Batman fans owe a debt of gratitude to Washington Irving. Why? Two words: Gotham City.
In 1806, 23-year-old Washington Irving was New York City’s worst attorney. Bored with his legal practice — he would allegedly abandon the only client he ever had — Irving persuaded a close friend, James Kirke Paulding, to join him in launching a literary project. The object of this self-published effort, as Paulding would put it, “was to ridicule the follies and foibles of the fashionable world.”
The result of this collaboration, the satirical magazine Salmagundi (a 19th century dish equivalent to today’s chef’s salad), made its first appearance on January 24, 1807 — and it was an immediate smash. Writing under a variety of disguises — Will Wizard, Anthony Evergreen, Pindar Cockloft, Mustapha Rub-A-Dub Keli Khan — Irving and Paulding poked fun at New York fashion, politics, society, and culture. More than anything, it was a 19th century Mad magazine, and at the time, no one had seen anything quite like it.
Despite its popularity at the time, Salmagundi might be a mere literary footnote, a blip in Irving’s writing career, had Irving not inadvertently created a brand name in its seventeenth issue.
Appearing in the November 11, 1807 issue was a piece by Irving describing a (fictional) library full of rare and out-of print books. Among those books was one particular volume—”a literary curiosity”—from which Irving now reprinted a chapter for his readers:
OF THE CHRONICLES OF THE RENOWNED
AND ANTIENT CITY OF GOTHAM
Over the next few pages, in a mock history of New York, Irving related how the “thrice renowned and delectable city of GOTHAM did suffer great discomfiture, and was reduced to perilous extremity.” “The antient and venerable city of Gotham,” Irving continued, “was, peradventure, possessed of mighty treasures, and did, moreover, abound with all manner of fish and flesh, and eatables and drinkables, and such like delightsome and wholesome excellencies withal.”
While the word “Gotham” had appeared in the pages of Salmagundi before—Paulding had made a passing reference to a musician, “a gentleman amateur in Gotham” as far back as issue two—Irving was the first to explicitly attach the name to New York, and to refer to its citizens as “Gothamites.”
The word, which in Anglo-Saxon means “Goat’s Town,” came from a real English town in Nottinghamshire, near Sherwood Forest. According to English fable, the King’s Highway would be built wherever the king set foot—and if the king walked through your town, you were sunk, for the throne would then perform a royal taking and construct a highway right down Main Street. To prevent King John from entering Gotham, its citizens — displaying a NIMBY mentality remarkable for the 13th century — pretended to be crazy, behaving so oddly that snickering scouts advised the king to steer clear of the town. “More fools pass through Gotham than remain in it,” the English said, and New York readers grinned in appreciation. The name stuck.
So, there you go. Two hundred years later, Bill Finger and Bob Kane poached Irving’s nickname and grafted it onto their own dark and highly-stylized vision of New York City. In a way, that makes Irving — who created his own iconic American heroes in his own time — one of the grandfathers of the Batman legacy. And Washington Irving — that great lover of pulp novels and secret identities — would probably be pretty proud of that.