Rev. W.F. Johnson: Blind Phrenologist, Abolitionist, and Picture Show Lecturer

Camera Obscura! [United States, ca. 1853]. Printed handbill. 11.5 x 5 in.

The Library Company has several collecting strengths and many often intersect and intertwine as in the case of this handbill advertising a circa 1853 picture show presented by the blind African American abolitionist, professor, and minister William F. Johnson. Pertinent to our African American history, visual culture, and disability studies collections, the print represents the career of a man whose profession was comprised of intertwined roles of educator, abolitionist, and phrenologist.

Born free in Baltimore, Maryland in 1822 and blind from a young age, Johnson is most remembered for his revered position as Superintendent of the Brooklyn Colored Howard Orphan Asylum from 1870 to his death in 1903. His earlier career as a lecturer, typically using a camera obscura to provide an illustrated presentation, is often overshadowed by his later calling.

Before movie theaters, camera obscura rooms provided a similar visual experience. Composed of a darkened room in which a light was shown through illustrated glass plates, the camera allowed for the images on the plate to be reproduced in color on an inside wall. During the 1850s Johnson not only informed his audience with an exhibition of paintings of “fifteen scenes, illustrative of some of the features of the American Institution of Slavery,” but also created a verbal picture “without reference to Party or Politics.” to deepen the understanding of their context for their viewers.

By promoting the non-partisanship of his exhibition, Johnson marketed his presentation to a diverse crowd that would likely not have attended his lecture if advertised more stridently.  People curious to see a blind man lecture on illustrations, which he himself could not physically see, certainly comprised a segment of the audience.  Enticed by the spectacle of Johnson, the curious there less to learn about the life of a slave and more to see Johnson, still received a visual, and more resonant, lesson of the injustices of slavery.

Audience members also typically partook of Johnson’s skills as a phrenologist. Phrenology, a pseudoscience that linked bumps on a person’s head to certain aspects of the individual’s personality, character, and mental capacity, had not only been taught at Johnson’s alma mater the New York Institute for the Blind, but also at the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Massachusetts. Based on touch, phrenology allowed Johnson, an African American man who was blind and likely educated through his fingers, to educate his audience, in a poignant manner, about their personal identity as well as their character in a society that permitted slavery.

Although absent itself of much illustration, this handbill provides a picture of the man, the culture, and the society that fostered its production. The printed sheet implies Johnson’s savvy understanding of the visual and popular culture of his time to facilitate his mission to end slavery through the power of sight and touch.

Selected Sources:

William Hanks Levy,  Blindness and the Blind: Or A Treatise on the Science of Typhology. London: Chapman and Hall, 1872.

1870 and 1900 United States Federal Census, Ancestry.com

“From our Philadelphia Correspondent,” Provincial Freeman, June 23, 1855.

“The Howard Orphan Asylum,” New York Globe, June 14, 1884.

“New York and Brooklyn News,” Frederick Douglass’s Paper, February 2, 1855.

“Prof. W. F. Johnson,” The Christian Recorder, July 16, 1864.

“The Rev. W. F. Johnson,” New York Times, October 19, 1903.

Erika Piola
Associate Curator, Prints and Photographs
Co-Director, VCP at LCP

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