Ripley’s Believe It or Not – Phineas Gage

I have always loved Robert Ripley. As time has gone on, the stories he has reported have been expanded upon and documented; some have proven to be misunderstandings, but very rarely if ever was anything shown to be an outright fraud. The case of Phineas Gage is well-documented; here a comparison of what Ripley reported and information available on the Internet today.



From Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Two Volumes in One, Simon and Schuster, 1934

The American Crow-Bar Case

Phineas P. Gage, aged twenty-five, a foreman on the Rutland and Burlington Railroad, was employed September 13, 1847, in charging a hole with powder preparatory to blasting. A premature explosion drove a tamping-iron, three feet seven inches long, 1 1/4 inches in diameter, weighing 13 1/4 pounds, completely through the man’s head.

Despite this terrible injury young Gage did not even lose consciousness. he made a complete recovery and lived many years afterward.

The crow-bar entered the left side of the face, immediately anterior to the inferior maxillary and passed under the zygomatic arch, fracturing portions of the sphenoid bone and the floor of the left orbit. It then passed through the the left anterior lobe of the cerebrum, and in the median line, made its exit at the junction of the coronal and saggital structures, lacerating the longitudinal sinus, fracturing the parietal and frontal bones and breaking up considerable of the brain. The patient was thrown backward and gave a few convulsive movements of the extremities. He was taken to a hotel almost a mile distant. During the transportation he seemed slightly dazed, but not at all unconscious. Upon arriving at the hotel he dismounted from the conveyance, and without assistance walked up a long flight of stairs to the hall where his wound was to be dressed.

Dr. Harlow saw him at about six o’clock in the evening, and from his condition could hardly credit the story of his injury, although his person and his bed were drenched with blood. His scalp was shaved and coagula and debris removed. Among other portions of bone was a piece of the anterior superior angle of each parietal bone and a semicircular piece of the frontal bone, leaving an opening 3 1/2 inches in diameter. At 10 P.M. on the day of the injury Gage was perfectly rational and asked about his work and after his friends. His convalescence was rapid and uneventful.

Professor Bigelow examined the patient three years later, and made a most exceelent report of the case, which had attained world-wide notoriety. Bigelow found the patient quite recovered in his faculties of body and mind, except that he had lost the sight of the injured eye.

The original crow-bar, together with a cast of the patient’s head, was placed in the Museum of the Harvard Medical School, Brookline, Mass., where it is still on exhibition. Ref.:Boston Medical and Surgical Record (1848).

This particular entry fascinated me as a child. Now, of course, we know more: instead of making a complete recovery, Gage’s personality changed; he became “erratic, irritable, and profane,” his friends called him “no longer Gage,” and he died of seizures around 12 years after the accident. Two very interesting and in-depth accounts of Gage and his injury can be read at and, and the Wikipedia article is detailed and impartial. While some of the reported facts about Gage and his injury have been distorted over time, the fact remains that he survived an astonishingly devastating brain injury by 12 years and his accident provided medical science with an opportunity to study the relationship between brain trauma and personality change.

As related in the article at interiorpassage, there is a monument to Gage’s accident at Cavendish, Vermont – the following images (mercilessly ripped from the original article) are revelatory:




Here is an intriguing video about Gage’s experience:

Once again, the Internet provides more information than was available almost 100 years ago; the more time passes, the more accurate such historical accounts become. Ripley did his best, but was limited by what was available in his time. There are still some amazing wonders and curiosities to be found in his books and musea around the country.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

3 responses to “Ripley’s Believe It or Not – Phineas Gage

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