An Odd Kind of Fame: Stories of Phineas Gage

Aspects of the Phineas Gage case remain obscure.  There is a large number of questions still needing answers.  My Boston colleague, Matthew L. Lena, and I believe that without your knowing, you may have important information on Phineas, or may recognize something in what is listed below that will lead to such information.  We particularly hope for first-hand descriptions of Phineas by people who knew him in New England, Chile, or San Francisco. We also have clues that need following up across the USA.

What follows below is a list of people, places and things connected with Gage that relate to people he met or places he’d been rather than things about the man himself. We would appreciate hearing from readers having any information at all on these things (even though not involving Gage) or ideas about where to find such information. In most cases we know more than is described here and are eager to discuss with interested persons how what they know might be used to uncover more.

Clues might be found in letters, diaries and other personal papers; medical and business records; town, police and court files; local newspapers; or in the archives of churches, libraries, hospitals and literary, professional, historical and genealogical societies.  We especially hope people in organizations will search their one-of-a-kind material not likely to be published in book form.

We'd be delighted to hear from you at the address below.  We are especially eager to hear from anyone who can help us make contact with people living in Chile who can pursue our leads there.

By helping in this effort, you will be helping to establish whether Phineas made a 'social recovery', which could be extremely important for modern patients with brain injuries.  Why?  Because if Phineas did make such a recovery, largely by himself, it expands the hope for modern patients, who have the added benefit of formal rehabilitation.  It would be dramatically consistent with the experience of modern rehabilitation programs such as those described on the 'BBC Radio 4 Case Study broadcast and discussion' on Phineas (and which may still available in your country through that link).

1. Phineas before the accident

Phineas was born in Lebanon, NH, in 1823 (precise date unknown). Where did he grow up? Was it on the farm of his mother's parents in or near Lebanon?

Where did Phineas go to school and how much education did he have? The school could have been in Lebanon, East Lebanon, Grafton, or Enfield (all NH).

What kind of work and where did Phineas do before working on the Rutland and Burlington Rail Road? It may have been on farms, the isinglass (mica) mines in Grafton, NH, and/or on the Northern Railroad that ran through New Hampshire before the R&BRR was built.  Was he working near Cortland NY in early- to mid-1848?

Is there a discrepancy between Dr. Harlow’s description of Phineas as a "shrewd, smart business man" and his being the foreman of a construction gang? The terms 'business' and 'business man' had different meanings in the 1850s, from those today and Phineas may have been a sub-contractor employing his own men.

We know that Dr. Harlow was influenced by phrenology.  But how much? Nelson Sizer and Phineas Lyman Buell wrote that they had given phrenological lectures arranged in Cavendish with Harlow's assistance during the tour they made of New England in the 1840s. One of your relatives living in New England might have attended the lectures or even known Harlow.

2. The accident

Do you have any diary entries, letters, or newspaper accounts of the accident itself? It would be wonderful to find the original Ludlow Free Soil Union report (but there are few copies of that paper). Even better would be to find more personal, first-hand accounts in a letter or a diary.

Dr. Edward Higginson Williams, MD, of Proctorsville, Vermont, reached Gage first. What role did he play in treating Gage? The Williams family once had documents describing the events of that day but none have survived. . The lore of the Williams family gives him the real credit for Gage's recovery. Read about Dr. Williams at and see my entry about the family lore at

Williams eventually joined the Baldwin Locomotive Works. He was a benefactor of Carleton College (Minnesota) and the University of Vermont; he also donated the Norman Williams Public Library to the town of Woodstock, Vermont. Any of these institutions (or their successors) may have more papers of his than we have discovered.

3. Phineas in New England after the accident

Exactly where and when did Phineas travel in New England exhibiting himself and his tamping-iron? What we need are descriptions of his behaviour during that time (and he may have still been in New England as late as 1854, as his request on the envelope suggests). We have some newspaper accounts by people who met him in 1848-1849 and announcements of his tour (Concord) and one as late as 1852 (Montpelier). Harlow tells us that Phineas was an attraction at Barnum's American Museum in New York City (not Barnum's later circus!). A record of his appearances in any of these places and what he did would be most useful.

We have a startling but completely unconfirmed report of Gage at a Methodist revival in Sterling, Massachusetts where he “skillfully used the fact of his providential recovery in his exhortations and labors for the [religious] conversion of others." The reported date was 1855 but 1850-54 is more probable. Thousands from throughout New England attended such 'camp meetings' each Fall.

Dr. William Dandridge Peck of Sterling may have been the source of the ‘camp-meeting’ report, which seems to have been made by an unnamed person at the Massachusetts Medical Society meeting (1868) at which Harlow presented his second report on Gage.  Was Dr. Peck there?  What were the social contacts among Peck and the leaders of Boston's Medical Profession, including Oliver Wendell Holmes?

