Gotham origin story

Batman lives in Gotham City. Where did the name come from? Its history follows a circuitous route via the 19th century equivalent of Mad magazine, smart idiots who hated public infrastructure, goats, and Robin Hood’s King John.

John Beniston [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Okay, sure, that sounds complicated, but it’s actually pretty simple. Gotham, the original, is a town in Nottinghamshire, England (the name means “goat home”). An old piece of English folklore holds that King John was planning to travel through Gotham. However, a king could only travel on a road that was open to the public and under royal protection – in other words, a king’s highway.

Just one problem: the residents of Gotham didn’t want a highway going through their town. Their plan, according to the legend, was to put on a performance of sorts for the king’s advance party. They pretended to be first class idiots.

The medieval conception of idiocy presented in this story involves doing pointless tasks like rolling cheeses downhill; trying to drown an eel; and attempting to keep a bird in a bush or tree by surrounding it and holding hands. The place where that last one supposedly happened is pictured above.

Now, only one of those three actions is genuinely foolish. (Cheese-rolling has a long and famous history, and eels can technically “drown” in water if they cannot extract oxygen from it. But I digress…) Their actions so worried the king’s advance party that they elected to send the road elsewhere. The legend of the Wise Men of Gotham was born.

Washington Irving, the American author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, wrote for a satirical magazine called Salmagundi; or The Whim-whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq. & Others. In one issue, he described New York as Gotham, drawing a connection based on the supposed shared idiocy of the inhabitants. The nickname was picked up and proudly used. From here, it was a short leap to Gotham as the name for the pseudo-metropolis in the Batman comics.

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