Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Newsletter: Spring 2010

150th Anniversary of Phineas Gage’s Death

Horrible Accident: As Phineas P. Gage, a foreman on the railroad in Cavendish, was yesterday engaged in tamping -for a blast, the powder exploded, carrying an iron instrument through his head an inch and a fourth in circumference, and three feet and eight inches in length, which he was using at the time. The iron centered on the side of his face, shattering the upper jaw and passing back of the left eye and out at the top of the head.

The most singular circumstance connected with this melancholy affair is that he was alive at two o’clock this afternoon, and in full possession of his reason, and free from pain.
Ludlow Vt. Free Soil Union Sept. 14, 1848

On September 13, 1848 Phineas Gage, a foreman, was working with his crew excavating rocks in preparing the bed for the Rutland and Burlington Railroad in Cavendish. An accidental explosion of a charge he had set blew his tamping iron through his head. It entered under the left cheekbone and exited through the top of the head. The rod, covered with brains and blood, was found approximately 30 yards from the site of the accident.

Sitting on the back of an ox cart, Gage was brought back to the boarding house he was staying in on Main Street in Cavendish. Dr. John Harlow treated his wounds, along with Dr. Edward H. Williams. The large wound at the top of his head was closed with adhesive straps and a wet compress covered the opening. No surgery was involved.

Within days of the accident, an infection developed and Gage lapsed into a semi comatose state. Fearing that he was about to die, a local carpenter prepared a coffin for him. Two weeks after the accident, Harlow released 8 fluid ounces of pus from an abscess under Gage’s scalp. By January 1, 1849 (approximately 4 months) Gage was functional.

It is remarkable that Gage survived this accident, let alone lived for almost 12 more years. Fortunately Dr. Harlow and Dr. Henry J. Bigelow, a professor of surgery at Harvard University, tracked Gage as much possible, thereby documenting one of the first cases of traumatic brain injury in medical science.

It was the first understanding that parts of the brain have different functions and effects on personality. With this knowledge, the first brain tumor removal operation became possible in 1885. After studying what had happened to Gage, the operating physician concluded that lesions or tumors located in the frontal lobes of the brain didn't affect the brain's ability to take in sense information. Nor did they have an impact on physical movements or speech. However, such localized lesions or tumors did produce highly characteristic and unusual personality changes like Gage's. In 1894, that same surgeon removed a tumor from a patient's left frontal lobe. The patient had complained his thinking was becoming increasingly slow and dull. Seeing the similarities between this patient's mental faculties and Gage's, the doctor successfully removed the tumor that lay, just as he expected, in the left frontal lobes of the brain.

According to Gage’s family and friends, his behavior was significantly altered by the accident. In 1868, Harlow wrote in the “Bulletin of the Massachusetts Medical Society” His contractors, who regarded him as the most efficient and capable foreman in their employ previous to his injury, considered the change in his mind so marked that they could not give him his place again. He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint of advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinent, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operation, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. In this regard, his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was “no longer Gage.”

Not able to work as a foreman, Gage held a variety of jobs. He worked in the livery stable at what is now known as the Hanover Inn in New Hampshire. He drove coaches and cared for horses in Valparaiso, Chile. Around 1859, after his health began to fail he went to San Francisco to live with his mother. While there, he worked on a farm in Santa Clara County. In February 1860, he began to have epileptic seizures and ultimately died May 21, 1860.

Rumors circulated that Gage appeared at Barnum’s American Museum in New York. It would take another Cavendish doctor, Dr. Gene Bont, more than 150 years later to find proof that Gage did in fact exhibit himself as a curiosity. Bont found a poster advertising Gage as “The World’s Wonder.” For 12 1•2 Cents, “to be had at the door,” you could see Phineas Gage at Rumford Hall where he will exhibit to them, in his own person, one of the greatest wonders of the world! Nothing less than a man who has had a huge iron bar, which he will exhibit, forced through his head from chin to crown; has had, in fact his brains blown out!”

One of the least talked about people connected with the Gage accident is Dr. Williams. He was an engineer, who went to medical school when ill health kept him from working outside. Since he did not have a busy medical practice, Williams spent considerable time in various forms of engineering. In fact, he knew Gage prior to his accident. He was the first doctor on the scene but would have differed to Dr. Harlow as he was a surgeon. Not long after the incident, Williams returned to engineering full time and started the oldest engineering society in the United States, Tau Beta Pi.

In honor of the 150th anniversary of Gage’s death, The Cavendish Historical Society (CHS) has developed a Phineas Gage Walking Tour, which highlights the approximate area Gage was injured, the homes of Drs. Harlow and Williams, and the locations of the boarding house and the carpenter who had prepared the coffin.

