Saints, Sinners and Reformers
The Burned-Over District Re-Visited
Orson Squire Fowler
Phrenology and Octagon Houses
Orson Squire Fowler (1809 - 1887) is a name which is seldom recognized
today, but in the middle of the nineteenth century Fowler was widely known
as a proponent of various forms of self-culture, a career which began
with the publication in 1843 of his Perfection of Character.
He was the foremost proponent of phrenology in the United States when
that pseudo-science was all the rage; he was the creator of the architectural
design of octagon houses, a form which spread across the nation; and then
he was the author of one of the more notorious sex manuals in Victorian
times. Orson Fowler held forth for the equality for women at a time when
women had virtually no legal rights in the United States, and he stood
for children's rights when child labor was quite acceptable in the burgeoning
industrial factories of his country. He proposed ideas on how to discover
the ideal mate, on marriage counseling, sex education, hydropathy (the
curing of diseases by internal and external use of water), mesmerism,
the improvement in farming as well as in the enhancement of health and
daily life. Moreover, he condemned the use of tobacco by men and tight
corsets for women. Orson Fowler was obviously a universal reformer whose
ideas were much ahead of his time, but above all he was a nineteenth century
individualist in what many have seen as an age of orthodoxy, piety, and
Determined to be a minister, he left his small village of Cohocton in
western New York at age seventeen with four dollars in his pocket and
all of his possessions on his back. He walked the four hundred miles to
Massachusetts to be tutored by two Congregational ministers before entering
Amherst College in 1829, from which he graduated in 1834 after working
at odd jobs to pay his way through college.
Together with a fellow classmate, the soon-to-be famous preacher, Henry
Ward Beecher, the two became attracted to the new science of phrenology
after hearing a lecture on the subject in Boston by Dr. Spurtzheim of
Austria. The truth of the new science could hardly be doubted after Fowler
examined his friend Henry's head and found evidence of Beecher's "strong
social brain" combined with "very large benevolence." Thus they brought
phrenology back to Amherst, popularizing it through a college debate in
which Beecher ostensibly took the negative side where phrenology was concerned
while Fowler stood as its ardent defender, a position which in time would
make him a leader in this new movement. Fowler's brother Lorenzo (1811-1896)
followed in his older brother's footsteps to Amherst and into a lifetime
association with phrenology with his brother and later with their sister
Charlotte. After graduation the two young men gave up their goal of becoming
ministers and instead stumped the country as proselytizers of this new
more secular faith of phrenology.
Phrenology began when Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) was born in Baden,
Germany, studied medicine in Vienna, and became a physician. He sought
to localize specific mental faculties within the brain, and he began with
the idea that the shape of the head might indicate one's intellectual
qualities. He arrived at this concept when he noted that students with
good memories and the ability to memorize long passages with ease seemed
to have prominent eyes and large foreheads. Did this mean that these factors
indicated that the location of the seat of this form of intelligence lay
in the brain behind the eyes? Thus he speculated that the strengths and
weaknesses of the brain might be represented in relief by the shape one's
head. If this were the case, no doubt other aspects of character could
be located in other portions of the brain. Perhaps it might even be possible,
with this knowledge of the seat of various aspects of one's character,
to change or develop specific innate abilities. Gall's fame spread throughout
central Europe, but he ran into conflict with the church authorities who
found that his concepts obviated the doctrine of original sin and the
place of the church in man's salvation. Thus in 1802 the Austrian authorities
forbad the dissemination of his ideas in that country. This had the obvious
effect of increasing the public interest in his ideas, and in 1805 he
left Austria in order to promulgate his new theories throughout the Continent.
One year later, in 1806, Joseph Biddle of Philadelphia heard one of Gall's
lectures in Karlsruhe, Germany, and he returned to the United States with
a skull marked by Dr. Gall with the possible areas of the brain's functions
which could indicate one's character. Thus the new science of phrenology
was to become known in the early 1800s by a few individuals in the United
States. With the advent of "Perfectionism" being fostered by the religious
revivals which were becoming rampant in the Burned-Over District of New
York, this new doctrine held forth promise of individual perfectibility,
and the field was ripe for phrenology to gain a foothold in America.
Gall had a pupil, Johann Gaspar Spurzheim (1786-1832), born in Treves,
Germany, who had become a Viennese physician and who popularized Gall's
ideas and gave it the name of "Phrenology," the "Science of the Mind."
