this book, Morton divides man into four races before linking these races to skull configuration. Morton’s work was extremely influential across the USA and Europe in the nineteenth century. As a central text in the history of scientific racism, it also remains controversial today. But to date, there have been no histories which consider the relevance of Morton’s extensive correspondence with physicians, naturalists, and phrenologists in Britain, France, and Germany. Furthermore, there have been no studies which consider how Morton managed the reception of Crania Americana across the Atlantic Ocean, in Britain and Continental Europe. This is made all the more difficult as source material is scattered across these regions. By travelling to Philadelphia in the summer of 2013 I was able to make connections between sources held in Philadelphia, Princeton, Edinburgh, Cambridge, London and Paris. My first stop was the American Philosophical Society as their library holds the majority of the Morton correspondence. There I was able to read the letters of numerous European correspondents, including the Edinburgh phrenologist George Combe, the British ethnographer James Cowles Prichard, and the French naturalist George Cuvier. These sources helped me to uncover the reciprocal relationship between American and European protagonists in the publication and reception of Crania Americana: for instance, Combe secured a British publisher for the work: Simpkin, Marshall & Company. Following publication, Combe also helped to manage the reception of Crania Americana. He arranged for 60,000 handbill advertisements to be printed and inserted into most of the major British periodicals. As a consequence of all this assistance, the question of whether Crania Americana was a ‘phrenological’ work permeated its reception. Next I travelled across the city to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. This proved an invaluable resource for a publishing history, as the library houses a manuscript copy of both Crania Americana and Combe’s phrenological appendix. By examining these, alongside printed copies of the work, I was able to trace changes in the text which I had previously learned about from letters I had read at the National Library of Scotland. Reading these sources alongside one another, separated by the Atlantic Ocean today as in the nineteenth century, I was able to recover how Combe’s criticism of Morton’s treatment of ‘Ancient Peruvian’ skulls translated into the edited manuscript. My third stop was the College of Physicians of Pennsylvania. Alongside further Morton letters, the College of Physicians also houses a collection of reviews and loose plates printed to promote Crania Americana. The private circulation of such plates in Europe proved an important means of generating support prior to the arrival of the finished work. James Cowles Prichard even obtained a copy of the plates which he showed to the British Association in 1840, whilst woodcut copies were reprinted much more widely than the expensive folio work itself. My final port of call was the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. This allowed me to inspect another copy of Crania Americana – a crucial practice for writing a book history – one that was in fact donated to the Academy by Morton and contains a number of minor corrections, as well as an inscription in his own hand. I also uncovered a number of publications owned by Morton which had been given as gifts by European men of science, including those of the British geologists Charles Lyell and Gideon Mantell. These helped me to better understand Morton’s broader reading practices and the transatlantic circulation of scientific texts more generally. Ultimately, the Philadelphia Area Center for the History of Science Research Fellowship allowed me to develop an original transnational approach to writing about this central work in the history of scientific racism.