What kind of work did Phineas do for Jonathan Currier at the Dartmouth Hotel/Inn in Hanover, NH, between 1851 and August 1852 (or possibly 1854)? Did he learn to drive for Currier's coach service as well as look after the horses? You might have a letter from a relative who lived in Hanover at that time, or a member of Darmouth College's Faculty, or a student who saw Phineas and could tell us how well he got on with people, including customers at the Inn.

We know that many physicians met, examined, and/or wrote to their colleagues about Phineas at various times. They include Dixi Crosby, Edward Elisa Phelps and C.R. Peaslee (Dartmouth College); Alden March (Albany Medical College and founder and president of the American Medical Association); B. (Benjamin?) Gallup and B.T. Hubbard (Lebanon, NH); James Buchanan Porter (1806-1879, Vermont); George H. Fuller (b. Lebanon NH, d. Buda, Illinois); John Ordronaux (gr. Dartmouth 1850, also Harvard Law, National Medical College, Columbia, U. of Vermont); Shobal Vail Clevenger (who corresponded with Fuller sometime in 1880-1898).

We have not been able to find out much about the education, families, careers, colleagues, and correspondents of any of these men and would be interested to know if they left private papers and where they are held.

Dr. John Martyn Harlow was born to a farming family in May 1805 in Washington County, New York State. During 1837-1844 he was educated at Troy Conference Academy (now Green Mountain College) at West Pultney, Vermont; the Ashby Academy in Ashby, Massachusetts; and Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. He was 'apprenticed' to Dr. Harris Cowdrey of Acton, Massachusetts, in about 1840 and also worked as a school teacher in Acton. Do you know what happened to Harlow's personal papers relating to Gage or anything else?

Harlow's first wife was Charlotte Davis of Acton. After her death he married Frances Kimball Ames and with her 'visited relatives' in Stillwater, Minnesota (ca. 1857-1860). Though Harlow died childless in Woburn, Mass., he was related, either by blood, marriage, or business and friendship to the Cowdrey, Davis, Ames, and Kimball families. Perhaps his papers are among the treasures of these families. Do you know anyone related to him or to them?

4. Phineas in Valparaiso or Santiago (Chile) after the accident

How and when did Phineas travel to Valparaiso?  Possibly it was between 1852 and 1854.  Phineas must have been someone's travelling companion. Gold was still attracting people to California as late as 1854 and you may have accounts of journeys, either around Cape Horn or across the Isthmus of Panama.

Harlow says that in August 1852 Phineas went to Chile with "a man who was establish a line of coaches at Valparaiso" — perhaps one of the "three enterprising New Englanders" who, it is claimed, established a coach line there using sixteen coaches from the famous Abbot-Downing coach works in Concord, NH. We also know that in 1860 "the American line of [stage-]coaches" was purchased by a James McGill who, at that time, ordered an additional 'Concord coach' for delivery to Chile. Were any of these Gage's employers? Perhaps someone can discover something we missed among the incomplete Abbot-Downing Company records and other records at the New Hampshire Historical Society in Concord, NH.

Do you know of any source that would help in finding out if Phineas worked for the same employer for the whole of the time he was in Chile? He spent nearly seven years there and your answer would help establish how settled or otherwise he had become.

Do you know anything about the doctors Henry and William Trevitt? In about 1857 Dr. William Trevitt (b. 1809), former Ohio Secretary of State, became American Consul in Valparaiso and later Callao, Peru, before returning to Franklin Co. Ohio. William's nephew, Henry, apparently studied at the Starling Medical College (Columbus, Ohio) around 1859 - 1860, after which he became a druggist in Wilton, NH. We would be happy to hear from any of his descendents, especially about his time in Chile.

We would also like to know about the Trevitts' relationship to the Methodist Church (or other denomination), the 'Bethel ministry to sailors,' a 'hospital for sick and destitute seamen,' or the 'Southern Cross' Masonic Lodge.

The Trevitts are of particular interest because, in about 1860, Henry told Prof. J.W. Hamilton of Starling that in Chile he had known Phineas “well” and that he had "no impairment whatever of his mental faculties."  We would like to find the rest of Henry's statement and/or fill out the relations among Gage and the Trevitts in Chile.  Hamilton was the editor of the Ohio Medical & Surgical Journal and we would like to learn anything we can about him (letters and papers, personal life, medical and academic activities, professional associates); about Starling (including faculty, students, and records of any kind); or about Hamilton's later activities, students, and associates at Columbus Medical School (beginning 1875).