He also added metaphysical and philosophical overtones to Gall's ideas.
The two men split, Gall moving into what would become the field of neurology
to explain further the idea that different parts of the brain affected
different aspects of an individual's being, and in this realm he was far
ahead of his time. Spurzheim meantime determined that one's character
could be analyzed through the examination of the topography of one's skull
simply by feeling the surface of one's head. The very contours if one's
cranium gave away one's character since certain portions of the head,
he averred, indicated inherent traits. Where a trait was foremost, the
skull bulged at that point since the brain was large at that spot. Thus
a phrenologist could discern the Bump of Knowledge, the Bump of Artistry,
the Bump of Avarice, and so forth, simply by feeling the surface of one's
Spurzheim's lectures on phrenology were to have an effect in the United
States since in the 1820s Professor John Wells of Bowdoin College and
Dr. Charles Caldwell, the founder of Transylvania University's Medical
School, became interested in the ideas of Gall and Spurzheim, and they
translated a text of Gall's theories. Dr. Joseph C. Warren, the Professor
of Medicine at Harvard, soon added the topic of phrenology to his lectures
after studying the work of Gall and Spurzheim. The theories of phrenology
were furthered when Spurtzheim came to the United States in 1832 to lecture
on his topic, and he spoke at various intellectual centers including the
Yale commencement exercises in August of 1832. He went on to speak at
the Athenaeum in Boston where his overly strenuous six-month almost non-stop
series of lectures in the United States was unfortunately cut short by
his unexpected death. He was buried in Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Boston,
and the Athenaeum became the repository for Spurzheim's brain. By 1835
the Athenaeum had 416 exhibits relating to phrenology, only to be outdone
in time by Orson Fowler's eventual collection of 1,000 skulls for research
and public display in his "Phrenological Cabinet" in his future Clinton
Hall establishment in New York City. (The public nick-named the "Cabinet"
as "Golgotha," and it offered a competitive attraction to the displays
of freaks and other unusual atractions which P. T. Barnum was providing
the American public. )
Although phrenology was later to be seen as a pseudo-science, the two
European physicians had come close to localizing the area of the brain
which controls speech. This new field of phrenology captivated Fowler,
and while at Amherst he was soon examining his fellow students' heads
at two cents per cranium so as to inform them of their in-built propensities.
After graduation, instead of entering the ministry, Orson and Lorenzo
lectured throughout the United States on this new science before setting
up an office, the Phrenological Institute, in New York City whose shingle
announced that they were practicing phrenologists. They were soon joined
by their sister Charlotte and her husband Samuel Wells. Lorenzo married
Lydia Folger (1823-1879), the second woman to earn a medical degree in
the United States in 1850 from the Syracuse Medical School in New York,
an institution where she was to teach medical science. Thus after their
marriage, her lecturing on the diseases of women and children as well
as on phrenology provided her with an impeccable scientific basis for
the dissemination of the new science of phrenology.
In 1836, two years after graduating from Amherst College, Fowler published
Phrenology, Proved, Illustrated, and Applied, a work which would
make Fowler known and which would be printed in many editions both at
home and abroad. Through lectures and the printing of pamphlets on phrenology,
Fowler gradually developed a national reputation. His American Phrenological
Journal and Miscellany which he began in 1838 was still published
as late as 1911. With his magnetic personality, his piercing blue eyes,
and his long beard, he became a celebrity with offices in Manhattan, Boston,
and Philadelphia—and eventually in London, England. Fowler became
quite wealthy despite the somewhat modest charges for an examination:
$1 for a verbal examination and a booklet on phrenology, or, for $3 a
lengthy handwritten analysis of the findings of an individual's character.
From 1838 to 1854 the Fowlers' office in Clinton Hall in Manhattan attracted
notable Americans who wished to have their character analyzed by the new
science. They included Horace Greeley the noted journalist and politician,
President James Garfield, Brigham Young of Mormon fame, John Brown the
abolitionist, Oliver Wendell Holmes jurist and author, Ralph Waldo Emerson,
and Richard Henry Dana among others. Horace Mann, the famed American educator,
after a session with the Fowlers, called phrenology "the greatest discovery
of the age," and on July 6, 1849, Walt Whitman's head was analyzed by
the Fowlers who found him endowed with "large hope and comparison…and
causality." In fact, Whitman became an editor of Fowler's publications,
and it was Fowler who first published Whitman's Leaves of Grass.
