Phineas Gage story continues to fascinate in Cavendish

Phineas Gage
Cavendish Historical Society talk on Phineas Gage. Photo by Sharon Huntley

CAVENDISH, Vt. – Cavendish Historical Society’s Margo Caulfield gave her annual talk and walking tour of the story of local legend Phineas Gage to a packed house Sunday, Sept. 8, starting at the historical society building and then walking to key nearby locations in the immediate area that all had to do with the Gage story.

In 1848, Phineas Gage, working as a railroad foreman in Cavendish while putting in a section of the Rutland & Burlington Railroad, was made famous for surviving a blasting accident, which sent a large tamping iron from under his left cheekbone, traveling completely through his brain, and out the other side. The resulting injury and subsequent changes to his personality were key to medical history’s understanding of brain science. His was one of the first documented cases that showed the relationship between personality and the frontal lobes of the brain.

Margo Caulfield spoke at length about the details surrounding Gage’s accident including reports from his men as well as reports that local Doctor John Harlow wrote about the case including medical treatment of the injury. She also demonstrated, complete with heavy iron rod and a silicon brain model, the extensive brain damage that likely occurred.

Dr. Harlow continued to follow Gage’s life paying particular attention to his change in personality, which included inappropriate behavior, fits of profanity, impatience and “little deference for his fellows.” Before the accident he was considered a steady, smart, and capable man. Afterward, his friends said he was “no longer Gage.”

Phineas Gage
Phineas Gage plaque in Cavendish. Photo by Sharon Huntley

Caulfield went on to detail Gage’s life, which included displaying himself as an oddity in a Barnam Museum, working at a livery in Hanover, N.H., moving to Chile to work as a stagecoach driver, and finally ending up in San Francisco where he died from epileptic seizures in 1860, approximately 11.5 years after the accident.

His family donated his scull and tamping iron, which Gage always traveled with, back to Dr. Harlow. They both now reside at the Warren Anatomical Museum at Harvard University.

After the talking portion of the tour, participants followed Caulfield first to the location of boarding house where Gage was staying at the time, which is across from the historical society building. She then brought everyone along Mill Street, under the railroad overpass, and along the Cavendish Gulf Road to where the railroad crosses the road, approximately three-quarters of a mile away from the boarding house. Caulfield identified the general section of the railroad believed to be where Gage was working at the time of the accident. The group then traveled to the Cavendish Town Green to see the special monument that highlights the details and significance of Gage’s accident. This was a legacy from Harlow’s family for the town of Cavendish to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the accident. From there, the group walked to an empty lot next to the Stone Church, which shows the footprint of Dr. Harlow’s then office and house.

The Cavendish Historical Society has several books about Gage on hand as well as interesting details and information about his life and legacy. According to Caulfield, CHS schedules a talk and tour each year in September to commemorate the anniversary of the accident. For more information, visit

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