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The "Science" of Palmistry

Palmistry, or the "science" of palm reading, is a recurring element in Alchemy of Bones. Palmists either read Adolph Luetgert's hands, or were rebuffed in their efforts to do so. Additional background on palmistry and the way it was viewed at the time is presented below.

Reading a Murderer's Palms

At the same time that Adolph Luetgert was in the news, another wife murderer, Christopher Merry, also attracted newspaper coverage. Merry's attorney, Frank Fay Pratt, was also a palmist. (Pratt sought to read Luetgert's palms as well... for more on that, see Alchemy of Bones.) On February 12, 1898, the Chicago Journal published the following article by Pratt and Dr. O. Clifton Hall, M.D., of Maywood, Illinois, detailing their findings about Merry's palm patterns.

It has taken years of patient investigation and the accumulation and classification of thousands of hands to elevate palmistry to the dignity of a science, and remove from it the taint of charlatanism...

The term fortune-telling is particularly distasteful to every one who has the best interests of palmistry at heart. The very name bears the stamp of superstition and ignorance.

Palmistry concerns itself first of all with the study of character as expressed in the hand, not attempting to foretell the future. Nevertheless, the wonderful accuracy of the ancients in reading past, present, and future upon the line of destiny; the recording of illnesses and accidents, the finishing of what are called the circles of life, the crises that are recorded and through which every person passes, can not but attract the thinking mind. Palmistry, therefore, with a patient search of the line, tells us not only what has been and is, but what the future will bring.

Of all character study the most interesting is criminality. As we are all more or less indirectly responsible for the social condition and environments that produce the criminal type, a study of the hand of Christopher Merry, now under sentence of death, should be of especial interest.

Merry's hand shows certain characteristics that will always be found in the hands of uneducated criminals who take up a life of crime primarily for the excitement it gives.

The palm of Chris Merry's hand is unusually thick, and marked by red lines of head and heart, with Mars, indicating combativeness and sensuality enormously developed. These indicate a most violent nature, absolutely under no control, and completely dominating the individuality of the man.

The fingers and thumb are stiff and unyielding, showing extreme stubbornness and brute ferocity that will brook no opposition.

One noticeable feature is the lack of development of those elevations and mounts under the four fingers. The mount of Jupiter, under the first finger, when undeveloped, shows lack of respect, lack of veneration for divinity, parents, and old age no ambition, no desire for self-improvement, with low, vulgar instincts predominant.

The mount of Saturn, under the second finger, when undeveloped, shows a life insignificant in every respect, a vegetative existence, a negative life. The mount of Sun, found below the third finger, is quite absent in Merry. This indicates dull intellectuality, purely material instincts, and no particular appreciation of the artistic and beautiful in any form. The mount of Mercury, under the fourth finger, is quite undeveloped in this man, showing marked inaptitude for the exact sciences or a business life necessitating constant calculation, method and routine.

With all of these elements lacking, is it any wonder that the man who possesses them is at the bottom of the social scale?

The mount of Venus, found under the thumb, is unusually thick and heavy, and this combined with the thick palm, signifies a gross animal sensuality, lack of inhabitiveness, which is love for home country; and a domestic existence. It also indicates a certain amount of vanity and heartless selfishness.

The mount of the moon, which is indicated upon the fleshy part of the hand from the wrist to the heart line, when normal endows the possessor with an ordinary, healthy imagination, but its excess, as shown in Merry's hand, marks him as superstitious, morbidly fanciful, and one of those given to moods and great fluctuations of temper.

The line of heart divides the hand in half. The fingers and mounts govern intellectuality. The mounts of Venus, Moon, and Mars signify the material side of nature...

The line of the heart shows the condition of the circulation of the blood, or the health of the physical hear, not of the moral...

The line of destiny, or as it is sometimes called, the line of mystery, is fairly favorable in the hand of endowment, or nature's hand, which is the left. It beings in a broken way, indicating early influences at birth as negative and adverse to the life. It is fair to presume that parental conditions were also the same.

Still more severe conditions are shown upon the line of destiny in the right hand, indicating that these negative conditions increased and magnified with increasing age.

The line shows a restless, tempestuous, up-and-down sort of existence, corroborated by the line of life, which latter shows a probable early termination between the second and third periods, or between the ages of 20 and 30. Merry was predestined between the ages of 20 and 30.

In many respects Merry is more sinned against than sinning.

If there is a destiny that shapes the affairs of men, and if palmistry be even slightly true, we can not put upon Merry all the blame for the alleged murder of his wife, Pauline. He was born under a cloud. Fate with him was an ill-favored goddess. She did not raise him as others have been raised. She surrounded him with baneful influences. She gave him a drunken father. She gave him a malignant temper, which showed itself as indicated in his hand, as early as the age of 3. She gave him temptation that others did not have, and she gave him absolutely no guardianship.

Fate have him characteristics totally unlike his mother's. She gave him a family line which showed that others in his family have trod the same paths as Merry himself. She gave him short life, a head line totally overcome by the animal tendencies, as shown in the general structure of the hand.

She gave him shrewdness to be used in the wrong way. This is clearly indicated by fine lines and rather delicate markings at the finger tips.

But these indications are totally overcome by the enormous depth, width and height of the hand, dwarfing the finer sensibilities and misdirecting that which might have been used, might still be used, as a great power for good.

Perhaps the prayer of the Hindoo father could be brought home to some of us today, "O God! Be thou merciful to the wicked. Thou hast been good to the righteous in making them good."

Merry's hand shows none of the finer influences which have been brought to bear upon the lives of the majority of people. Such a hand deserves charity, sympathy, different environment, more friends, hope, a better destiny, and not a hangman's rope.

Read more about the case of Christopher Merry.

Julian Hawthorne on Palmistry

Julian Hawthorne, the most famous reporter who covered the Luetgert trials, also wrote about his encounters with palmistry in the late 1800s. He recounted the stories in his 1928 memoir Shapes That Pass: Memories of Old Days:

Palmistry (was) introduced by an elaborate book by a French enthusiast, Desbarolles...  Any reputed expert could not enter a drawing-room without meeting many female and male hands extended, not in greeting, but for Fate and Fortune.

I practised the science for a while, till several awkward developments warned me to desist. For I was taking the thing as a joke; I had learned the "lines," and I innocently expounded their alleged meanings, but presently discovered that I was too often stumbling upon facts very intimate ones, sometimes.

The trouble was that my subjects always believed that my familiarity with their private affairs was derived, not from the stars, but from detective activities of my owns.

It was some years after this that a handsome young genius who called himself Cheiro (I think) cashed in on the idea and made money in London, and more in New York. A withdrawn apartment, costly furnishings, an ebony stand supporting a purple silk cushion, an Oriental perfume from a carved brazier, soft lights, and an agate pointer; and for the adept, a suitable costume: the public thronged to it, at from a pound to two or three pounds per revelation.

There was "something in it" for everybody.

Picture: Chicago Journal, Feb. 12, 1898 (although this picture accompanied the article about Merry's palms, it is not clear whether this is an actual handprint from Merry).