By the early 1920’s photojournalist William James was receiving official recognition for the breadth of his decade-and-a-half photo documentation of Toronto and rural southern Ontario. Moreover, through his support of the British Welcome League’s work in settling newly arrived Brits, it was understood that he had a keen understanding of the challenges of immigration. It was at that point that he was tapped by the Ontario government to give illustrated lectures in Britain and Germany to promote the “desirable” potential immigrants there to come farm in Ontario. (Star, Feb.23, 1923)
James’ lantern-slide sets in the City of Toronto Archives number more than one hundred and are each composed of 50-odd slides. Most of the images in these are reproduced in the larger print collection that has been scanned for online access. However, some that have never been studied and published cast a new light on the photographer. They hint that his conception of race as an immigration issue was very much a reflection of the troubled era.
The slide sets predominantly feature views of Toronto and southern Ontario. Few slides are dated and views of the city from different eras commingle within the same set. Representing the range of images available for purchase in James’ commercial photography stock, they are a catalogue of the city’s signature architecture, its points of scenic interest, typical streetscapes, activities in public spaces, notable characters, and important events.
It’s challenging to imagine the scripts or ad-libbed commentary from the evidence of the slide sequences. To heighten the impact of his presentations James structured each lecture as a visual montage composed by successive series consisting of two to six images on one subject followed often by abrupt transitions to another. This mash-up could be likened to the weekend pictorial pages where James’ city scenes were typically published. The multi-page photo features represented the life of the city side-by-side with dramatic events taking place at the same time in the larger world.
The April 3, 1913 edition of the Toronto Star Weekly, for example, offered the following selection of images: “remarkable scenes after the ice storm in Ontario; signs of Spring in the open country and in Toronto’s muddy suburbs; New Spring fashions from Paris; the C.P.R.’s new immigration quarters at Liverpool, Eng.; The new British Chief Rabbi arriving at Liverpool from New York.”
Nearly a decade later the same montage of scenes far and near, familiar and exotic, old and new prevailed with the June 25, 1921 edition showing “The Old Swimmin’ Hole—on the Don—Looking Backward” side by side with a view of Toronto’s skyline, Toronto society report photos and a shot of General Von Hindenburg attending his wife’s funeral in Hanover.
To add a note of levity and self-deprecation to his presentations, James at times inserted a humorous self-portrait. An example is the first slide in set 83 in which he shows himself figuratively “knocking on Canada’s door” as an immigrant.
Among the more peculiar slides are a number that deal with Phrenology. These are sprinkled seemingly randomly among the sets. For example, within set 46 generally describing Toronto life in the early 1920’s, slides number 15 and 16 present storefronts dealing with phrenological services and materials. Click here to see the set on Flikr.To what chapter of personal or city history does this theme belong?
The Search for Answers
In the early twenties, ads and announcements for illustrated lectures in Toronto dailies reflected the presence of self-styled experts ready to capitalize on those struggling to understand the lessons of the war and deal with its traumas.
What forces controlled history? How was the Bible or the theory of evolution to be understood so that one could be prepared for the future? Were the displaced people from war-torn countries who wanted to make their home in Canada friend or foe? Torontonians flocked to lectures for the fully illustrated theories.
Among the experts who mixed pseudo-science and show-biz extravaganza were two local Phrenologists, Professor Cavanagh and Dr. O’Brien. Both had operated in Toronto since at least the turn of the century. Cavanagh’s Toronto practice can be dated to 1891 through a report in The Phrenological Journal stating that he had sent the periodical a memoir by English man Reginald Birchall who had permitted him to do a phrenological examination and analysis just before his execution for a notorious murder the previous year in Woodstock, Ontario.
The journal editor thanked Cavanagh and printed the chart but chided him for photographing the murderer with his hat on as, ‘A study of the great criminal can only be correctly made only from the head itself, or properly taken photographs.’
Prof. J. B. Cavanagh frontispiece Phrenological Chart
Professor Cavanagh, who advertised as ‘Canada’s Leading Phrenologist’ offered not only the standard “character analysis” to help clients achieve their potential in life but early in his career promoted himself as a leading medical diagnostician. In the first page of his Phrenological Chart (1903?), a client booklet replete with 1880’s testimonials from every Ontario small town daily and quack, Cavanagh outlines the tiered services offered from his big-city consulting room at 11 Elm Street, Toronto. After the client’s skull measurements were complete he could: a. give his analysis orally b. document it in the “chart” that also prescribed courses of action, and last, c. in addition to b. dispense customized and confidential advice.