Lorenzo Fowler in the early years of their phrenological career examined
the head of fifteen year old Clara Barton, the future founder of the American
Red Cross. She always remembered his analysis of her character as he told
her that "she would never assert herself for herself …and that she would
suffer wrong first—but for others she would be fearless."
Phrenology worried many religious believers, for if one could have mapped
out on one's head the areas of Spirituality, Cautiousness, Combativeness,
Conjugality, and Amativeness among other attributes (all areas which the
phrenologist could identify), this implied that behavior was determined
by one's physical nature, and thus individuals might be able to improve
their nature. If this were true, the basis for religious revivals, among
other spiritual attainments, were undercut since one could now attempt
to attain perfectibility through one's own efforts without the need for
any Church . (If the religious of that day could sigh with relief when
phrenology was eventually seen as a pseudo-science, what would they say
to recent indications that the very physical factors which phrenology
discovered are now thought to be determined by the genes which determine
How could one gainsay the findings of phrenology at that time when a
seer such as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that while phrenology was, "coarse
and odious to scientific men…phrenology has a certain truth in it; it
felt connections where the professors denied it, and it was leading to
a truth which had not yet been announced." But then there was Mark Twain,
ever the skeptic, who had his head read by the Fowlers a number of times.
He even recalled his first encounters with traveling phrenologists (possibly
Orson and Lorenzo in their itinerant lecturing days) in his Missouri home
town, and he described it in this manner:
In America forty or fifty years ago, Fowler…stood at the head
of the phrenological industry [sic]…. One of the most frequent arrivals
in our village of Hannibal was the peripatetic phrenologist, and he was
popular and always welcome.
He gathered the people together and gave them a gratis lecture
on the marvels of phrenology. He then felt their bumps and made an estimate
at twenty-five cents per head. I think that the people were almost always
satisfied with these translations of their character—if one may
properly use that word in this connection.
And indeed the word [translation] is right enough, for the estimates
were really translations since they conveyed seeming facts out of apparent
simplicities and into un-simple technical forms of expression —although
as a rule their meaning got left behind on the journey.
The phrenologist took delight in mouthing these great names;
they gurgled from his lips in an easy and unembarrassed stream, and this
exhibition of cultivated facility compelled the envy and admiration of
everybody. By and by, the people became familiar with these strange names
and addicted to the use of them—and they batted them back and forth
in conversation with deep satisfaction—a satisfaction which could
hardly have been more contenting if they had known for certain what the
Years later in 1872-1873 when Twain was in London, he encountered Lorenzo
Fowler's advertisement for his office on Fleet Street in that city. Lorenzo
and his wife had had a successful lecture tour of England, and they had
settled down in London where they had opened their phrenological office.
In Twain's words:
I made a small test of phrenology for my better information.
I went to Fowler under an assumed name. He examined my elevations and
depressions, and he gave me a chart which I carried home to the Langham
Hotel and studied with great interest and amusement—the same interest
and amusement which I should have found in the chart of an imposter who
had been passing himself off for me and who did not resemble me in a single
sharply defined detail.
When I entered his office, Fowler received me with indifference,
fingered my head in an un-interesting way, and named and estimated my
qualities in a bored and monotonous voice. He said I possessed amazing
courage, an abnormal spirit of daring, a pluck, a stern will, a fearlessness
that were without limit.
I was simply astonished at this, and gratified, too; I had not
suspected it before. But then he foraged over on the other side of my
skull and found a bump there called "Caution." This bump was so tall,
so mountainous, that it reduced my "Courage" bump to a mere hillock by
comparison. Although that "Courage" bump had been so prominent up to that
time—according to his description of it—that it ought to have
been a capable thing to hang my hat on—it amounted to nothing now
in the presence of that Matterhorn which he called my "Caution."
He explained that if the Matterhorn had been left out of my
scheme of character, I would have been one of the bravest men who ever
lived—possibly the bravest. But that my "Cautioness" was so prodigiously
superior to it that it abolished my courage and made me almost spectacularly
He continued his discoveries, with the result that I came out
safe and sound at the end, with a hundred great and shining qualities—but
which lost their value and amounted to nothing because each of the hundred
was coupled up with an opposing defect which took all the effectiveness
out of it.
