Tea with the Hatter

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or The Phrenological Conformatory: A Story of Horror

Welcome, sir, welcome. How kind of you to visit. It is weeks since my last visitor from the wider world. We are a somewhat isolated community out here. Please, sit. Are you comfortable? An extra cushion? No? Then a cup of tea perhaps? It stands ready, you see. Let me pour.

Nothing like a cup of tea after a long journey, sir, and you have had a long journey I know. Now, I suppose you are interested in my device, my Conformatory. Would you like to see it directly? Or…

Excuse me, sir, forgive me. My enthusiasm runs away with me. You would like some background first? Of course.

Where to begin? My family? Humble people, sir. Rural people. A cottage by a stream and a smallholding for food. Idyllic? Maybe, to an outsider. My father was a weaver by trade, the loom filling one end of our home. My mother spun yarn. It was common in our part of the country, before the coming of industry. But my father could see the way the wind blew and apprenticed me in the town. I was ten years of age when he signed my indenture agreement and placed me with the hatter.

I bless my father’s memory, sir, indeed I do. To leave home was painful for me, but my apprenticeship gave me a future I would not otherwise have had.

Oh, the heads I met!

For seven years I learned the trade, then worked on as the hatter’s assistant. He was good to me. Hard when necessary, he did not spare the rod. After all I was but a boy when I entered his service. Yet he was just and consistent. And a master of his craft. I learned from him all I could. Then, in the course of time, infirmity took him. As he was without children, I inherited the business.

I enjoyed the trade, sir. I did indeed. The heads I met! Both humble and wealthy, both low and high. I was fortunate to meet some of the greatest of our age. Or of any age, I warrant. These hands, sir, these hands have touched the brows of noblemen and heroes, these fingers have explored the skulls of royalty.

Oh yes, indeed, the human head is a marvel, and every head unique. Although my profession concentrates on the skull’s circumference, yet I took a lively interest in the cranium as a whole. In all the bumps, protrusions and planes.

When first I met it, sir, the science of phrenology did not seem strange to me. Already, for many years, for my own amusement, I would deduce the personality of new customers through the shape of their heads. Discovering phrenology, it was more of a wonder to me to learn others had seen this too. Had dedicated their life’s work to the deeper investigations and interpretations into which I, then, had but dabbled.

A phrenological head showing the different areas of the skull phrenologists associated with different characteristics. Produced for the hatter perhaps!
The hatter’s phrenological head

My craniological studies

My business prospered. I took on apprentices and assistants of my own. After some years I was able to take time from the physical work of forming hats to concentrate on my craniological studies. I took to debating with fellow explorers in this newest of sciences, corresponding with eminent phrenologists.

As you may be aware, there are phrenologists who hold that the shape of a man’s head, the way it defines his character, is fixed from birth. I do not hold with this school, sir. No. To my mind it smacks of determinism.

More agreeable to me is the theory that, as the skull of a child is malleable, so is its ultimate shape and thus the character of the adult. I say theory, but it is based in fact. I assure you. Among certain primitive tribes, sir, a child’s head may be bound while the skull is still plastic. Skulls so constricted are caused to take on desired shapes, to be made conical or bulbous. This shaping, I understand, is carried out for aesthetic reasons or to mark out persons of status.

But what if we were to perform the same act following the logic of phrenology? It would be possible, at an early age in a child’s development, so to form the skull as to promote positive characteristics. So much less brutal than a beating, so much more precise. By gentle but constant pressure at certain points on the growing head the brain organs could be disciplined. Tendencies towards destructiveness or amativness could be checked. Leaving other parts of the skull free would allow, for example, benevolence and hope to swell.

The Phrenological Conformatory

Well, others are exploring those avenues. Of greater interest to me is the goal of restoring the adult skull – temporarily of course – to its childhood malleability. This would enable changes to be made to its shape, amending the character of the subject.

You are familiar with the conformateur? That essential tool of the hatter’s trade with which we measure the shape of a head around? It was the device I chose to adapt.

And now. Now I think you will permit me to show you the fruit of my labours. My pride, my joy. The Phrenological Conformatory. You seem startled, but it is perfectly safe. Though I’m told it looks alarming, I cannot see it myself. Allow me to place it over your head.

There. Mark how the cowl embraces your whole skull. And the pins. As I release them you will feel a light tap on the bone. It is not uncomfortable, I trust?

The pins rest on the skull, mapping the declivities and ascents, plateaus and curvatures. The skull, you understand, fits like a gauntlet over the organs of the brain that govern our traits. So my Conformatory fits over the gauntlet and reproduces it enlarged. Now it is plain to view the most prominent areas of the skull.

I see, for example, your most developed quality is not conscientiousness, as your employers tell me, but trustfulness. Do you trust me, I wonder?

A colourised image of a hatter's conformateur, probably from a 19th cnetury patent application.
A hatter’s conformateur

You remain relaxed?

For the Confirmatory to work, the subject needs be perfectly still. You remain relaxed? Paralysed even? There was a drug in the tea. You remain conscious and you have some little mobility in the smaller muscles of your face, but you cannot move your limbs, you cannot speak. Even so, I must restrain you. This rigid cuff around your neck will keep your head up at the right height and locked to the back of the chair. Just so. These straps will hold your wrists and ankles in place.

Now to connect it up. Behind this curtain is the rest of the device. Ah, your eyes widen. It is impressive, is it not? Let me wheel it across.

Each of the pins in the cowl is made of conductive copper and is hollow. Each of these rubberised tubes, you see, contains a copper wire and a channel for the softening fluid. The tubes connect with a little click. So. Each tube to a pin. It does take time to connect them all, but we have time. We will not be disturbed.

None of the tubes are heavy in themselves, but collectively they add a certain heft to the cowl. That trickling you feel is nothing to worry about. Just a little blood released as the extra weight causes the pins to penetrate your skin.

No, no. Do not attempt to cry out. The effort is pointless. Straining against the paralysis may damage your voice box. Just resign yourself. There is nothing you can do now.

Allow me to wipe your eyes

As I open this valve you will feel more pressure still. That is the tubes delivering fluid through the hollow pins directly to the bone. Meantime an electric current, which I activate now, carried through the copper, galvanises the fluid. And the process begins.

You weep, I see. The fumes do irritate. Allow me to wipe your eyes.

Ninety seconds by my chronometer and your skull begins to soften. Now I can exert finger pressure on the pins – here, I think, and here – to correct the shape. Once the pins are pressing correctly I can lock them in place. So.

Five minutes I think.

Then it will be just a matter of allowing the skull to harden in its new form.

You are still conscious, I see. Do you feel the organs of your brain adjusting? Is it an interesting sensation?

Perhaps you wonder at my freedom, in this place, to continue developing the Conformatory? Take that up with your employers. They know of my work, indeed they do. You believed you came as their inspector? No. They supplied you to me for my research. They understand the superlative advantage the Conformatory will provide, once it functions correctly.

Be assured, my more recent subjects have not died. The degree of their insanity reduces over time. You will meet them later and may judge for yourself. If you retain the capacity.


“Tea with the Hatter or The Phrenological Conformatory: A Story of Horror” was originally published in Far Flung, the last anthology of writing from Writers Abroad, in 2020. But there’s another story associated with it that I want to share next week.

The hatter's tea set, very well decorated with flowers

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