Phineas Gage’s niece, Delia Presby (Shattuck) Oliver’s gravestone appears on Ocean Beach when heavy storms move sand out to sea. It was last uncovered on June 4, 2012. The lettering — still legible — reads; Delia Presby, wife of, F.B. Oliver, Died, April 9, 1890, Aged 26 yrs., 10 mos. 27 days, — Rest –
Phineas Gage’s traumatic brain injury (1848) made him famous in the psychology and neuroscience fields.
After his death (1860), Gage was buried in San Francisco’s Lone Mountain Cemetery.
In 1866, Dr. Harlow, who treated Phineas after his traumatic brain injury wrote to Mrs. Gage, Phineas’s mother, inquiring about his former patient.
One thing led to another and during the following year, David Shattuck, Mrs. Gage’s son-in-law, along with two physicians (past city mayors), dug Phineas up.
Note: The image above, left is not David Shattuck. Photographs/ daguerreotypes could be found of David or his wife Pheobe. In the interest of storytelling, public domain images are used as representations.
On a misty morning in November, I found myself in the Lone Mountain Cemetery looking down at my brother-in-law’s tombstone. Doctor Coon and Doctor J.B.D. Stillman stood at my side, each with a shovel in hand.
Guards stood at the closed entrance gates affording us privacy.
Coats came off as digging commenced. At first, I felt that I was committing an unforgivable sin. But as my back strained and my hands developed blisters, those feelings subsided, until my shovel made contact with something solid.
The other two paused, nodding to one another, then resumed. Once space was clear, the two doctors were about to lift the coffin lid when I interrupted. “Wait! Gentlemen, please bear with my squeamishness. Before you open it, would you prepare me for what I am about to see?”
Doctor Coon looked uncomfortable. He glanced at Doctor Stillman who replied, “Why, David, you need not see anything.”
“No,” I disagreed firmly. “I promised my wife that I would follow it through to the end.”
“She never needs to know,” Doctor Coon replied softly.
“I’ll know. Please, just tell me.”
“Very well,” the man sighed as he wiped his hands on his vest, “By now, all of the body fluids will have dissipated. The clothing will be intact. Likely, dry skin will still cover the skeletal remains. Hair will be present.” Coon paused to see how I was taking it. “Shall I describe what we’ll do next and the skull removal process?”
Squeezing my eyes shut, I nodded.
“Once the lid is off, the first thing I will do is hand you the iron bar. Next, I will test the skull to see if it separates from the spine. If not, Doctor Stillman has tools for that. I will remove any organic matter that freely separates. Doctor Stillman will take the skull and place it inside the box.” Coon paused, waiting for my response.
“Understood. Proceed,” I said gravely.
It took all three of us climbing inside the hole to pry the lid up and place it off to the side. I was surprised to see Phineas’s body exactly as Doctor Coon described.
Mummified-looking remains wore Phin’s clothes. But it no longer looked like the man I remembered. When I hopped out of the hole, Doctor Coon handed up the bar. It was ice-cold to the touch, heavier than I remembered.
Not wishing to watch more of the proceedings, I held it up, running a finger over the words etched on its surface.
This is the bar that was shot through the head of Mr. Phinehas P. Gage at Cavendish, Vermont, Sept. 14, 1848. He fully recovered from the injury & deposited this bar in the Museum of the Medical College of Harvard University. Phinehas P. Gage Lebanon Grafton Cy N-H Jan 6, 1850
I remembered Phin’s story about the engraver he hired to do the work, misspelling his name. I could hear Phineas saying, ‘When mistakes are made, it’s the good man who doesn’t get angry, but figures out how to move forward from there.’
I chose to focus on memories rather than listen to the doctors going on about their ghoulish activity.
“Mission accomplished,” Doctor Stillman proclaimed loudly, breaking into my thoughts. He and Doctor Coon replaced the coffin lid. “Let’s get that hole filled.”
When we finished, Doctor Stillman offered to take the skull with him to process it for travel.
I promised myself at that moment, that ‘the skull’ would remain inside its box until it was delivered to Doctor Harlow. I didn’t care to, ever, look at it, or have any member of my family see it.
Without my noticing, a murky fog had rolled in. The city beyond the cemetery walls had been engulfed in a chilly, dull, gray blankness of a November day. Seagulls could be heard high above in the blue sky that must be up there. Our boot steps sounded muffled.