However, he found a CAVITY in one place where a bump should
have been in anybody else's skull. That CAVITY, he said, was all alone,
all by itself, occupying a solitude, and it had no opposing bump, however
slight in elevation, to modify and ameliorate its perfect completeness
He startled me by saying that that CAVITY represented a total
absence of a "Sense of Humor!"
He now became most interested. Some of his indifference disappeared..
He almost grew eloquent over this "AMERICA" which he had discovered. He
said he often found bumps of HUMOR which were so small that they were
hardly noticeable, but that in his long experience this was the first
time he had ever come across a CAVITY where that bump out to be.
I was hurt, humiliated, resentful, but I kept these feelings
to myself. At bottom I believed his diagnosis was wrong, but I was not
certain. In order to make sure, I thought I would wait until he should
have forgotten my face and the peculiarities of my skull—and then
come back again and see if he had really known what he had been talking
about, or had only been guessing.
After three months I went back again, but under my own name
this time, heralding my arrival with a card bearing both my name and my
nom de guerre. Once more he made a striking discovery—the
CAVITY was gone, and in its place was a Mount Everest—figuratively
speaking - 31,000 feet high, the loftiest BUMP OF HUMOR he had ever encountered
in his life-long experience! Again, I carried away an elaborate chart.
It contained several sharply defined details of my character, but it bore
no resemblance to the earlier chart. These experiences have given me a
prejudice against phrenology which has lasted until now. I am aware that
the prejudice should have been against Fowler, instead of against the
But, I am human, and that is not the way prejudices act.
Despite this experience, Twain's BUMP OF HUMOR obviously led him again
to Fowler's New York office on March 7, 1901, and this time his bumps
were examined by Lorenzo Fowler's daughter Jessie. Jessie Fowler had studied
medicine in London and had been the editor of the British Phrenological
Journal before returning to New York. Twain's visit was a propitious
one for the next issue of the Fowlers' Phrenological Journal
on April 1, 1901, carried Jessie Fowler's observation of Mark Twain's
phrenological contours under a headline of:
MARK TWAIN, THE WORLDS GREATEST HUMORIST.
TWENTY REASONS WHY WE SAY SO.
It is not necessary to go into Jessie's long peroration as to the bumps
of HUMOR, of BENEVOLENCE, of MIRTHFULNESS, of CONSCIENTIOUSNESS, of HOPE,
and of VENERATION which she found on his noggin.
By the 1830s questions were being raised on the continent of Europe as
to the validity to the claims of phrenology, and it was beginning to be
seen as a pseudo-science. In the United States, Britain, and Australia,
however, it continued to hold sway down to the beginning of the twentieth
century when the new science of psychology displaced it. Phrenology may
no longer be regarded as a science, but one of the articles in the New
York Times magazine section on April 30, 1995, had a drawing
of a human head and brain which is evocative of the phrenological charts
of a century and a half ago. Using positron emission topography (i,e,
a CAT Scan) it has been possible to show on a drawing of a human head
which portions of the brain control certain aspects of life such as thinking,
muscular movement, emotions, language, smell, taste, sight, cognitive
behavior, hearing and memory.
Perhaps the phrenologists were on to something after all….
# # #
Never one to rest on his laurels, by 1848 Fowler had expanded into the
realm of architecture as he branched out into new areas. In that year
he published a book entitled: A Home for All, or A New, Cheap, Convenient,
and Superior Mode of Building.
His phrenological studies had persuaded him that the field of architecture
would be his next forte. As he explained, every man could be his own architect.
No apprenticeship was necessary if one were endowed with strong phrenological
organs of INHABITIVENESS (Love of Home), and CONSTRUCTIVENESS (the ability
to build); architecture was then but child's play. Obviously, Fowler had
these contours as well as the other bumps on his cranium. Fowler's architectural
propensities thus led to his publication of The Octagon House: A Home
For All, a book which called for houses to be built in the shape
of an octagon. He designed octagonal houses as well as octagonal schools
and octagonal churches.
While the idea of an octagonal form for a home was his major contribution
to American and world architecture, it was not an idea which previously
had been unknown. In Florence, Italy, an octagonal baptistery was built
before Michelangelo's time. In 1630s the Dutch had created an octagonal
trading post in Trenton, New Jersey, and some New Netherlands churches
were in an octagonal shape for better acoustics and seating. In Williamsburg,
Virginia, an "elegant and safe Magazine" for gun powder had been built
in 1715 in octagonal form. George Washington had built octagonal threshing
barn and an octagonal garden house at Mount. Vernon, and octagonal arbors,
gazebos, bowers, dependencies, and garden houses were popular in the late
18th and early 19th centuries.
Even Thomas Jefferson in 1812 had built a house in an octagonal shape
in Bedford County, Virginia, a house he called "Poplar Forest," as a retreat
from the hurly-burly of guests at Monticello. Here he retreated three
to four times a year for two weeks to a month to read, to think, and to
write. In true Jeffersonian manner, the exterior of the house was in classical
style from a design by Inigo Jones of the 17th century in England. His
retreat has a fifty-foot diameter and cost Jefferson between $3,000 and
$4,000. The manse had octagonal rooms within the structure as well as
its external octagonal form. Even octagonal block-houses had been built
by the Russians in Sitka, Alaska in 1804, and by the United States at
Fort Wedgcomb in Wicassett, Maine, in 1808. Nonetheless, Fowler's idea
was generally a new one where housing in general was concerned.
It was not just the design which had intrigued Fowler. An octagonal house,
he would always point out, could have its plans adapted for small or large
houses, and thus the basic plan could serve both the rich and the poor.
Moreover, he had discovered a new, inexpensive technique for house construction
which used gravel, lime, and sand to create concrete which could be poured
into molds for the exterior walls of a house, and this technique he used
in Fishkill, New York, in building his own large mansion.
Not only was an octagonal structure more healthy, Fowler claimed, but
it was less expensive to build. He pointed out that an octagonal house
enclosed one-fifth more space than a square house plan and one-third more
space than a rectangular house plan of equal perimeter, and he proved
this through the drawings and the house dimensions given in his book.
Moreover, an octagonal house would use less heat in the winter, and it
would allow more light into rooms since with its eight sides there could
be more windows. It wasted less space on hallways since all rooms radiated
from one central hall. A spiral staircase in the center of the house would
provide for the circulation of fresh air in the summer and heated air
in the winter. Not only would it be less costly to build and more healthy
to live in, but it would be more convenient for its denizens than a standard
For Fowler, "beauty and utility were inseparable"; thus he was indicating
that "form followed function," an approach to be heralded by non-octagonal
designers of the Bauhaus movement in Germany and the United States in
the twentieth century. In like manner, Fowler decried all useless ornamentation,
and this was at a time when Victorians were overloading their parlors
and other public areas with bric-a-brac and nick-nacks.
The epitome of the all octagonal houses was the magnificent one which
Fowler built for himself and his family in Fishkill. New York, on one
hundred and thirty acres overlooking the Hudson River. His house had sixty
main rooms and forty other miscellaneous rooms and closets, and its central
spiral staircase rose seventy feet to a glass enclosed octagonal cupola.
The main floor had four octagonal rooms which could be thrown into one
large room by means of folding partitions. In its sub-divided state it
contained a parlor, a sitting room, a dining room, and an amusement room.
When the four rooms were thrown together, there was nine hundred square
feet of floor space available.
Each of the upper floors had twenty rooms, each bedroom with its own
attached dressing room. There was a children's playroom, the owner's study,
a "Prophet's Chamber" (for visiting clergymen), and a gymnastic room for
unlaced females (Fowler was opposed to the use of corsets by women since
he felt that they damaged the internal organs.) Every member of the family
had his or her own room, particularly the children since they needed privacy
to develop their character without the undue influence of others. Encircling
porches around the house provided a promenade protected against the vagaries
of the sun or rain. With porches surrounding the house, the windows could
be left open in the summer even during rain storms. Since the octagonal
nature of the house created triangles where rooms met, these areas could
serve as closets, a newfangled idea since most houses of the day did not
offer this convenience.
And this was not all: the octagonal house in Fishkill had central heating,
pipes and heaters for hot and cold running water, indoor flush toilets,
a roof cistern to collect rain water, natural gas lighting, a water filtration
system, and a gravity-fed water system. There were speaking tubes for
inter-communication between the various rooms. There were dumbwaiters
to bring foods from the kitchen in the basement to a pantry next to the
dining room on the main floor. The lower level of his house had a room
for wood storage for the furnace across the hall, and a milk room in which
to store milk and other spoilable foods under cool conditions. There was
a storage room for those items which normally cluttered attics—for
this house had no useless attic. There was a kitchen and a washing room
and a room to store sauces or other prepared foods. The house was built
with a new form off construction he had discovered in Wisconsin, the exterior
walls being made of a mixture of lime, gravel, and sand—in other
words, concrete walls.
