Every time that one of Victoria’s assailants attacked her, everyone asked why?—why wouldanyone would do such a thing? In an attempt to answer that question, experts and amateurs alike speculated about the psychology of Victoria’s assailants—and theories about their madness tended to be central to their trials. In the first half of the nineteenth century, one leading psychological method was phrenology, which had as its basis the theory that one’s mental qualities could be determined by the shape of one’s head. Edward Oxford, Victoria’s first assailant, in 1840, was in particular the subject of a great deal of phrenological speculation. Visiting him in his cell before his trial, to evaluate his sanity, one doctor actually conducted a close examination of Oxford’s head—and concluded that something was not quite right with the boy. According to the following account, taken from The Phrenological Journal and Miscellany for 1841, George Combe, the leading phrenologist of the day, having studied a cast made of Oxford’s head taken just before his trial, was able to flesh out a full psychological profile of the 18-year-old. Combe’s conclusions certainly suggest that the best, most accurate phrenological readings benefited greatly from 20/20 hindsight:
Oxford, says Dr Moore, is eighteen years of age, of low stature and modest address. His countenance would be pleasing, but for the silliness which a continual grin imparts to it. He exhibits little cunning, and no degree of ferociousness. He is feelingly alive to statements regarding himself in the newspapers, and to the portrait prints of himself. He was delighted at the proposition to take his cast, and assented to it most readily. Inordinate vanity is betrayed in every action, and the love of notoriety seems to have been a powerful motive in impelling him to the commission of his execrable act. His mortification was most marked on an observation being made, that to commit murder, even on the person of a sovereign, no longer constituted a hero. His education has been very limited; he is fond of reading works which contain the marvellous; and he alleges he has read with care and much pleasure Thiers’s History of the French Revolution.
Mr Combe remarked that the head was rather below the average size, that the intellectual organs were pretty fully developed, and that the organs of Self-Esteem and Love of Approbation were very large. The natural language of these faculties was evident in the expression of the countenance. The case, however, was one of diseased excitement of the feelings. The jury returned a verdict of insanity, and a very just and proper verdict it was. The act itself, taken in all its circumstances, was a proof of a diseased brain. Twenty years ago, however, this poor youth would have been found guilty of murder, and executed, as many individuals labouring under moral insanity have been. A better day had dawned, and insanity was now beginning to be better understood, not only by the medical profession, but by lawyers and legislators. Phrenologists are undoubtedly entitled to the merit of contributing to bring about this most desirable result.