Letter from Mark Antony Haskell Niles to Nahum Capen

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Letter from Mark Antony Haskell Niles to Nahum Capen


Niles, M. A. H. (Mark Antony Haskell)
Capen, Nahum, 1804-1886
Boston Phrenological Society


At the time this letter was written, Nahum Capen (1804-1886) was the corresponding secretary of the Boston Phrenological Society which he had helped to establish after the death of J. G. Spurzheim. He was also a member of Marsh, Capen and Lyon, a prominent publishing house of phrenological works, and wrote Reminiscences of Dr. Spurzheim and George Combe (1881), a historical survey of the first years of the phrenological movement. Nahum Capen had a wide correspondence with other devotees of phrenology in the United States and abroad; this letter from M.A.H. Niles, a member of the faculty of St. Stanislaus College in Indiana, shows the appeal of phrenology to the general public. For a transcription of this letter, please see here.


A letter from Mark Antony Haskell Niles to Nahum Capen, the corresponding secretary of the Boston Phrenological Society.


Niles, M. A. H.

Date Created

1836 February 20


Capen, Nahum (recipient)


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Is Part Of

Papers of Nahum Capen, 1783-1885 (inclusive), 1826-1885 (bulk). B MS c23, box 2




1 letter






Gift of Nahum Capen to the Boston Medical Library, 1884



Dear Sir:

The brief acquaintance I had the pleasure to form with you during a short visit to Boston, nearly a year since, tho' it may have escaped your recollection, is among my own cherished reminiscences. I had hoped, long ere this, to forward some intelligence of the progress of a science in the west, the course of which you have so generously espoused. It is not because phrenology has made no advances in this place that you have not heard from me on the subject. It is about one year since phrenology came into public notoriety in our college & village. Of its unpopularity at that time and the opposition made to it—especially when I gave a lecture before our students on the claims of the science to candid investigation—I gave you some account. Since that time it has steadily advanced, not by the impulse of excitement, but by careful investigation, so that now it is unpopular not to be friendly to phrenology. A young gentleman, who recently attempted a formal attack—the only one which has, for some time, been made—brought no little ridicule upon himself for repeating the worn-out & ridiculous charges which have been brought against the science. Without arrogance it may be said that the science now numbers among its advocates the ablest and most respectable men & women in the place, both in college and out.

We have now a flourishing society of which S. Harrison Thomson is president & myself sec'y. From Mr. Thomson your firm will receive a letter by the bearer of this, containing a small amt. of money with an order for books. Should the money fall short of paying for all the works we have ordered, you will confer on us a great favor by giving a short credit for the bal[ance]. I will guarantee that the money shall be forwarded when the books reach us. Our merchants are about going East for their spring goods & money, just now, is with difficulty obtained. When we get fairly under way we shall send for a copy of all your casts of heads & skulls.

Too much cannot be said in the "Annals" against a mercenary horde of itinerant manipulators of heads. Phrenology has suffered much from such characters in this country. The public ought to be guarded against them, that it may not suffer from such imposition, and charge it all to phrenology. The real merits of the science, fortunately, are beyond the reach of these nuisances, for men of science will not be duped by an ignorant vagrant with a chart & craniometer. But I deem it unfortunate that the subject should not be made the occasion of deception & abuse of popular indulgence. The truth is, there are very few men thoroughly acquainted with the science who ought to venture upon infering character from an examination of the cranium of living persons. Every science, however, has its charlatans, & phrenology, perhaps, ought not to complain. It already rests upon as firm a basis as any material science.

Would you admit into your columns of the "Annals" an article on the faculties called into exercise by the study of the ancient languages? I regard it as peculiarly unfortunate that Messrs. Combe and Simpson make no distinction between the study of ancient & modern languages. They seem to say that the organ of language alone, or memory alone, is cultivated by the study of ancient language. Many who are constantly employed in this study cannot adopt such an opinion.

Most respectfully yours,
M. A. H. Niles


Niles, M. A. H., “Letter from Mark Antony Haskell Niles to Nahum Capen,” OnView, accessed February 26, 2024, https://collections.countway.harvard.edu/onview/items/show/6187.

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