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Historical Gotham was a Town Filled with Madmen

I can’t say I’m a Batman fanatic, but I do enjoy the vigilante crusader. Little did I know the sordid history behind Gotham’s name.

It turns out that Gotham was a village in England known to be populated by madmen. The villagers feigned insanity to prevent King John from building a royal road near them (at the time, villages would have to pay for the upkeep of the road). When the king’s herald arrived, the townsfolk were engaged in all manner of madness. Needless to say, they rerouted the road.

Twenty of these tales were bound together as The Merry Tales of the Mad Men of Gotham in 1540. Over time, the “mad” part was replaced with “wise.” Makes you wonder just where madness ends and wisdom begins.

One tale, called “Of Drowning Eels,” concerns the fishermen of the village. It seems that all the fish vanished from the local pond. Only a great eel remained. They presumed that the eel must have eaten all the fish, so the folk of Gotham put the eel on trial. Finding him guilty, they sentenced the eel to death by drowning. (Yes, drowning). They cast him back into the pond, saying: “Lie there and shift for yourself, for no help thou shalt have from us.”

A nursery rhyme concerning the loony Gothamites survives. It first appeared in Mother Goose’s Melody in 1765.

Three wise men of Gotham,
They went to sea in a bowl,
And if the bowl had been stronger
My song had been longer.

Washington Irving borrowed the legend of the town filled with crazies and used it as a label for New York city. In a letter printed in his magazine, Salmagundi, on February 13, 1807, he writes:

One of the most tickling, dear, mischievous pleasures of this life is to laugh in one’s sleeve – to sit snug in a corner unnoticed and unknown and hear the wise men of Gotham, who are profound judges (of horseflesh) pronounce from the style of our work, who are the authors. This listening incognito and receiving a hearty praising over another man’s back is a situation so celestially whimsical that we have done little else than laugh in our sleeves ever since our first number was publisht.

So Gotham was filled with mad men long before Batman appeared on the scene.

Tim Kane

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