Opinion

Twice-hanged London criminal headed odd exhibition

By Tom Villemaire, Special to Postmedia Network

A cover of a 19th-century journal about phrenology, a discredited quackery that held intelligence could be gleaned from the shape of a person’s head and the bumps on them.

A cover of a 19th-century journal about phrenology, a discredited quackery that held intelligence could be gleaned from the shape of a person’s head and the bumps on them.

Orson Squire Fowler just happened to be in London on the day a young man was hanged for the murder of Const. Timothy Pomeroy. Fowler was an itinerant phrenologist, octagonal house proponent and an American.

The hanged man’s name was Cornelius Burley or Burleigh. He was born and raised in southwestern Ontario and was 26 when he was caught, in 1829.

Although Burley did admit to the shooting death of Pomeroy, there was and remains a great deal of skepticism over his guilt. Burley was originally wanted for crimes committed in Bayham Township, Elgin County, on the north shore of Lake Erie in the late summer of 1829. Burley, it was said, had killed two cows and set fire to property owned by a man who owed him money. When a constable tried to arrest Burley, the constable was shot.

Almost a year after he was caught, Burley was hanged before 3,000 people at the courthouse square facing Ridout Street. He was the village’s first hanging. And the second. As the trapdoor opened, down went Burley, the rope snapped and he hit the ground, knocked out. He was roused and someone went to fetch a new rope. He was made to climb the gallows steps again, and this time the process was successful.

But his hanging was not the end of the public exhibition of Burley. After he died, his body was cut down from the gibbet and handed over to surgeons for examination and dissection. In the 19th century, the bodies of deceased criminals with no kin and those who were hanged were generally handed over to the medical community — it was their only legal source of bodies on which to practice surgery and examinations.

After these indignities, the phrenologist Fowler decapitated the corpse and Burley’s body was lost. Phrenology, a discredited quackery that claimed the shape and bumps of a person’s head could reveal intelligence and predilections among other things, was a bit of a craze at the time.

And so young Burley’s skull began a journey of decades and thousands of miles. Not his whole skull, mind you. Fowler sawed the skull across, above the eyes, keeping the bowl-like top.

Off went the top of Burley’s head through the United States and Europe, to be touched and stroked and handled by anyone willing to pay the price of admission to one of Fowler’s exhibitions. He would hold out the skull cap to illustrate the theories he and his brother, Lorenzo, had borrowed from the European phrenologists (British phrenologists considered any modifications made by the American siblings to be ”vulgarization”) to paying customers who came to have their skulls read. These included Mark Twain, Walt Whitman and Clara Barton, who would be encouraged to run their hands over the bone to feel the indentations. The Fowlers were among the most famous phrenologists in the world.

In the 1880s, Fowler returned the skull remnant to London and for some reason it found its way into a local museum, Eldon House.

Almost 120 years later, in August 2001, his skull was recovered from Eldon House, where it had been at times on display. Burley’s family interred it in a family plot.

— Tom Villemaire is a writer based in Toronto and the Bruce Peninsula. Tom@Historylab.ca