5. Phineas in California after returning from Chile

Phineas worked on a farm in Santa Clara County from late in 1859 until February 1860, and then for a succession of employers (probably farms in Santa Clara, SF, San Mateo, or Alameda Counties) until his death on May 21, 1860, not 1861 as Dr. Harlow reported. Does your family have journals or records from an ancestor's farm of that time? Perhaps your local historical or genealogical society, or a county library, has histories of the area. If you had a medical ancestor who was in Santa Clara at that time, perhaps he left a memoir of treating Gage's convulsions.

We are interested in Dr. William Jackson Wentworth (b. 1816 NH or Maine, m.1847 Cordelia M. Barlow). Wentworth resided in Boston when Gage visited early in 1850 when the two could have met. In 1853 Wentworth went to Brooklyn and Clinton Townships (now Oakland), Alameda County, California, where he practiced medicine and served as coroner. Gage's mother Hannah Trussel (Swetland/Sweetland) Gage, sister Phebe Jane (Gage) Shattuck, and nephew Frank Baxter Shattuck were residing with Wentworth just weeks after Gage's death.  Perhaps Gage died there (under Wentworth's care) instead of at the family's home in San Francisco itself, as is usually assumed.

Other persons residing with Wentworth at that time were Agnew Boyd, 46 (from Ireland) and James A. Boyd, 9, about whom we know nothing else. Nephew Frank subsequently attended the California School for the Deaf at nearby Berkeley; possibly Wentworth's services were related to Frank's deafness. Frank may have attended an earlier deaf school in San Francisco, and we would like to find more about that.

We would also like to find about Wentworth's education (Harvard Medical School ca. 1845 but did not graduate there), his medical practice (he was also Alameda Co. Coroner several times), other doctors in the area (of which we can supply a list), and who he may have written to — particularly the family he left behind in New England. Wentworth died childless in 1863; his widow Cordelia remarried grocery merchant Bazaleel Atchinson. Geologist Walter Stalder (d.1949), or perhaps his father Joseph Stalder (d. 1931), apparently possessed papers given him by Wentworth's widow; there may be living relatives of the Stalders who have them.

Phineas was buried in San Francisco by funeral directors N. Gray & Co, whose records (at the San Francisco Public Library) are nearly complete, except that the 'day book' for May 1860—which would tell us where Phineas' body was collected and who his physician was—seems to be missing. Can anyone help find it?
San Francisco's Dr. Jacob Davis Babcock Stillman and Dr. Henry Perrin Coon exhumed Gage's body in 1867; perhaps they wrote about it. The papers of Coon, a former mayor of San Francisco, seem to have disappeared entirely. Do you know where they are? Stillman's papers are widely dispersed and may contain something we missed; he was also physician to California Governor and railroad builder Leland Stanford, so something on Gage may have survived in Stanford’s papers as well.

Gage's sister, Phebe Jane Gage, married merchant and importer David Dustin Shattuck on 10th November, 1853 in San Francisco. David Dustin died on 20th March, 1904 in San Francisco after which Phebe moved to San Rafael where she died in August 1914. We have had some contact with some descendents of Phebe and David Dustin, but would love to hear from anyone who may have information about them or about the descendants of their children, Hannah, Delia, Mary, Alice, or Frank Baxter Shattuck, regardless of how useful it might appear to be.

6. Ship passenger lists

Many ship passenger lists are now lost, and many others are on the Web, but others still are in print form only, requiring a manual search. Can anyone find arrival or departure information for the following people and ports?

Phineas, Hannah, Phebe, and Jesse Eaton Gage departing Boston or New York, circa. 1852-55, then via Valparaiso or Aspinwall, to San Francisco.

Jesse Eaton Gage departing San Francisco (sometime 1850-1859) for New York or Boston.

Phineas Gage departing Valparaiso for San Francisco circa. July 1859

We have records of David Dustin Shattuck and the rest of Phineas’ San Francisco relatives arriving in New York in early 1868 but not of their departure from or their return to San Francisco. We are particularly interested to know whether the family visited Harlow in Woburn (hotel records? local news report?).

James McGill (mentioned above) or a shipment of 16 Concord Coaches from Boston or New York to Valparaiso, possibly in late 1852 or even later.

We would also be interested in letters and diaries of people who travelled these routes anytime during the period 1852 - 1860, particularly if they stopped in Valparaiso and most particularly if they took the opportunity to take the stagecoach to the inland capital of Santiago. Any relative of yours who "caught” Gold fever and went to California via the Horn had a good chance of spending several days in Valparaiso and seeing Phineas. 

My address:

Prof. Malcolm Macmillan

School of Psychological Sciences

University of Melbourne

Victoria 3010 Australia

Fax: + 613 9347 6618