Doctor Stillman cradled the box in front of him like a wise man on his way to deliver a gift to the baby Jesus. Doctor Coon carried shovels and a bag of tools. I kept pace with the others, Phineas’s bar grew heavier every minute.
A raven landed on a tombstone nearby. It shrieked, raising its wings like it expected a token in exchange for letting us pass.
When the guards opened the gates, the metal hinges let loose a high-pitched protest. I wondered if the flaming gates of hell would sound that way if this deed took me to that entrance.
Worse yet, would Phoebe ever forgive me for this?
~ End ~
Note: The dialog is fictionalized, but the people, dates, inscription, activities, and results are factual.
If you find or unearth previously unknown information about Phineas Gage – especially as it relates to his time spent in Valparaiso & Santiago, Chile (historic map spelling) or with Henry Trevitt – contact Malcolm Macmillian.
Malcolm Macmillan is Adjunct Professor at the School of Psychology at Deakin University, Australia. He is the world’s Phineas Gage expert.
Have you ever looked at a tree and seen a monster? When I was five, I was terrorized by thinking that the giant sequoia I was about to drive through would bend over to snatch me from the back seat.
As an adult, in the middle of a windy night, I was awoken by a sound like a gunshot. My car was totaled when the walnut tree I’d parked under snapped. (The insurance did not cover an ‘act of God.’) A decade or so later, I cleaned-up shattered window glass after an arborist removed a cedar tree that was growing too close to the house. While I appreciate the daily benefits of breathing, I recognize the hazards trees can cause when things go wrong.
For me, the car totaling experience resolved the age-old philosophical question about the sound a tree makes (or doesn’t make) when it falls in the woods. The same debates about the nature of reality and how it relates to experience can be applied to monsters.
Are there really extra large, hair-covered, humanoids hiding in the forests of the Pacific Northwest? Does a diabetic older man enter your house each year with the intent to delight your children? (It’s OK! He’s not a stranger, he knows what they’ve been thinking.)
Monsters are grown inside an electrically charged, submerged, gelatin-like structure that everyone carries inside their skull. This magnificent organ has evolved to specialize in pattern recognition. When we see or experience something that doesn’t make sense or for which we have no prior information, our brains concoct stories that seem real and make sense.
Addiction, accidents, rejection, unrealistic expectations, loss, grief and the fear of disappearing
are a few of the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that breathe life into our own personal monsters.
Because we are social creatures, our monsters can spread like a virus. Screaming fire in a crowded amphitheater or a run on the market because a rumor predicted a crash are examples of monsters gone viral.
Monsters are as adaptable. as we are. Before we understood the stages of decomposition, we thought evil spirits inhabited dead bodies, causing them to move. Every time we drop our kids off at school, we hope that a gunman doesn’t lose his marbles anywhere in the neighborhood. We worry that refugees and immigrants are taking our jobs.
With easy access to a world of information and a bit of discernment, monsters can be vaporized. Yet, instead of doing the work to accomplish this, many of us cozy up to them, inviting them to tea, and letting them share our pillow at night.
Monsters are with us to stay. Many of them are portrayed as hideous and frightful, while others are beguiling. All of them signal some kind of danger and remind us to be alert.
With certainty, we know that tomorrow’s monster will be different from today’s.
Below is a variety of contemporary and classic monster representations and lists of themes they exemplify.
Legendary murder crime story with a contemporary edge.
Bridget Sullivan is the Borden family maid. She’s an Irish immigrant and a witness to rising family tensions before the famous Lizzie Borden murders.
I liked the contemporary timeline tie-in with Brook’s (barista) character. Mailman does a superb job drawing parallels between people working in service sector jobs while illustrating the persistence of racism and prejudice over time.
Borden Murder Details Enhance Reading Experience
The fine details in the Borden story give evidence to the many hours the author logged while researching the famous murder, combing through trial documents, visiting the crime scene, and studying forensic photos. While details can sometimes bog down historical fiction pieces, Mailman uses them to enhance the reader experience.
If you enjoy thinking about historical events beyond what was recorded in history books and newspapers, or if you are a true crime, murder mystery enthusiast, you’ll enjoy The Murder’s Maid.
Mailman’s seamless storytelling, from the maid’s point of view, is fresh and immersive.
Because I have similar interests in re-examining historical events, Brook’s statement, “If you had been killed in a barbaric way, would you want strangers tramping through your house in 150 years and looking at photos of your brain spilling out of your skull?” struck a powerful chord.