The idea of octagon-shaped houses caught on at once, and his book went
through nine printings. Hundreds of octagonal houses were built from the
1850s in New York, New England, Wisconsin, and elsewhere. In all, such
houses began to appear in forty of the United States. In 1848, as one
example, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Rich of Akron, New York, were on their honeymoon
when they saw Fowler's Fishkill house while it was under construction,
and they decided to build their home in this new fashion. Their octagonal
house varied from the normal Fowler plan in that it had traditional square
rooms as well as less traditional triangular rooms.
The Civil War unhappily led to a diminishing of octagonal house construction,
although the fad for such a house style did continue into the 1890s. The
first addition of A Home For All offered the concept of the octagonal
house, but in a new edition in 1853 the use of concrete for the form of
the exterior walls was added to the text. Aside from the nine editions
the book went through in the United States, it was sold in France, England,
China, and even in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii).
Some 2,077 octagonal house still stand today, the most noted of which
are now museums. One such unit is at the Genesee Country Village Museum
just southwest of Rochester, New York, built in 1870 by Erastus Hyde and
his wife Julia in Friendship, New York. He was a homeopathic physician
and herbalist while she was a Methodist minister. They had become involved
in the then popular Spiritualist Movement which began not too far from
Rochester, Their wooden, octagonal house, by virtue of its plan, was perfect
for spiritualist séances—since it had no deep corners which could
harbor evil spirits during their séances with the spirits of the dead.
Naturally, in time the house came to be considered haunted. The building
was dismantled into 6,000 numbered pieces in order to move it to the Genesee
Country Village Museum where it has been carefully restored and furnished
in the proper Victorian fashion of its day. Legend claims that the workmen
involved in the restoration of the building were bothered by the fact
that their tools moved of their own accord into different places from
which they had been left, and the Museum Director's dog always refused
to go into the building when its master entered it. Nonetheless, it is
a most popular building in the Museum Village today, despite the overtones
of its haunted nature.
One of the most spectacular of the octagon houses, named Longwood, was
built in 1858 in Natchez, Mississippi by a millionaire cotton dealer,
Dr. Haller Nutt. He and his wide made a trip to Philadelphia to consult
with Samuel Sloan, the 1852 author of the book entitled The Model
Architect in which he described a villa in an oriental style. For
the Natchez couple he designed an octagonal, ornate, Moorish "Castle"
topped by a bulbous dome. (Sloan's book is available in a Dover Publication
reprint.) Planned to have thirty-two luxurious rooms, the structure rose
between 1858 and 1861 overlooking the Mississippi River. The brick walls
of the building are twenty-seven inches thick with a five-inch airspace
between courses of the bricks for insulation. By December of 1861, $100,000
had been spent on the project, a truly outstanding sum for the day, and
this was just the half-way mark for the planned expenditures. The house
was completed as far as its structure was concerned, albeit the outside
stucco work and the interior finishing were still incomplete.
Unhappily, the Civil War stopped all work. The marble for its fireplace
mantles was siezed before delivery by ship, and finishing materials were
left stacked in various rooms, as they still are today. Only the basement
with it large nursery, a billiard room, a card room, a wine cellar, and
a space for a heater were finished. Pro-Union in his feelings, Dr. Nutt
suffered from both sides in the Civil War. The Confederates burned $1,000,000
of his cotton so it could not be shipped north to the Union and in time
the Union armies despoiled the house. In June of 1864, not long before
the conclusion of the Civil War, Dr. Nutt died of pneumonia at age 48,
leaving his wife and eight children to live out their days in the basement
of the structure. Today the building is owned by the Pilgrimage Garden
Club of Natchez, and it is open to the public as a museum.
Another notable such octagonal house is the Armour-Stiner House in Irvington-on
Hudson, once owned by Carl Carmer, the author, who sold it to the National
Trust. The building was begun by Paul Armour, a New York financier in
1860, and then in 1872 its next owner Joseph Stiner completed it by adding
the huge dome and cupola and by putting a columned veranda around it.
Situated on three acres, it is five stories tall and has twenty-five rooms,
its fourth floor is one large ballroom. The weight of the dome was forcing
the ballroom walls out of alignment toward impending collapse, a condition
that the Trust could not manage. All architects and contractors said that
the dome would have to be removed and the walls rebuilt more strongly
to hold the weight of the dome. The National Trust, financially unable
to restore it properly, sold the octagon house in its dilapidated state
in 1988 for $75,000 to Joseph Lombardi, an architect-preservationist who
could afford to put it back in shape. He had a cable with a turnbuckle
put around the exterior walls of the ballroom, and, by tightening the
cable one-half inch a day for two years, the walls were squeezed back
into their original position. A web of cables was installed in the third
floor ceiling, now hidden, and thus the building is back in proper shape
once more after nine years of work.
The house had originally been constructed as a summer house, and had
no proper heating system. That has now been rectified by inserting small
ducts in the walls for distributing heat from three furnaces. Scraping
back to the original paint on the exterior garnered some seven hundred
paint samples; the building is now repainted resplendently in its original
ten shades of pink, rose, purple, and gray. The house, named a National
Trust Landmark in 1978 was placed on the market in 1993, making available
the 6,000-square-foot octagon house of note with four floors, two curvilinear
staircases with cast iron railings, an etched glass solarium, a living
room, a parlor, a dining room, a three-room master suite, seven other
bedrooms, three and one-half baths, a fifth-floor observatory offering
a view of the Hudson River and the Palisades across the river, and its
eight-sided Victorian garden, all for $2,800,000.
In western New York there are octagonal structures still in existence.
Just south of Hammondsport and Lake Keuka is an eight-sided house covered
with stucco, albeit an addition of a porch masks part of its original
octagonal structure. The early, tall women's dormitory at Elmira College
is octagonal, but on the Elmira College campus there is the even more
charming replica of an octagonal Mississippi Riverboat pilot house. Mark
Twain's wife had grown up in Elmira, and members of her family continued
to live there. Each summer Olivia Clemens's sister wished to have her
and her husband summer in Elmira on a farm overlooking the city. She had
an octagonal riverboat pilot house built for Mark as a study, and there
he wrote some of his most famous books, including "Huck Finn." The pilot
house now resides on the college campus while the farm house remains as
a Mark Twain Study Center overlooking the city of Elmira.
What of Fowler's ninety-foot-tall, four-story, sixty-room house set in
one hundred and thirty acres on the banks of the Hudson River in Fishkill,
New York? He began its construction in 1848, the same year that his book
on octagon houses was published. Five years later the family was able
to move into the manse. Unhappily, they had but a brief five years to
enjoy this delightfully advanced mansion, The financial panic of 1857
forced Fowler to rent the building at $2,500 a year to a real estate broker,
a large sum for that era. The broker thereby converted the building into
a boarding house. Two years later Fowler sold the building for $150,000.
In little more than a decade, the building went through thirty owners
until it was sold in 1870 for a mere $700. Seepage from the cesspool through
the concrete walls had poisoned the well water for the house, and typhoid
fever broke out among the residents. Becoming derelict with time, in 1897
the city of Fishkill had it dynamited.
Phrenology and then octagonal houses—these were but a part of Fowler's
interests. He was an idealist with strong moral convictions, and he was
concerned with the low level of health-care and living conditions of all
Americans, particularly the less fortunate in American society. He issued
numerous writings on education, family life, and health, in the latter
in which he campaigned for a vegetarian and fruit diet based on regular
eating with a minimum of one meal a day without excess. To be avoided
were meats, fats, butter, and sweets. Fowler was obviously one hundred
years ahead of his time. Fowler stressed the need for daily sponge baths
or showers, a rather unusual regimen for his time. Far too many Victorians
harked back to good Queen Elizabeth's time in the 1500s when it was said
of the Virgin Queen that her majesty bathed once a month, whether she
needed to or not. Fowler's advice was thus a form of lese majeste—as
well as showing, for Victorians, an inordinate interest in the human form.
Exercise, he said, was essential, so long as one realized that over-exertion
was an evil. Along with exercise, he suggested hydropathy (the water cure),
teetotalism, and the abstinence from tobacco. He also advocated good sleeping
habits with no restraining garments. A campaign for no night-shirts in
bed began to look suspicious to upright and up-tight Victorians.
The Victorians are often viewed as somewhat of a strait-laced society.
Well, they were. Ladies had to be properly corseted to meet Victorian
standards of the hour-glass figure bubbling over its corsets. Fowler found
this most unhealthy for women, for he believed in the unlaced female form.
