Monday, August 10, 2009

The Moral Of The Story . . .

Phineas P. Gage 1823-1860

Sixth plate (2 3/4" x 3 1/4" or 7 x 8 cm) cased daguerreotype
Collection of Jack and Beverly Wilgus.
Image has been laterally reversed to show features
correctly as daguerreotypes are mirror images.
(Photograph of daguerreotype by Jack Wilgus)

This is a fantastic fascinating story of an image, a mystery, knowledge, research and the connections that are possible in the age of the internet.

The daguerreotype above belongs to photo collectors Jack and Beverly Wilgus. They acquired this unusual daguerreotype over thirty years ago and have always wondered, who is this man and what is his story.

Enter the fabulous Flickr. Under the username photo_history they began posting images from their collections. The photograph above was titled “Daguerreotype - One Eyed Man with Harpoon” and was posted in December 2007. The Wilguses were about to receive an amazing connection.

Members of the Whaling group discussed the rod he is holding and determined it was not likely a harpoon. Having seen several harpoons myself, I live in a part of the country where whaling still occurs, I would have to agree. This does not look like a harpoon. So, just what is it?

In December 2008, a Flickr member named Michael Spurlock, a self-described history buff, posted this comment “maybe you found a photo of Phineas Gage? If so, it would be the only one known.” Who is Phineas Gage? Why, one of history's most interesting mysteries.

"On September 13, 1848 Gage was a 25 year old foreman of a blasting crew preparing a railroad bed outside Cavendish, Vermont. He used his 3 foot 7 inches, 13 1/4 pound iron rod to tamp gunpowder and sand into a hole in the rock. On this day something went horribly wrong. The rod striking the stone caused a spark and the resulting explosion sent the rod flying up and through his left cheek and out the top of his head. To the amazement of everyone he was not killed and lived for more than eleven years. "

Was this daguerreotype the only known photograph of Phineas Gage? The Wilguses read, researched, made road trips, and contacts following Gage through history. They traveled to the Warren Anatomical Museum at the Harvard Medical School in Boston to see Gage’s life mask, skull, and tamping iron.

They went to Cavendish, Vermont, where Gage met with his fateful accident. They corresponded and collaborated with the world’s leading authority on Gage. Yes, after all the work, it is believed this is the only known image of Phineas Gage. Amazing!

An article written by the Wilguses will be published in the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences in August and they have created the web site Meet Phineas Gage. There is More About Gage in an article by Malcolm Macmillan, the leading authority on Gage, that makes for fascinating reading.

Here is a comment left by Michael Spurlock on the ArchivesNext Site where I first learned of the story:

"As great as it is that the internet is making new historical discoveries like this possible, what would be even better is if this discovery leads to even more being learned about Phineas.

He’s such an enigmatic character. Knowing what he looked like just adds to the questions. I mean, I knew in my gut that it was him, but the image didn’t fit the traditional account of his life. Here’s hoping they can find out more about the image’s origins."

The moral of the story? Share your images, share your knowledge; you never know when or where you may make a connection.



Phineas Gage. Unknown. Daguerreotype. Anonymous. Privately held by Jack and Beverly Wilgus. (Accessed Fllickr 2009.)


Jack and Beverly Wilgus, "Meet Phineas Gage - Home," Meet Phineas Gage, Accessed August 2009.


Blogger Thomas MacEntee said...

Excellent story fM! Wow - and you are right in urging people to post their photos and the power of genealogists connecting on the Internet!

August 10, 2009 at 12:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It never ceases to amaze me what we are capable of doing as part of An Army of Davids on the Internet. Flickr is one of my favorite places and a wonderful tool for delight and discovery.

August 10, 2009 at 2:16 PM  
Blogger Donna said...


Very cool story! Now I just wish someone would recognize one of my ancestors! You never know...

D (your site still does not like my OpenID at all...don't know what I did to offend it)
What's Past is Prologue

August 10, 2009 at 4:51 PM  

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