If you’re going to take on an impossible task, then you need to develop impossible skills. Or so Sanderson seems to think in chapter 3 of Nightfeather: Ghosts, “In which Sanderson multiplies her regrets.” Because taking on the impossible isn’t the only mistake she makes. If you’re not reading my serialized Christmastime ghost story, you can start here.
Sanderson talks about psychometry, and Doc Helen chimes in with the name Joseph Rodes Buchanan. Nice rolling name, isn’t it? And that is how it is spelled. Buchanan (December 11, 1814 – December 26, 1899) was a real person, a real doctor, and he did indeed coin the term “psychometry” in 1842.
There’s more to Buchanan than psychometry. I first ran into him in researching the phrenomagnetists, the people who combined phrenology (a pseudoscience of the brain’s organs) with animal magnetism (which we would call hypnotism). Over the years, I’ve pieced together a few more details about him, but haven’t yet run across a detailed biography of the man.
Joseph Rodes Buchanan was born in 1814 in Frankfort, Kentucky. He was a child prodigy who grew up to be an eccentric thinker. He got his start in the printing trade from his father, but soon switched to medicine, where his thinking was often on the cutting edge, when, that is, it didn’t fall over the edge. He married Ann Rowan (1812/15? – 1876), the daughter of a prominent Kentucky politician, in 1841.
Around that time, he became interested in phrenology and animal magnetism. He gradually developed a theory of a neuraura, or an aura of emanations from the nervous system, which he argued was the basis for animal magnetism, psychometry, Spiritualism, and other talents which were yet to be described and named. Along the way he picked up an honorary M.D. from a Thomsonian (herbalist) medical school. However, he broke with the Thomsonians in 1846 when he helped found the Eclectic Medical Institute in Cincinnati, Ohio. He moved to the Eclectic Medical College of New York in 1877, and then to Boston in 1883. All the while, he gave lectures on spirituality, psychometry, and his theories of the neuraura, publishing his Manual of Psychometry: The Dawn of a New Civilization in Boston in 1889. His health began to fail, and he relocated further and further west after 1892, eventually dying in San Jose, California. He was buried in Kentucky, presumably beside his first wife. His second wife is buried here in Boston; I’ve seen her gravestone in Forest Hills Cemetery, and it even has a picture of her embedded in it.