Was he going too far in his reforms? All of these ideas were well and
good, although rather outlandish for his day. But then he also campaigned
for equality for women, children's rights, penal reform, mesmerism, the
forty hour work-week, and the use of shorthand in business affairs. Moreover,
he advocated radical reforms in marriage, in parenting, and here is where
he got into trouble, for he proposed radical changes in attitudes toward
sex. All this he did not only in his writings but in public lectures as
Of course, society was not surprised when he wrote on sex, for what else
could one expect from a man who was opposed to tight corsets and who had
been married three times? When he dealt with marital relations, society
sneered—while packing his lecture hall talks. On the other hand,
many listeners and readers decided that he must know whereof he spoke
in light of his many marriages, The end to his public acclaim, however,
came with his 1870 publication of a 1,052-page tome entitled Creative
and Sexual Science, a volume intended to teach married couples how
to love scientifically. Its topics included:
How to promote sexual vigor, the prime duty of every man and woman.
How to judge a man or woman's sexual condition by visible signs.
How young husbands should treat their brides;
how to increase their love and avoid shocking them.
How to increase the joys of wedded life, and how to increase female
He urged women to find (but note that he put this in Latin) the summum
bonum of enjoyment in sex. (No doubt one can find a copy of this
volume through inter-library loan at one's local library.)
A colleague, no doubt jealous over the income which the royalties of
the publication on sex brought to Fowler, accused him publicly of "private
lectures to ladies…of an immoral character—often grossly obscene
in action and speech." The Chicago Tribune declared that "Under
the cloak of science he disseminates the seeds of vice," and it even went
on to describe him as "A bird of prey." (Remember that the Comstock Laws
against obscenity in printed form or through the mails [which meant anything
the prurient found offensive] were not rescinded until 1956.) At any rate,
poor Fowler's reputation was shattered, and he died in obscurity in 1887.
Cohocton, his birthplace in Steuben County, New York, remembers him with
hesitation. Little notice recalls the village's most illustrious son whose
non-conformist ideas were well ahead of his time.
But do not give up on phrenology. An advertisement in a September 1996
New Yorker magazine offers an opportunity to practice phrenology
on friends and neighbors. The advertisement offers a plaster phrenological
head which can acquaint one with where the Bump of Knowledge, the Bump
of Amativeness (love making) is located—and so forth. With a model
such as this, one could begin to examine neighbor's heads, hopefully for
more than the two cents a head which Fowler charged in his Amherst days.
Of course, given the litigiousness for which Americans are noted, one
must be careful as to whose head one forages upon—lest accusations
of sexual harassment arise.
Carmer, Carl. "The Octagonal Home." Town and Country.
Fowler, Orson. The Octagon House: A Home for All.
Dover Publications. New York, 1973.
Lopez, Delano Jose. "Snaring the Fowler: Mark Twain Debunks
Phrenology." Skeptical Inquirer Magazine. January/February 2002.
Morse, Minna. "Facing a Bumpy History." Smithsonian
Magazine. October 1997.
Neider, Charles, ed. The Autobiography of Mark Twain.
Harper. New York, 1955. (Note: Twain's autobiography was published posthumously
in 1924 and 1940 while A. B. Paine wrote Mark Twain: A Biography in
Norman, Andrew. "Orson Fowler's Phrenology." Phrenology:
A Practical Guide to Your Head. (The introduction to a reprint of
the volume by Orson and Lorenzo Fowler, n.d.) Chelsea House Publishers.
New York, 1969.
Horace Fowler's Family, Orson
Fowler and the Octagon House, Mark
Twain and the Fowlers. The Crooked Lake Review. # 7, October
1988. Hammondsport, New York.
Stein, Madeline. Heads and Headlines: The Phrenological
Fowlers. University of Oklahoma Press. Norman, Oklahoma. 1971.
Stein, Madeline. "Mark Twain Had His Head Examined."
American Literature. March 1969. (The author questions the validity
of Twain's account of his examination by the Fowlers since she sees literary
exaggeration by Twain of the experience.)
Wilson, James Grant and John Fisje. "Orson Squire Fowler."
Appelton's Cyclopedia of American Biography. D. Appleton Co.
1887-1889/ Edited by Stanley L. Kloss in 1999.
Woodrow, Ross. Physiognomy and Phrenology. University
of Newcastle, England. 1997.