Copies of the tour guide are available at the Cavendish Historical Society Museum, the Cavendish Town Office and the Cavendish Library in Proctorsville. In addition, on May 23 (Sunday), CHS will conduct a walking tour. The tour will begin at the Museum, Main Street Cavendish, at 2 pm. For more information, please call 802-226-7807 or e-mail

Hawks Mountain Cannon
There are many stories that have been told over the years about a cannon from the French and Indian War period that was abandoned, buried or lost on Hawks Mountain near the Baltimore Cavendish line. This spring, CHS has been collecting information about the cannon, and has already sponsored one hike to have a better sense if there might be any truth to this local legend. Bruce McEnaney, CHS board member and archivist, started off very skeptical. In fact, at the beginning of the recent hike he said that if the cannon turns up, he will don nothing but a Speedo bathing suit and stroll through Cavendish on January 10. Now that’s a challenge we just couldn’t pass up. If anyone has information about the cannon, please e-mail or call 802-226-7807.

Restoration of Cavendish Cemetery Markers: Volunteers Needed
During the summer months, many people come to Cavendish to research their ancestors. Seeing the grave of a great grandparent can be a very moving experience. It can also provide new information, such as what middle initial might have stood for, or the exact date of a birth. Some people, by walking through a plot, have learned of family members they never knew about.

Grave markers also offer important clues to a town’s history. It is easy to track outbreaks of epidemics, the sentiments of a particular area, who served in what wars and a lot more.

Cavendish has cemeteries with very old grave markers, including the Revolutionary War and before. While our Cemetery Commission does an excellent job with marginal funds, a number of stones are in need of care. In order to restore them, so they can be read by future generations, as well as honor those who went before us, the Cavendish Historical Society (CHS) is launching a community wide Marker Cleaning Day the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend.

We are working with the Vermont Old Cemetery Association (VOCA) and the Cavendish Cemetery Commission to clean and repair the grave markers in the seven Cavendish cemeteries. The students at the Cavendish Town Elementary School are also going to be involved in helping with this project.

CHS is seeking volunteers who would like to assist in the various aspects of restoration. Volunteers will be taught and equipped to clean markers. In return we will ask them to be responsible for cleaning certain areas and to help train others.

If interested in being part of this project, please contact Margo Caulfield at 802-226-7807 or e-mail Your donations can now be used to help with the grave marker project. Just select Cemetery Project on the donation sheet.

Cavendish Historical Society Board
Dan Churchill
Jen Harper
Cheryl Leiner
Gloria Leven
Bruce McEnaney
Mike Pember
Gail Woods

Upcoming Events
Please be advised that events are subject to change, so please call ahead. You can also check the CHS Blog for up to date information. The Museum opens for the season on Sunday, May 30 from 2-4 pm. Other times by appointment.

May 23 (Sunday): Phineas Gage Walking Tour. Meet at the Museum on Main Street at 2 pm.

May 29 (Saturday): Grave Marker Cleaning Day, 9-12, Hillcrest Cemetery in Proctorsville
May 30 (Sunday): Museum opens for the season. 2-4 pm, Main Street Cavendish.

July 3 (Saturday): Old Home Day . Quilt Show at the Stone Church

July 4 (Sunday): Quilt Show continues at the Stone Church

August 22 (Sunday): Duttonsville Reunion BBQ: We need volunteers to help organize this event. If you are interested, please e-mail or call 802-226-7807

September: Walking Tour of Proctorsville

October 10: Annual Cemetery Tour

October 17: Annual Meeting and Polish Heritage Dinner

November 27: Holiday Fair

Cavendish Quilt Show
As part of Old Home Day weekend, July 3-4, CHS is hosting a “Cavendish Quilt Show” as the annual art show in the Stone Church. CHS is seeking quilts, of any era, that have been made and/or used in Cavendish. We welcome all types and styles of quilts. The show will be mounted on July 2 and does not require the owner/quilter be present during the show. We do want a brief description of the quilt, who made it and other relevant information. If you have a quilt(s) you would like to display, please contact or call 226-7807.

Cavendish Business Directory
In the 1869 Beers Atlas, there were 53 businesses listed in the “Town of Cavendish Business Directory,” which included Proctorsville. In the April 2010 edition, compiled by CHS, there are 127 businesses. In both, home-based business, or self-employed, was the norm. However, in 1869, there were 21 farms versus the two listed in the most recent edition. Jobs such as tanners, carriage maker, blacksmith, wheelwright do not appear on our current list. The woolen industry, with four related businesses, is still present today in the form of Six Loose Ladies, fiber shop in Ludlow and several fiber artists. Interestingly, no artists appeared in the 1869 version, but Cavendish boosts a growing number of them.

Copies of the 2010 Cavendish Business Directory are available at the Town Office, Cavendish Library, CHS and by e-mailing for a PDF version.

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