Ludlow, VT Blasting Powder "Crowbar" Accident, Sept 1848

Phineas Gage

An accident occurred from the use of blasting powder at this time, which is note-worthy, though not strictly an item of Ludlow history. While the railroad was being opened through the stone-cut below Cavendish station in 1849 [sic], one of the laborers, Albert [sic] Gage, in tamping the powder into a hole that had been drilled in the ledge, ignited the powder, which exploded and shot the iron bar which he had been using, through his head. The bar, which was an inch and and eighth square by four and a third feet long, entered inside the curve of the under jaw, and came out about an inch in front of the center of the crown. It passed through its entire length, and portions of the brain were found adhering to it. The bar is now in the Boston Museum.

Mr. Gage was taken to the Cavendish hotel, but as his injuy was supposed to be necessarily fatal no attempt was made to dress the wound till the following day, but he recovered, and lived ten years after the accident.

History of Ludlow, Vermont, 1949, page 119


Phineas P. Gage (1823–1860) was an American railroad construction foreman remembered for his improbable survival of an accident in which a large iron rod was driven completely through his head, destroying much of his brain's left frontal lobe, and for that injury's reported effects on his personality and behavior over the remaining twelve years of his life?—?effects sufficiently profound (for a time at least) that friends saw him as "no longer Gage."

The iron's path, per Harlow Long known as the "American Crowbar Case"?—?once termed "the case which more than all others is calculated to excite our wonder, impair the value of prognosis, and even to subvert our phys­i­o­log­i­cal doctrines"?—?Phineas Gage influenced nineteenth-century discussion about the mind and brain, particularly debate on cerebral localization,?? and was perhaps the first case to suggest the brain's role in determining personality, and that damage to specific parts of the brain might induce specific personality changes.

Gage is a fixture in the curricula of neurology, psychology, and neuroscience, one of "the great medical curiosities of all time" and "a living part of the medical folklore"? frequently mentioned in books and scientific papers; he even has a minor place in popular culture. Despite this celebrity, the body of established fact about Gage and what he was like (whether before or after his injury) is small, which has allowed "the fitting of almost any theory [desired] to the small number of facts we have"?—?Gage acting as a "Rorschach inkblot"? in which proponents of various conflicting theories of the brain all saw support for their views. Historically, published accounts of Gage (including scientific ones) have almost always severely exaggerated and distorted his behavioral changes, frequently contradicting the known facts.

A report of Gage's physical and mental condition shortly before his death implies that his most serious mental changes were temporary, so that in later life he was far more functional, and socially far better adapted, than in the years immediately following his accident. A social recovery hypothesis suggests that Gage's work as a stagecoach driver in Chile fostered this recovery by providing daily structure which allowed him to regain lost social and personal skills.

On September 13, 1848, Gage was directing a work gang blasting rock while preparing the roadbed for the Rutland & Burlington Railroad south of the town of Cavendish, Vermont. Setting a blast entailed boring a hole deep into an out­crop­ping of rock; adding blasting powder and a fuse; then using the tamping iron to pack ("tamp") sand, clay, or other inert material into the hole above the powder.



Phineas Gage accident 1848

This entry in the History of Ludlow, Vermont (1949) is an excellent example of how the story of Phineas Gage tends to get garbled in retellings. Every detail is a little bit wrong, including his name. The 1907 History of Rockingham by Lyman Hayes also has some warped facts. Since the 1990's, when interest in brain research grew, there are more-carefully researched accounts. The discovery of a post-accident photo of Phineas P. Gage in 2009 has further increased interest in his story. Thanks for providing this transcription.