Star April 10, 1915 p. 19 Cavanagh, from Phrenological Chart
Interest in Phrenology, as reflected in the number of press reports and classifieds in The Globe, peaked in the mid-19th century and declined in the latter half of the century. It rallied in the two decades before the First World War and enjoyed a last gasp of attention in the twenties. With its facsimile scientific method based on measurements, observations and classifications, it appealed to a Victorian desire for tidy explanations for the differences between individuals and races. Phrenology reinforced belief in a racial hierarchy and so justified imperialism, slavery and colonialism. In a more positive light it was embraced as a way to cultivate knowledge of one’s inherent faults with the promise of being able to transcend these through corrective behavior. Phrenology was, the an early expression of the gospel of self-improvement and personal empowerment, a secular religion that put the individual in control of her destiny.
James would have been highly conscious of phrenology; not only were the local practitioners listed after ‘Photographers’ in the newspaper classifieds and city directory but photography was an important tool in their work. Phrenology and Physiological Analysis as outlined in The Illustrated Self-Instructor on Phrenology and Physiology (1859) was based on the close examination of of physical features. It promoted a visual analysis that could be carried out by anyone who was interested in understanding the widening spectrum of people drawn together in 19th century urban industrial society. Photography held the same tantalizing power. The popularity of studio portraiture was fueled by the belief that the face was a map of character. Politicians and monarchs, keen to create the impression of public access to their person, were the first to order mass reproductions of their image.
Illusion and Deception
Another form of divination based on physical traits was Palmistry. Its popularity, whether at a party or through private consultation was and continues to be part of Toronto life as numerous storefronts throughout the city attest. Authorities just before the First World War took a dim view of the activity, seeing it as part of a growing number of con-artists working the street. Palmist and Phrenologist, Professor O’Brien was hauled into court in a 1913 sting operation led by a female under-cover constable. After some witticisms at his expense by the judge and the payment by his wife of the $50 fine, he was released.(Globe Oct. 9, 1913) As late as 1921 The Star ran a “Read Your Character” column that assisted readers in understanding personality through facial features.
A William James 1926 self-portrait is composed of 22 contact prints surrounding one enlargement. The images were taken by a vest-pocket consumer model camera on a tripod with a shutter release cable. The “portrait” in which the photographer molds his features and poses variously with props to create a gallery of characters can be read as a comment on the power of photography not to capture personality as a static phenomenon but, in concert with theatrics, to create the illusion of character.
Victorian photographers had the ability to conjure up the presence of a deceased family member within a portrait of the living, through the magic of the double exposure. Later, in the Edwardian era there was an explosion of interest in the Spirit Photograph, in which the camera was used to capture supernatural presences. James played his own photography parlour game, his dining-living room wall paper recognizable in the background, with the help of a son and friends.
De-bunking or Buying In?
The lantern slide collection is a composite tease about James’ attitude to phrenology. In set 112, a travelogue of Germany, the fourth slide features a ship board entertainment program for Feb. 13, 1923 (the return voyage on his mission for the Ontario government) that bills James doing character readings “By permission of the Audience”.
While it is unlikely that the novelty act was a regular side-line, several slides in another set (32), hint at the press photographer’s humorous riffs on his late career re-incarnation from press photographer to public performer as lecturer. Perhaps the heavy irony of his masquerade as an “advisor” was a response to the pressure of the move from behind the lens to centre stage.
But was James exposing the sham of phrenology or was he, caught in the spirit of showmanship reflected in his self-portraits and role as immigration agent for racially superior immigrants, reflecting its tenacious hold on popular thought?
Set 46 opens with shots of typical Torontonians then presents a close-up of the legs of an un-named “flat-footed champion walker and army recruit”, followed by photos of sculptures representing human evolution in which a Toronto postmark is visible suggesting that these might have been Royal Ontario Museum postcards of exhibits or stand-ins for these. Following these are slides number 15 and 16 showing storefronts of phrenologist operations. Next is a view of plaster busts from the Ontario Archeological Museum (kernel of the Royal Ontario Museum that opened in 1914)
and seven portraits of contemporary social leaders, an ethnographic type ‘A Finnish Man’ and paintings of such iconic figures from English history as Shakespeare. While the remaining slides highlight typical Toronto scenes and people, the initial sequence suggests that phrenology was a focus of the presentation. Whether the discussion around the phrenological style image sequence was critical, sincere or merely aiming at spurious drama is not known.
By 1923 R.O.M. curator and University of Toronto Ethnology lecturer Sir Bertram Windle was publicly declaring there to be ‘very little relation between the size and weight of the skull and the intellect of a person.”(Globe, Jan. 13, 1923) Two years earlier in fine tabloid style, The Toronto Star Weekly had gone head-to-head with local phrenologists’ and their boast that they could read skulls by having local “university savant” Mr. Linnell debunk their methods.To further skewer the “doctor” The Star used Cavanagh’s copyrighted phrenological diagram that had often appeared in its pages through-out the previous two decades and inserted the Linnell’s portrait.
James, after 1926, expanded on the joke and representing his own flirtation with phrenology replaced the savant’s portrait with his own.
Tomorrow at the market examine the evidence of James’ fascination with phrenology and offer your opinion of how it may have informed his lectures.
This blog post is related to: