21st April 1849. Murder and Phrenology.

Today in 1849 saw the last public execution outside Norwich Gaol, when James Blomfield Rush was hanged for the murder of landowners Isaac Jermy and his son of Stanfield Hall.(1) 

The High Sheriff who organised the execution was so affected by the crime that he had an enormous black flag put on the gallows.

Norwich Castle where Rush was hanged.

The case was unremarkable for the times except that following the execution it inspired much associated memorabilia with Staffordshire Pottery producing figures of the main characters and buildings, along with a medal with a portrait on one side and a brief account on other.

Figures of Rush and his mistress associate.

Another aspect of the time shows the Victorian concern with the bogus science of Phrenology, when a model was made of Rush’s head to confirm his tendencies to criminality.

Phrenology was a theme much taken up by 19thc novelists: Anne Bronte’s, Tenant of Wildfell Hall with Huntingdon’s insight that he cannot be religious, since he hasn’t a sufficient ‘organ of veneration’.

Then in Charlotte Bronte’s, Villette, Madame Beck has M. Paul practise physiognomy on Lucy Snow, and Jane Eyre is disinclined to consider Mr.Rochester without an examination of his countenance (Physiognomy): ’Let me look at your face because I want to read your countenance’.

Charlotte and her publisher George Smith, under an assumed name, attended a clinic run by Dr J.P. Brown to have their ‘bumps read’.

Charles Dickens favoured Physiognomy as in The Uncommercial Traveller there is reference to the ‘gallant officer’s organ of destruction’.

In Great Expectations, the criminal Magwitch says: ‘they looked at me, I at them, and my head some of ’em, had a better a measure by my stomach’.(2)

In Little Dorrit, Mr Casby was a believer in ‘the bumps and lumps and organs of behaviour’.

Rush who was in Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors from 1849-1971.

In fact literature of the 19thc was much concerned with the notion that the brain had separate areas which conditioned mood and psychological characteristics, which though misguided in its applications, has later turned out with modern neuro-science, to have some proof, but not in the wish-fulfillment assumptions of Phrenology and Physiognomy.

Up until recent times the lower working class were held in low esteem so any phrenology used on criminals was assumed to confirm a tendency towards crime and anti-social behaviour, a self justifying conclusion with all its overtones of social discrimination as confirming inherent criminal and mental tendencies. We see this also in racism.

(1) On 28.11.1848.

(2) 1861. P 385.


wikipedia.org/Pic of castle.

madalena.com./staffs pottery/Pic of figure.

jermy.org/tussauds/chamber of horrors/Pic.





About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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