William Benham

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The Laws of Scientific Handreading

William Benham In complete contrast to the intuitive and psychic approach of Cheiro and the plagiarism of Comte de St Germain, are the works of the American palmist, William Benham. Benham became interested in palmistry at the age of thirteen when, like D'Arpentigny before him, he met a young gipsy girl who taught him all she knew of gipsy chiromancy. By 1900, after years of extensive study and research, he produced his seminal work 'The Laws of Scientific Handreading'. He devoted his life to making the study of the hand "...a study worthy of the best efforts of the best minds" and so to raise it from the realms of superstition into a proper science.

However, whilst this work is certainly one of the most comprehensive and detailed treatises on the hand of its time, it is doubtful as to whether Benham did discover any 'laws' or actually make handreading into a 'proper science'.  The work has all too often been over-praised by handreaders new to the study of palmistry such that any critical scrutiny of the work has been overlooked.  And yet there are some obvious aspects of Benham's approach which are clearly quite flawed.

Whilst Benham shows some influence from D'Arpentigny and Desbarolles, many of the ideas and methods he presents are original. Unfortunately, it is some of these original ideas which are the most erroneous. For instance, he makes extensive use of the mounts and astrological symbolism, developing a whole new system of handshape classification around the typologies of the seven major planets.  This in itself will perhaps be enough for some readers to pronounce this book entirely unscientific.   However, his 'mount theories' still play a very strong part in the approach to the hand of many palmists - and this despite the fact that the mounts have been entirely dispensed with by the modern analytical chirologist. It has been shown time and time again that the mounts are one of the most unreliable indicators of personality from the hand.

Nevertheless, this did not deter William Benham!  On the basis of his personality theories as assessed from the mounts of the hand, he proposed a complete system for vocational assessment from the hand, which is the subject of his only other book 'How to Choose Vocations from the Hand', published in 1932.  Evidently he managed to have some success with this method as he founded a school of palmistry in New York, along with an Institute for Vocational Guidance which seems to have still been active even as late as the 1950's.  It seems that he was a sincere and genuine man.   For instance, in an appendix to 'The Laws of Scientific Handreading', he provides a copy of the text of Aristotle's Masterpiece, which he believes was authored by Aristotle himself c350BC. Actually it was not, as it was published in London in 1738AD.  But then Benham is not the only person who was naive about handreading history.

Within his main book, Benham spends considerable time on the morphognomy of the hand and makes some particularly useful sections on analysing the fingers and the thumb. In some ways these are developments of the ideas of D'Arpentigny, but he never fails to support his observations with some quite unusual photographs of some of the most extreme chirognomical formations one is ever likely to see.  The section on the thumb is one of the most comprehensive and well-illustrated chapters ever written on this one digit.  Benham was one of the first to collect hand prints and hand photographs from the inmates of prisons and some of the most interesting hands he presents are from residents of America's State Penitentiaries.  His section on the morphognomy of the hand is undoubtedly the better half of the book.

The second part of the 'Laws' concerns itself with the lines of the hand, which are also dealt with in exacting detail. In one respect he was in advance of many other handreaders of his day in that he was particularly concerned that no one feature of the hand should be read in isolation, but should always be considered in relation to all other features. He emphasised that this was especially true of the lines of the hand and as such he is the first author to abandon any remnant of the mediaeval 'fixed sign' approach and develop a more organic and synthetic methodology.  Whilst this claim holds true in some respects, he did not, of course, apply this rule of his to interpreting 'signs' and 'marks' on the mounts!

With regard to the lines in general, as with so many palmists before him, what we are presented with is a huge collection of little drawings of the most bizarre, unlikely and never-seen-before line formations.  Unfortunately, there are absolutely no handprint illustrations of the line formations that he describes, which only leads one to suggest that this part of the book is, at best, purely theoretical. As a result of his 'synthetic' approach to the hand, he spends a great deal of time describing various combinations of lines (rather then fixed signs) - and then coming up with a very specific 'meaning' for this combination which is entirely unlikely!  The unlikelihood of the explanation is compounded by the fact that the line combination in itself is one that would never, ever be seen.  For the beginner, this is very confusing as these totally impossible line combinations are interspersed between illustrations of perfectly feasible formations of the palmar lines.  It take a long time to realise that Benham is not perhaps as accurate as his generally serious and sober approach would lead you to believe.  An obvious example of this is Benham's views on the Heart line.

One of the most unscientific ideas that Benham presents, and which is the underlying 'philosophy' for his interpretations of various features of the hand, is his idea that the lines are expressions of a 'flow of energy' within the palm, presumably taking inspiration from Michaelangelo's painting of God giving life to Adam on the ceiling of the Sistene Chapel in Rome. Benham views the 'life-force energy' entering the hand through the index finger of the person and then 'travelling' down the three main lines of the hand to the wrist, returning back up the hand through the secondary lines. This idea is obviously quite without any empirical substantiation whatsoever, and yet it has influenced generations of handreaders ever since.  It is purely this view which has led Benham to believe that the course of the Water line (or Heart line) runs from the index finger to the ulna edge of the palm.  Nearly all palmists have followed him in this erroneous interpretation of the line.  As is quite clear from the form and structure of the line itself, it 'runs' from the edge of the hand towards the index finger.

This is one of the most unique contributions Benham has made to the study of the hand - going against the traditions of many centuries of handreading! - and it is one of those that has seemed to have 'stuck' into modern times primarily, due to the uncritical adulation that Benham's work has generally received. Whilst it is true that his book is refreshing for its originality, clarity of written presentation and thoroughness and exactitude, it should no longer be held up as the 'bible' of handreading as it has been for so long.  The book contains far too many fundamental errors of judgement and entirely omits any discussion of the fingerprints or medical dermatoglyphics. Many of the ideas are simply out of date, unsurprisingly for a book written over 100 years ago. 

When the book was reprinted in 1946, (in other words, after the works of at least Jaquin and Wolff had been published) Benham writes in the introduction: "... I have found no reason to change or correct any statement or indication contained in the book as originally published."  For someone allegedly so open and innovative in his approach to handreading, this is a very surprising statement to make indeed - as if nothing had happened within the handreading world over nearly fifty years! As we shall see when we consider the modern chirology of the twentieth century, nothing could be further from the truth.


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