I try to space out my posts on old books because my collection is small. But this one, The Laws of Scientific Hand Reading by William G. Benham, is one of my favorites. The copyright is dated 1900, but the copy I have was published in 1903. I came across it in my favorite antique store and lusted after it for weeks. It cost more than I had ever spent on a book, and when I finally broke down and brought it home, I felt just a tiny pang of financial guilt.
This is a lovely old book, complete with old book smell and soft pages. The paper is so smooth, in fact, that if you run your fingers over the sentences and paragraphs, you can feel the ink set on the page. And the Romance stops there.
I do not recommend curling up with Benham’s treatise on palmistry as bedtime reading. He is an extremely objective author whose voice comes straight out of the Industrial Revolution. Forget palmistry as the art of fortunetellers, he wants you to understand it as a science. His prose is mechanical, precise, “scientific”.
You do not have to take anything for granted, nor believe in anything you cannot see or touch or hold in your hand, consequently in this very practical and realistic age, the most advanced materialist can embrace the new science of Palmistry without offending in any was his sense of propriety.
Well Mr. Benham, way to take the fun out of this divination method many of us like to envision taking place in a warmly lit parlor with an extravagantly dressed gypsy woman. Though, he claims his interest began when he learned chiromancy from an old gypsy. It must have been all the smog of industrialization that set him on the path of making a science out of it.
Then again, his scientific hand reading was hardly the first science of translating physical attributes into psychological evaluations. My favorite example is physiognomy, a method of reading a person’s personality based on their appearance, particularly facial features. Nothing like studying up on deceitful eyes and criminal features. Perhaps I should track down that old book, too…
From what I’ve read, Benham didn’t quite succeed in making a science out of this art, though this book is still considered a classic. Many of his observations and laws are outdated or do not hold up to modern palmistry. So if you’re looking for a book on learning to read the lines of a person’s hands, this probably won’t be your best bet.
Benham views the human body as a machine. Literally. He has a chapter called “The Human Engine”. But I do not think he his devoid of spirituality. He hints at it while still trying to maintain objective.
Argue as men will against the existence of God, they cannot deny that there is some omnipotent force outside of us all that gives life and takes it without consulting our wishes. Some have called this force Buddha, some Ether, some Electricity, some God, some the influence of the Planets. Whatever the name, the result is the same.
He painstakingly describes the health and personality indications of every portion of the hand: nails, hair, color, mounts, lines, etc. In 800 photos and sketches, he demonstrates various observations from his studies. He is no entertainer or mystic. This is not a man you pay five dollars to discover your best bet for a happy marriage, though he’d be happy to point you in the right direction. He passionately believes that hand reading can lead to a better society with reduced career failure, divorces, and illnesses.
For collectors of strange old books, this might be a treasure to hunt down. Of course, if you want a taste of Benham, you can read the whole thing online for free!