See Fowler’s Phrenology Head and a Cooke “In Fear of His Life” at Ohio State University’s Thompson Library

Next to the Ohio State University Libraries’ Thompson Library Gallery, a series of display cases features some of the treasures from its numerous Special Collections libraries. After I left the King James Bible exhibit on Sunday, I couldn’t believe my good fortune when I ran into two old friends: a phrenology head and the “Gibraltar Records.”

The Medical Heritage Center’s replica of Lorenzo Fowler’s model of a phrenology head was my first great discovery.

I first learned about phrenology at Rare Book School, when the 19th century publishers’ bookbindings class I took from Sue Allen included a discussion of the first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Very few copies of the first edition have survived; today, it is one of the rarest and most valuable American books.

According to Ms. Allen, Whitman designed and printed 795 copies of the book himself in 1855. Spread over the dark green covers and sprouting from the words “Leaves of Grass” embossed in gold in the center, patterns of vines, tendrils and tufts of grass suggest just what the title implies – that the contents of the book, and the letters of the title itself, have grown like grass.

Priced at $2 a copy, Leaves of Grass was sold at two places in New York City, one being Fowler & Wells. Besides being bookseller-publishers, brothers Lorenzo and Orson Squire Fowler and their brother-in-law, Samuel R. Wells, were phrenologists, or head-examiners, who believed that a person’s talents, disposition, mind and character could be determined from the shape of his skull.

In 1849, Whitman had Lorenzo Fowler test his head in phrenology. In his written analysis, Fowler described Whitman as someone strong-willed, with lots of self-esteem and individuality. He had little regard for ceremony, but could see a great deal that was unjust and inhuman in society. Whitman must have liked what he heard; he quoted from the analysis often.

Whitman was one of many Victorians who were nuts about phrenology. To encourage its popularity, Lorenzo Fowler created a china model of a head to explain how the structure of a skull determines character traits. Replica models like this can be purchased today.

My second welcome reunion was in the case next door. Here, Ohio State University Archives shares a couple of volumes of the “Gibraltar Records,” which describe the daily activities of Jay Cooke’s family and guests during their days on Gibraltar Island.

I first met the Cookes at the Ohio Historical Society’s Archives/Library. Jay Cooke, a native of Sandusky, Ohio, was a successful financier who raised funds to support the Union during the Civil War and later encouraged the development of the northwest by financing the construction of the Northern Pacific Railway. In 1864, Cooke built a summer residence for his family on Lake Erie’s Gibraltar Island, Ohio, near Put-In-Bay. The Cooke family recorded their visits in diaries and charming photographs that can be found in the Jay Cooke Papers (MSS 129 and P 117). There, you’ll find pictures of numerous Cookes posing on the front porch of the 15-room limestone home that they called “Cooke Castle,” relaxing in its Aesthetic Movement-inspired parlor, swinging, sewing flags, playing ping-pong, rolling the lawn for tennis, and lounging on a hot summer day by a monument that Cooke built in 1866 to honor Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry and the Battle of Lake Erie, which still stands just east of the house.

The entry from the “Gibraltar Records” in the Ohio State University Archives’ collection that is on display at Thompson Library dates from August 1887. It begins with “Historian” Henry Cooke’s account of being persuaded to record his family’s summer adventures, confessing that “he was actually in fear of his life sometimes.” A photograph with the same caption proves his point.

In 1925, Ohio State University acquired Cooke Castle, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, the university also owns Gibraltar Island, where it maintains Stone Laboratory, a freshwater research and teaching facility. For the past 14 years, the Friends of Stone Lab has held an open house for the public to look inside Cooke Castle and learn more about the scientific pursuits that happen in this Lake Erie lab.

After discovering the Cooke family’s “Gibraltar Records” and photographs, I attended the 2005 open house so I could pose on the porch like the Cookes did and see the places in the photographs for myself. If you’re interested in doing the same, this year’s open house will take place on Saturday, September 10 from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. See for more information.

This entry was posted in Books, History, Libraries, Ohio, Ohio History Connection (formerly the Ohio Historical Society), Special Collections, Travel. Bookmark the permalink.

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