Dr. James A. Houser: Phrenologist, Public Speaker, Poet, Philosopher

by David Heighway

In these days of TED talks and internet monologues, a lot of people are having a chance to become famous as public lecturers.   This isn’t new.  In the late 1800’s, Hamilton County was the base for one of the better-known midwestern speakers – Dr. James A Houser.   Dr. Houser had a brilliant and wide-ranging mind and was happy to share his thoughts with the public who was happy to hear them. 

Witty and Entertaining

Houser was born in Ohio in 1847 where his father was a farmer and miller.  His father was also a preacher, which may have inspired young James.  He grew up doing hard labor on the farm and as part of a canal boat crew on the Miami and Erie Canal.  The family moved to Indiana in 1867, where James decided to attend the Indiana Medical College and become a phrenologist.  This is the now discredited science of analyzing personality and health by examining the shape of the head.  The doctor would run his fingers over the scalp of the patient and bumps and low spots in the skull were supposed to signify certain personality traits. 

Houser moved to Hamilton County in 1873, where he married Juliette Pettijohn, a woman from Westfield whose family had been involved in the Underground Railroad.  He was listed in the 1874 county directory as a “Phrenologist and lecturer” and was living in Arcadia.  He moved briefly to Fishers in 1877, and then purchased land in Arcadia and moved back.

By this point in time, he was doing extensive public speaking.  This was very popular, and he eventually became more famous for lecturing than for practicing medicine.  He spoke on a variety of topics such as phrenology, physiology, anatomy, temperance, marriage and divorce.  His medical talks were accompanied by charts and expensive European-made anatomical models.   People found his lectures to be witty and entertaining and he was soon in demand all over the Midwest. 

Arcadia Lung Institute

Sometimes his programs had unexpected results.  In 1879, he conducted a speaking tour of Missouri which was well-received and profitable, netting him $1,100.  However, during the tour, a woman heard him talk and became obsessed, and was what today we would call a stalker.  She followed him from show to show around the Midwest and New York, wrote letters to him and to his family, and sent him jewelry – which he returned.  She stated to a reporter that she had even thought about going to Arcadia and kidnaping one of his children.  Houser spoke to her husband, who was angry at first and then, after seeing her behavior, understanding.  The woman finally committed suicide by taking poison in April of 1880.

Back in Arcadia, Houser created the Arcadia Lung Institute in 1882.  We know very little about it, except that it was at one time the largest building in Arcadia.  There are some newspaper advertisements that talk about the services offered.  The institute was also the home of Dr. Houser’s “collection of curiosities”, the medical models, skeletons, medical specimens, and other things he would use in his lectures, including something called “The Veiled Mystery”.  In 1886, he attended the Toledo Medical College in Ohio, which is possibly when he got a regular medical degree. 

By 1891, he was well-know enough that he moved to Indianapolis to expand his medical practice.  His popularity was such that he was nominated for lieutenant governor by the “People’s Party” in the election of 1892.  In 1893, he published a serialized novel in the Indiana Sentinel newspaper.  In 1894, he was on the faculty of the American Medical College in Indianapolis in the position of “Didactic Professor of Principles and Practice of Medicine”.  Several of his essays were published in a national medical journal called the Medical Brief.

James A. Houser died in 1919.  His wife had died in 1916 and he wrote a moving poem about their life together.  Some of his lectures are preserved in a book published in 1920, Memoir of Dr. J. A. Houser, which was compiled by his brother Dr. S. K. Houser.   (The book is viewable online at the Internet Archive at archive.org.)  There is little biographical information about Houser in the book.  Instead it is a collection of his essays, poems, aphorisms, and observations.

“To lie is to make others doubt the plainest truth you can tell.”

 “When I hear some people advising the Lord in prayer what to do, I wonder that he ever completed Creation without their help.”

 “Have faith in yourself.  With it, you can remove mountains; without it, you cannot shovel dirt.”