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Authors: Colin Dickey

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But Napoleon's view wasn't the popular one. Gall began lecturing on his findings in 1796 and was an instant hit. His public lectures drew large crowds to whom he espoused his ideas that the brain—rather than some ineffable, immortal soul—was the home of the mind and that the strengths and tendencies of this brain could be read through the skull. His lectures were scandalous in part because they were open to the general public, including women, though he claimed that women were never present when he discussed sexual proclivities and reproduction.

Gall worked largely by induction. He would identify a principle of the mind and then find someone whose personality demonstrated this principle. From there it was just a matter of finding something equally noteworthy about this person's head. Sometimes such connections were formed from only one or two examples. Aaron Burr, for example, had fathered a child out of wedlock and had a large ridge on the back of his head— thus, Gall reasoned, that portion of the brain must be where “love of offspring” was located, a faculty particularly excessive in Burr's case.

But even with such a lax methodology, he needed a body of evidence. He needed heads—lots of them. And so Gall quickly amassed a huge collection of skulls and plaster casts of heads. By his own estimate, this collection cost 7,000 gulden; on top of that was another 15,000 guldens' worth of preparations, a sum equal to forty times the average salary of a middle-class Viennese and over twice the value of Haydn's entire estate.

For the most part, Gall acquired his skulls from executed criminals and asylum graveyards; if he wanted the head of someone important for his collection, he would take a plaster cast. But that didn't stop his detractors from imputing darker motives. Pierre Flourens, a rival anatomist and one of Gall's many antagonists, would later claim that

at one time everybody in Vienna was trembling for his head, and fearing that after his death it would be put in requisition to enrich Dr. Gall's cabinet. . . . Too many people were led to suppose themselves the objects of the doctor's regards, and imagined their heads to be especially longed for by him as a specimen of the utmost importance to the success of his experiments. Some very curious stories were told on this point. Old M. Denis, the Emperor's librarian, inserted a special clause in his will, intended to save his cranium from M. Gall's scalpel.

This was mostly invention on Flourens's part, as Gall, it turns out, had some trouble acquiring skulls other than those of criminals and the insane. “Men,” he wrote in a letter, “unhappily, have such an opinion of themselves, that each one believes that I am watching for his head, as one of the most important objects of my collection. Nevertheless, I have not been able to collect more than twenty in the space of three years, if I except
those that I have taken in the hospitals, or in the asylum for idiots.”

But it wasn't for lack of trying. “If you could arrange it that any kind of genius would make me the heir of his skull, I would promise to build a splendid building within ten years,” he wrote in 1898. “Certainly it would be dangerous for Kästner, Kant, or Wieland, if I had David's killing angel at my disposal.” As late as 1827 his desperation for the heads of geniuses was evident; after receiving a bust of the head of Goethe as a gift, he replied that, should Goethe die, “I implore you to bribe the relatives of this unique genius to preserve his head in nature for the world.”

For the general public, this was the most disturbing byproduct of Gall's new system, and it tapped into a larger fear that had begun to surface long before, when modern anatomists had first started to turn to the corpse as a means of understanding the body. There was a widespread belief, especially in Catholic areas like Austria, that one's intact and naturally decomposed remains were vital for resurrection. Dissection or dismemberment represented a fate far worse than death, and it was for this reason that only executed criminals were turned over to anatomists— dissection was seen as the final form of punishment. To have one's body cut open for science implied the damnation of one's soul. A particularly horrific cartoon from the early nineteenth
century showed a dissection lab on the day of the Last Judgment, with dismembered arms and legs reanimated and moving about, desperately seeking the rest of their bodies.

But what Catholics saw in Gall's skull collection was something far more sinister than the doctor could have meant. Gall's contention that the brain was the sole organ of the mind suggested a dangerous form of heresy—“materialism”—that went counter to centuries of church doctrine. The implication inherent in phrenology was that one need not consider the immortal soul because everything of consequence could be located in the brain. It was this notion that led the Austrian government, motivated by the Catholic Church, to ban all public lectures by Gall on January 9, 1802.

Gall attempted to defend himself in a lengthy retort against this and other accusations. He wrote,

It has occasioned to me infinite distress, that his Majesty has been led to entertain the unfounded apprehension, that my theory appears to lead to materialism, and consequently to militate against the first principles of morals and religion. In all ages, it has happened that truths entirely new, or even truths only better demonstrated, have appeared to threaten the existence of all previously established principles. But experience has uniformly proved, that old and new truths soon cordially combine, and mutually support each other, that opposition to them is only pernicious, and, especially, that obstacles thrown in their way tend only to promote their advancement.

He went on to argue that he did not actually believe one could determine a subject's personality solely by looking at the bumps of a skull: It was impossible, he claimed, to distinguish the worthless from the virtuous solely through the skull “because moral, social, civil, and religious conduct, is the result of many and different concomitant causes, and especially of many powerful external influences; for instance, education, example, habits, laws, religion, age, society, climate, food, health, and so forth.”

Ultimately, though, Gall saw the writing on the wall and was forced to leave Austria for France. He could not afford to transport his extensive skull collection, which was subsequently lost. Eventually Gall and Spurzheim made it to Paris, where they were instantly popular, having among their many clients notables such as Prince Metternich. Austria, it would seem, was free of its dangerous heretic.

But Gall's subversive ideas had already begun to have an impact. Enterprising phrenologists quickly understood that if they were going to know the mind, they needed the skulls not just of prostitutes and murderers but of greater men and women—and, more important, that these skulls might be worth something.

Around the same time Gall began lecturing on the properties of the skull, the sexton of Vienna's St. Marx Church, Joseph Rothmayer, undertook a rather unorthodox mission. A few years earlier he had been present when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had
been buried there, and, sensing the potential value of the composer's skull, he had wrapped a metal wire around the corpse's neck before it had been unceremoniously dumped into the mass grave. Now, in what Peter J. Davies has aptly described as “a moment of animated musical enthusiasm,” he dug up the communal grave and picked through the pile of remains until he found the skeleton with the wire around its neck. He removed Mozart's head and saved it from destruction.


Gall's banishment from Vienna was the talk of the town. A month after the prohibition was first issued, a group of middle-class gentlemen gathered to discuss the events of the day. Among them was one of the few Viennese unfamiliar with Gall. Later that night the gentleman wrote, “At mid-day, Csiskowsky (the steward of the Cobenzl Berg), Eckhart and Klimbke lunched with us. We talked a great deal about Schall's theory of phrenology.”
It's unclear why he got the name wrong in his diary; he may have just misheard it, or perhaps he'd conflated the doctor's name with the German word
meaning “skull.” The man's name was Joseph Carl Rosenbaum, and in the seven years between Gall's banishment from Vienna and Haydn's death, Rosenbaum's relationship to phrenology would change dramatically.

was born in 1770. His father was a house steward for the Esterhazy family, and so, although he had been born in Vienna, Joseph grew up in Eisenstadt. As was the custom, he followed his father's footsteps by entering Esterhazy service at the age of twenty and in 1797 came back to Vienna as the controller of the accounts of the vast Esterhazy stables.

Rosenbaum was, by any measure, a capable and successful accountant and a kind and generous friend. Above all, though, he was a lover of music. He rarely went a day without attending the theater—indeed, scholars have long turned to his diaries for precise information on the dates of performances of important operas or symphonies as well as a detailed record of the major performers and the quality of their performances. He was well known throughout the musical world and was on friendly terms with Haydn and less-well-known composers such as Johann Fuchs as well as with people such as the painter Francesco Casanova (brother of the more famous Giacomo) and Constanze Mozart, the widow of the composer whose head had lately been rescued.

Shortly after arriving in Vienna, Rosenbaum was introduced to two sisters, also from Eisenstadt, who had come to Vienna to begin a career on the stage, primarily singing Haydn's masses. Their names were Maria Anna and Therese Josepha Gassman. Almost immediately, Therese, the younger, caught Rosenbaum's eye.

The Gassmans' father, Florian, had been a court composer, and the family was well known in the musical society of Austria. To commemorate Therese's birth, Haydn had given the family a specially designed cuckoo clock that played original melodies he had composed. Both Therese and her sister were destined for music before they were even born. Just before Therese's birth in 1774, Florian died unexpectedly, and the girls' musical education was turned over to their godfather, Antonio Salieri. While Maria Anna's talents were never more than adequate, Therese became one of the most celebrated singers in Vienna, in particular for her success in the difficult role of the Queen of the Night in Mozart's
The Magic Flute
. One newspaper commented that “the purity, modulation, and unusual range of her voice are certainly a most admirable and rare gift of nature.” She was a personal favorite of the Hapsburg empress, Maria Therese (daughter of Maria Theresia), who once confided to her, “You sing confoundedly high, I am often frightened when you sing so high and often tremble.”

With such a pedigree, Therese's mother had high hopes for both of her daughters. It seemed well within the realm of possibility that the girls might marry into nobility, and with titles (not to mention money), the family's legacy would be secured.

Rosenbaum began to pay regular visits to the Gassman household and made a point of seeing Therese whenever she performed. Her singing enthralled him; at the theater it was Therese alone who “made the hours pleasant” for him. Five months after
their first meeting he made the decision to propose to her. It turned out to be a fateful decision—one that would lead to two years of dashed hopes and frustration, nearly ruin his career, threaten to ruin hers as well, and make the prince a permanent enemy.

seemed quite promising. Rosenbaum began his courtship by taking Therese to the ballet and the opera and to all the sights and pleasures of the city. They traded coquettish love letters, acting like giddy teenagers. But despite Therese's obvious affection for Rosenbaum, her mother, Theresia, had not given up on the idea of a title for her daughter, and she saw that she had to take action lest her grand plan be derailed. She began to circulate all manner of rumors about Rosenbaum's character and prospects, repeatedly trying to wreck Therese's impression of him; in one pointed exchange Theresia told Rosenbaum loudly in Therese's presence that he should not bother to buy the girl any more presents because once he lost his job he would have to ask for them all back. But the suitor was not deterred, and mother Gassman soon saw that her whisper campaign was not enough. She needed someone powerful to break this attraction, and so for the second time in her life she went to royalty on behalf of her daughter.

It was well known that the Esterhazy princes generally preferred not to have their employees married, fearing divided loyalties; anyone in the service of the prince needed his permission
before he or she could marry. So when Therese's mother decided that she needed to stop the marriage, it was to the prince that she went. She explained her dilemma, telling the prince that there was simply no way that one of the brightest stars on the Viennese stage—who might yet be courted by counts and barons—could be allowed to marry a midlevel clerk. The prince was swayed and made it clear to the young Rosenbaum that he was not likely to approve any marriage anytime soon.

What had seemed a sure thing was quickly slipping from Rosenbaum's grasp, and he turned to his friends for aid. He asked for advice and support, called in all the favors to which he had a claim, even requested that the dowager princess put in a good word for him. And then he turned to Joseph Haydn.

Rosenbaum and Haydn, both members of the court staff, saw each other regularly—Rosenbaum often came to the composer on business matters and stayed to discuss Haydn's latest work or theatrical gossip. Haydn liked the young man for his earnestness and palpable love of music. Rosenbaum had an unerring sense of taste, and his enthusiasm and sensitivity naturally endeared him to musicians like Haydn, whom Rosenbaum recognized as of a special distinction. Only a few weeks after Therese's mother began her intrigues, Rosenbaum and Therese made separate entreaties to Haydn for his assistance and asked him to intercede; this, Rosenbaum happily reported, Haydn “faithfully promised to do.”

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