The Irish filled the most menial and dangerous jobs, often at low pay. They cut canals. They dug trenches for water and sewer pipes. They laid rail lines. They cleaned houses. They slaved in textile mills. They worked as stevedores, stable workers, and blacksmiths. – History.com – When America Despised the Irish: The 19th Century’s Refugee Crisis
Our culture sells concepts. If we make lots of money, have a beautiful house, send kids to good schools, and travel we’ll be successful. This will make us happy. But does it?
In tuesdays with Morrie, Mitch Albom, a sportswriter on life’s fast track, slows down to visit his dying college professor.
Morrie Swartz has ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. He’s spending his last moments sharing lessons for a meaningful life.
Keeping a supply of tissues at hand, I read this book in two sittings. It touched tender spots; missing loved ones after relationship breaks, forgiveness, the meaning of family, grief and loss, the decision to have children, and saying good-bye.
[Scroll to the end for still images with quotes for social media sharing.]
“Once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.” ~ Morrie Schwartz.
In a series of interviews with Ted Koppel and audio recordings taken by Mitch, Morrie gifted his wisdom to people who never knew him. He wanted to bring dignity to death.
Morrie accomplished what he set out to do. Wherever he is now, I thank him for it.
Note: I remember where I was and what I was doing during the O.J. trial, the time when tuesdays with Morrie first came out. It wasn’t until after the book celebrated its 20th anniversary, and I’d run Phases of Gage (historical fiction novella) through the ScoreIt! linguistic analysis program that I finally read Albom’s book. Gage and Morrie are a match.
Perhaps I’m too close to my work to see similarities beyond neurological challenges and giving death dignity, but I’m glad to have read Morrie’s story no matter how it happened.
Surviving a freak accident— that was how Phineas Gage became famous. If given a choice, he’d probably prefer to be remembered as someone who rose above challenges, lived in a foreign country, and was considered the ‘fun uncle’ by his nieces and nephews.
Regardless of its moral value, Gage’s traumatic brain injury, recorded and publicized by his treating physician (Dr. Harlow), made Phineas a touchstone for the fields of brain science, neurology, and psychology.
“In the 19th century, Gage’s survival seemed miraculous. Fascination with his plight encouraged scientific research into the brain, and the continuing research into Gage’s condition is proof that this same curiosity is still alive today.” — case study, BigPictureEducation.com
Gage frequently appears in contemporary media.
Hell on Wheels (AMC, 2014)producers tipped a hat to Phineas when Doctor Major Augustus Bendix (Leon Ingulsrud), mentions him while reading a phrenology book (skull bumps relating to character traits).
Setting the tone for Elam’s (Common) backstory (Bear Man episode). The railroad worker is ‘not himself’ after a bear attack that punctures his skull.
In the Pollywog episode of Stranger Things2 (Netflix, 2016), science teacher Mr. Clarke (Randy Havens) lectures his middle school class about the American crowbar case. “Phineas, miraculously, survived….but his injury resulted in a complete change to his personality.”
Later, the audience learns that Will Byers, (Noah Schnapp) returned from the Upside Down, is no longer the sweet boy he was before his mysterious mishap.
In the January 2018 issue of National Geographic,The Science of Good and Evil analyzes a connection between violence and empathy. In the article, a full page photo of Phineas, holding his tamping iron, is captioned with, “When he recovered, he was no longer friendly and respectful; he was uncaring and indifferent.”
In pop culture, Phineas Gage symbolizes traumatic brain injury, emotional disturbance, and personality disorders.
Although Dr. Harlow included personality changes in his notes immediately following the accident, he lost contact with Gage, never performing follow-up examinations.
While it is probably true that Phineas was altered after his accident, the traits with which he is associated may not be accurate.
In his award-winning book, An Odd Kind of Fame, author Malcolm Macmillian, the world’s Gage authority, subscribes to a social recovery hypothesis. He believes that Phineas’s work as a Concord coach driver demonstrates adaptations and coping skills that he developed.
For almost twelve years after the accident, Phineas managed to make his way in the word. We may never have a clear picture of how he lived his life during that time.
What we do know is that Phineas’s place in history, as an icon for brain injury and behavior change, is fixed.
For more interesting brain/behavior stories, check out NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast with Shankar Vedantam.
Hidden Brain reveals the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior, the biases that shape our choices, and the triggers that direct the course of our relationships.
The Society for the Study of Psychiatry and Culture (SSPC) is a nonprofit, interdisciplinary organization devoted to furthering research, clinical care and education in cultural aspects of mental health and illness.