I spend so much time reading and researching history for the blog that I often run across facts that I had never heard of before – not surprising. While I’m delighted to learn a new piece of history, I sometimes wonder why I’ve never heard about it until now. I’d always been led to believe, for instance, that Helen Keller was the first blind and deaf child to be successfully educated. While her accomplishments were many and she overcame much adversity, later becoming a celebrated advocate for the disabled, Helen Keller was not the first. That distinction belonged to Laura Bridgman – born more than fifty years before Keller.
Laura Bridgman was born on December 21, 1829 to parents Daniel and Harmony Bridgman. She was a sickly child and at the age of two years contracted scarlet fever; two of her older sisters died and Laura was left deaf, sightless and with no sense of smell or taste – only one of her senses, touch, remained.
While her mother made sure she was well-groomed and cared for, little attention was paid to her by the rest of the family. According to Elizabeth Gitter, author of The Imprisoned Guest: Samuel Howe and Laura Bridgman, The Original Deaf-Blind Girl, Laura was befriended by Asa Tenney, a hired man who worked for her father, who himself had some sort of communication difficulty. He was aware of the use of a type of sign language by Native Americans and taught Laura some form of communication during her formative years.
In 1837, Laura’s disabilities were brought to the attention of Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe (who later married Julia Ward, author of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, who herself curiously had no sympathy for the disabled), founder of the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston. He had been told by medical associates who observed Laura that despite her severe disabilities was adept at sewing and knitting and other household chores such as setting the dinner table. As recorded Dr. R.D. Mussey, in Mary Swift Lamson’s book The Deaf, Dumb and Blind Girl:
She sets the dinner-table, laying the plates and knives and forks in their places and in number corresponding with the number of the family. The particular plate and knife and fork used by her little brother she is sure to put in the right place.
Mussey observed that Laura enjoyed wearing nice clothes: “her fondness for dress is as remarkable as that of any child that can see.” She was observed to have a pleasant disposition and he also commented on Laura’s loss of her other senses – in particular taste. Dr. Mussey said he had easily persuaded her to take “the most disgusting medicines.”
Dr. Howe was anxious to meet and have the chance to educate Laura, and on October 12, 1837, two months before her eighth birthday, Laura Bridgman arrived at Perkins. As one would imagine, Laura experienced some trauma after being taken from her family and placed in a strange environment, but soon formed a bond with Lydia Hall Drew, one of her teachers.
Dr. Howe believed that Laura could be taught a “tactile sign language” and developed a plan to teach her to both read and write by touch. To his knowledge, that had never been attempted (but, remember Laura had already had some tactile training with Asa Tenney). Whether or not Howe had ever heard of Louis Braille who had developed a tactile writing system for the blind in 1824, is unclear since Braille’s system was first adapted for the French language.
By 1839, however, Dr. Howe was quite pleased with Laura’s progress as noted in his annual report to trustees of Perkins: “[T]he process of teaching her is of course slow and tedious; the different steps to it must be suggested by successive attainments, for there are no precedents to go by; but thus far the results have been most gratifying.”
He reported that Laura had “attained great dexterity in the use of the Manual Alphabet of the deaf mutes; and she spells out the words and sentences which she knows, so fast and so deftly, that only those accustomed to this language can follow with the eye, the rapid motions of her fingers.” Clearly, although severely disabled, Laura was intelligent and gifted.
One aspect that Howe and the instructors at the institution were unsure of was her sense of morality, or right and wrong. When Laura was eleven years old, Howe devised an experiment, perhaps curious himself, to determine whether one’s notions of God and morality come naturally or are transmitted by other people. Howe instructed her teachers to deflect any questions Laura might ask about God and religion.
Interestingly, the experiment commenced just after Samuel married Julia Ward and left for an eighteen month-long honeymoon in Europe. Howe had already formed of bond with Laura, so that alone left her feeling abandoned to a certain extent. Also, according to Rosemary Mahoney, author of For the Benefit of Those Who See: Dispatches From the World of the Blind, Laura’s mother had stopped corresponding, further isolating her.
Laura was left in the care of Mary Swift, a Christian teacher, who eventually came to question Dr. Howe’s directive to deflect her charge’s questions about religion. There were several troubling incidences, Laura even expressing defiance at times. Laura kept asking her teacher why she could not know.
After a group of evangelical Christians visited the school, Howe’s request was ignored and Laura freely received a concentrated, if brief, introduction to evangelical Christianity (her own family was of the Baptist faith). When Howe discovered his instructions had been ignored, he was devastated.
Curiously, this caused Dr. Howe to turn against Laura. His “star” pupil was now a disappointment to him. However, Laura had indeed excelled and was actually quite well known, although apparently she wasn’t aware of any of the attention showered on her via the various books, journals and articles. One source said that she was as popular and well-known as Queen Victoria.
