“Gotham” was first used to refer to New York City by Washington Irving in his 1807 satirical periodical Salmagundi. He drew this name from the “Merrie Tales of the Mad Men of Gotham,” a 1460 collection of stories about an English town whose inhabitants pretended to be idiots.
As you probably know, Irving was also the author of the short stories “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle.” Salmagundi, also known as The Whim-whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq. & Others, was a satirical periodical that Irving published with his brother and a friend between 1807 and 1808. It was a bit like an early 19th-century Mad magazine that focused on New York City culture and politics. †
They used the name Gotham to compare New Yorkers to the inhabitants of a real town by the same name in Nottinghamshire, England. According to the aforementioned collection of legendary tales, the people of Gotham once feigned idiocy in order to prevent King John from establishing a hunting lodge that he would reach by traveling through the town on a regular basis. At that time, any road on which the king traveled was made a public highway—but the people of Gotham were not interested in having a public highway through their town, so when the king’s messengers visited, the townspeople engaged in foolish activities such as:
- trying to drown an eel in a pool of water
- rolling cheeses down a hill in the hopes that they would find their way to the market for sale
- building a fence around a cuckoo’s nest so it would stay put. ††
And thereby they convinced King John to find a different location for his hunting lodge so that he wouldn’t have to regularly travel through a town filled with imbeciles.
The specific stories above appear in Thomas Blount’s Tenures of Land, 1874—full text here. But the legend of the fools and/or wise men of Gotham appeared in stories and jokes as early as the 15th century. You can read all of the “Merrie Tales” of Gotham drawn from from a 1565 printing of the collection here.
There is also a nursery rhyme in Mother Goose’s Melody (1765) that mentions them:
Three wise men of Gotham,
They went to sea in a bowl,
And if the bowl had been stronger
My song would have been longer.
(You can read the full text of that here, but some of the text is a little janky.)
Of course, we all know Gotham as the home of Batman, which also happens to be brimming with “mad men” and “wise fools” and the like. The NYC-esque city of comic, film and TV fame was named after the town in Nottinghamshire by Bill Finger, who co-created the character Batman with Bob Kane. A few Batman comics even mention the existence of the English town of Gotham, including Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #206 and a story called “Cityscape” in Batman Chronicles #6.
† Related tidbit: Salmagundi refers to a 17th-century English salad dish and likely comes from the French word salmagondis, meaning a hodgepodge or mix of widely disparate things.
†† You can actually visit the supposed location of this cuckoo-fencing venture in Gotham, Nottinghamshire—but is actually a Neolithic burial mound, which is arguably even cooler.