Bring Me the Head of Stephen Burroughs!

[An exploration in Google Book Search]

Illustration from The American Phrenological Journal and Miscellany.

Some years back I published a little piece in The Historian about the life of Stephen Burroughs, infamous early national counterfeiter and con man and author of one of the great picaresque accounts of American Letters, Memoirs of the Notorious Stephen Burroughs. As I described Burroughs in the article:

Outraged Pelhamite
Burroughs Memoirs lead the reader in a delightful romp through early America. Burroughs is expelled from Dartmouth for pranks, enlists as a sailor on a privateer in the Revolution, dabbles in counterfeiting, is imprisoned at and escapes from Castle Island prison in Boston Harbor, impersonates a minister, seduces school girls, and gets involved in an early censorship dispute on Long Island, and takes part in the Yazoo land fraud in Georgia. HisMemoirs were an early national best-seller, going through something like 30 editions before the Civil War.

The article was great fun to write and I have maintained an interest in the charming rogue ever since. So tonight Burroughs popped into my head and I suddenly thought--"Google Book Search!" When I wrote my article in 2002 Google Book Search did not exist. What could I find about Burroughs in Google Book Search?

As it turns out, a wealth of information that I had not uncovered for my article. There were of course multiple versions of the memoir. I also found mentions of Burroughs by other 19th century writers, most of them using Burrough's infamy to make a larger point. "I doubt if the best informed of those who have devoted their lives to Public Libraries have ever heard of Stephen Burroughs as being one of their founders,"wrote Charles Francis Adams in 1879, introducing a story about how Burroughs helped to start a library on Long Island. To Frederic Palmer Wells, author of a 1902 history of Newbury, Vermont, Burroughs' story "is the history of a woefully ill-spent life. But he was a man of talents, and his narrative possesses considerable historical value."

"We do not regard Stephen Burroughs as very high authority, in ethics; nevertheless, it is true that even Satan himself may be compelled to testify to the truth," writes a reforming busybody in The Moral Reformer and Teacher on the Human Constitution. The truth that Burroughs testifies, according to the unsigned author, is the deleterious effects of "novel reading" on the character of the young. He quotes Burroughs: "Reading and dwelling so much on those romantic scenes, at that early period of life when judgment was weak, was attended with very pernicious consequences, in the operations of my after conduct."

And there is so much more! Burroughs was often written up in the obscure 19th century histories of the little New England villages where he played his pranks and committed his thefts. He was regularly denounced by moral reformers as an example ofwhatever bad habit they are railing against. and by 1873 Burroughs merits a biographical entry in The American Cyclopaedia, which politely describes him as "an American adventurer." In all, a Google Book Search for "Stephen Burroughs" limited to books in full view produces 458 results, more than half of which are our Burroughs.

My favorite and least-expected discovery is this article from the 1841 volume of The American Phrenological Journal and Miscellany"PHRENOLOGICAL DEVELOPMENTS AND CHARACTER OF STEPHEN BURROUGHS." Capitalizing on renewed public interest in Burroughs (who had died a year earlier), thePhrenological Journal works from a recent bust of Burroughs (pictured at the top of this post) to take measurements of his skull and analyze the man:

"The middle lobes of the brain, giving width between and above the ears, are very full, indicating great strength of the selfish propensities, which must have a marked influence . . . The crown of his head is very high, giving independence and determination of mind, joined with smaller Approbativeness and Conscientiousness, almost a total disregard for public opinion . . . His moral sentiments are mostly weak . . . "

Ya think? Below is Burrough's phrenological chart:

The topic of Stephen Burroughs reveals some of the power of Google Book Search. The bust of Burroughs used as in illustration in thePhrenological Journal to my knowledge no longer exists and the illustration here has not been seen by modern Burroughs scholars. The obscure town histories mostly draw their Burroughs information from the Memoirs, but many contain additional details about the man, and towns he moved through. And the frequent references to Burroughs in 19th century proscriptive literature merit an essay of their own. Google Book Search enables new kinds of scholarship.