Cavendish, Vermont, is situated just east of Ludlow, on Route 131, along the Black River and the bed of the Rutland and Burlington Rail Road. Off the beaten path, it is a quiet town and is perhaps best known as the refuge of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn during his time in the United States. The people of Cavendish protected Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s privacy while he was in their midst, and even today, years after his departure, no one will tell you where he lived.
By contrast to the privacy granted Mr. Solzhenitsyn, the town has erected a marker in the tiny town park commemorating the day that Phineas P. Gage became famous. Solzhenitsyn’s fame is associated with the Iron Curtain. Gage’s fame, however, is associated with an iron rod. An iron rod which was blown clear through his head.
A well-liked man and respected rail crew foreman from Lebanon, New Hampshire, Phineas Gage was working on a blasting crew outside of Cavendish on September 13, 1848. Gage’s crew was drilling holes into rock and placing blasting powder into each hole. The powder was then covered by a layer of sand and the sand was tamped firm by Mr. Gage, using an iron rod just over three and a half feet long and weighing 13 ½ pounds.
The rod tapered from an inch and a quarter in diameter at one end to a quarter of an inch at the other, and when Phineas Gage drove it into a hole with powder but no sand, the resulting spark set off an explosion which drove the rod out of the hole and completely through his head. The rod clanged to the ground nearly a hundred feet behind Phineas as he collapsed in a heap.
Dr. John Martin Harlow, Cavendish’s young physician, was summoned to the scene and, through his ministrations, Phineas Gage was able to return to his home in Lebanon 10 weeks later. But he was never the same. He became impatient and irreverent, profane, obstinate and distracted and never worked at the level of foreman again.
(I can’t imagine too many people who, after having an iron rod blown through their head, might not feel just a tad bit impatient, irreverent, profane and obstinate, and I can certainly see how it could be a distraction.)
Phineas P. Gage hooked up with Phineas T. Barnum for a time, earning money as people gawked and marveled at his story, but Mr. Gage felt a sense of wanderlust and eventually found himself employed driving stage coaches in Chile until his health began to fail. He moved to San Francisco to live with his mother in about 1859.
Phineas P. Gage began having epileptic seizures in February of 1860 and died on the 21st of May that year. No autopsy or study of his damaged brain was done, but in 1867 his body was exhumed and his skull, along with the tamping iron, were sent to Dr. Harlow at his practice in Woburn, Massachusetts. After studying them himself and presenting his findings, Dr. Harlow presented the artifacts to Harvard University Medical School’s Warren Museum. The tamping iron and Phineas’ skull are now on display at Harvard’s Countaway Library of Medicine.
The case of Phineas P. Gage and his accidental lobotomy is still a subject of discussion for those who discuss such things and that fateful day in 1848 will always be remembered on a plaque in a park in a small town in Vermont.