Laura Bridgman was fortunate to have come to the attention of Dr. Samuel Howe, although he eventually became disenchanted with his “project”, but also unfortunate because she lived during a time in history when, as Ernest Freeberg, author of The Education of Laura Bridgman put it, she was “a freak of nature who captured the attention of society that was hungry for spectacle.” This was during the era when sensationalist extraordinaire P.T. Barnum traveled the world showing off his “exotic” and “scientific curiosities” such as Mr. and Mrs. Tom Thumb, the Fiji Mermaid and more. I found one reference to Laura, listing her occupation as “Oddity.”
Upon founding the Perkins Institution, Howe had firmly believed that blindness need not be a handicap. However, in his Sixteenth Annual Report, he had radically, and inexplicably, changed those views. Using uppercase letters he wrote: “THE BLIND, AS A CLASS, ARE INFERIOR TO OTHER PERSONS IN MENTAL POWER AND ABILITY.” Later in the report he went on to suggest that perhaps parents of blind children themselves possessed some sort of mental deficiency that had been passed down.
Dr. Howe’s confusing turnaround aside, Laura Bridgman had successfully learned to write her name legibly by the summer of 1839. The following summer she had her first math lesson. One has to wonder if the increasing attention that Laura was gaining was somehow offensive to Howe. In 1842, Charles Dickens had visited and offered praise for the progress that Howe had made with his star pupil in American Notes:
Her social feelings, and her affections, are very strong; and when she is sitting at work, or by the side of one of her little friends, she will break off from her task every few moments, to hug and kiss them with an earnestness and warmth that is touching to behold. When left alone, she occupies and apparently amuses herself, and seems quite content; and so strong seems to be the natural tendency of thought to put on the garb of language, that she often soliloquizes in the finger language, slow and tedious as it is. But it is only when alone, that she is quiet; for if she becomes sensible of the presence of any one near her, she is restless until she can sit close beside them, hold their hand, and converse with them by sign.
Following Dickens’ account, Laura became basically world-famous. Hundreds of people visited Perkins, clamoring for anything they might remember her by. Numerous newspaper and magazine articles and editorials were written about her. Crowds would gather on Saturdays, the only day the school was open to the public, to watch her read and “perform”. She seemed to love the adulation, but it was concerning to the teachers that she alone received such attention to the exclusion of other students at the school.
Throughout the years of her education, Laura suffered some emotional losses. Of course, one was losing the confidence and friendship of Dr. Howe who treated her more or less like a daughter. She would become attached to her teachers and they too came and went over the years. After her last teacher, Sarah Wight, left to marry in 1850, Laura’s formal education ended. Howe had years before made provisions for Laura to remain at the school for the rest of her life is she so chose.
Laura decided to return home to reunite with her family, but became homesick for the school. She had experienced anorexia in 1845, and as a result of her missing the school environment, she again lost weight. Howe sent a teacher to bring Laura back to the school. Her health improved somewhat but the public attention had waned considerably.
By 1852 she had fully embraced her family’s Baptist faith and was baptized. She spent time in prayer and meditation and would sometimes write spiritually-themed poetry. She wrote letters to family and friends, read the Braille Bible, kept in contact with Mary Swift and Sarah Wight and sewed. Her sewing and crocheting earned her a small amount of money, about one hundred dollars a year, yet she was still largely dependent on the kindness of Dr. Howe and the school to cover the expenses of her room and board.
While she herself never became a teacher at the school, although probably qualified to do so, she taught young blind women how to sew. In 1872 the campus was renovated and Laura was moved to another house (for years she had been afforded a private room) where she was befriended by none other than Anne Sullivan, who would later become the teacher famous for patiently helping Helen Keller thrive despite her disabilities.
Samuel Howe died in 1876 but he had made sure that Laura would continue to be taken care of for the rest of her life. The school held a jubilee celebration for her in 1887. In 1889 she became ill and died on May 24. Buried near the family farm in Hanover, New Hampshire, her grave stone reads:
LAURA DEWEY BRIDGMAN
December 21, 1829 – May 24, 1889
DEAF DUMB AND BLIND
FROM TWO YEARS OLD
EDUCATED AT THE PERKINS INSTITUTION
SOUTH BOSTON MASSACHUSETTS
Part of Laura Bridgman’s legacy, of course, included Helen Keller, the person who greatly benefited from her relationship with Laura’s friend Anne Sullivan. Helen Keller’s mother had read Charles Dickens’ American Notes and eventually hired Sullivan to educate her daughter. According to Elizabeth Gitter, Anne Sullivan, who had learned the manual alphabet at the Perkins Institution and which she later taught Helen, brought along a doll whose clothing had been sewn by none other than Laura Bridgman. As author Rosemary Mahoney related in her book, “toward the end of her life, Annie Sullivan stated that she had ‘always believed Laura Bridgman to be intellectually superior to Helen Keller.'”
Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!
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© Sharon Hall (History Depot), 2014.