Beyond the Silent Darkness
It’s natural to admire a disabled person who has overcome any challenges to contribute to society, and one such person is Helen Keller. For, despite being deaf-blind, she learned to read, write, and speak to graduate from college, then go on to become an internationally known figure. Yet just a few years previously Laura Bridgman with the same disability is largely unknown today, and despite her modern obscurity she indirectly, assisted Miss Keller to succeed.
When Laura Dewey Lynn Bridgman was born in December, 1829 in Hanover, New Hampshire it was into a dark and silent world—not just because she was deaf/blind—but also because at the time the seeing/hearing world could not accommodate her. Yet her presence would soon change that.
Though frail, Laura was by all accounts a normal child, until she was two-years-old when her family was swept by scarlet fever, killing her two older sisters and leaving Laura deaf, blind and with a temporary loss of smell or taste. Though the birth of later children as well as the heavy household work of the time kept her mother busy, she still found time to care for Laura and teach her simple household tasks. Unfortunately, her father was not a reassuring presence, particularly when he stomped heavily on the floor to get his daughter’s attention for discipline. Also, a mentally impaired hired man proved to be a helpful friend who helped her learn simple signs, helped her explore nature and provided a comforting presence.
When a medical student came to the Bridgman home in 1837 to conduct business with Laura’s father, he observed how the deaf-blind eight year old coped with her disability, and then told his professor about her. This man then traveled to the Bridgman farm to see for himself. He was greatly impressed as when he gave Laura a silver pencil case she disassembled and then reassembled it and also helped her mother.
The professor then described Laura to his friend Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, a Boston physician/adventurer who was greatly interested in teaching severely disabled children—such as the deaf-blind. Howe was the director of Boston’s Perkins Institute for the Blind and after discussion with the Bridgman family—it was agreed that Laura would come to the facility to begin her education. She arrived at the school in October, 1837.
Laura later wrote that her first days at Perkins were full of homesickness and fear, overwhelmed at the sudden life change and unfamiliarity of her new environment. However, she soon became attached to one particular teacher who cared for her and guided her through the school routine. In fact, one part of their morning regimen was for Laura to tie a green ribbon over her eyes, a gesture that was considered a “courtesy” to others who might find her sightless eyes unpleasant. Later, as do many blind persons today, she began to wear dark glasses.
When Howe began to teach Laura how to read he used her remaining sense—touch. He began with sensitizing her fingertips—and then asked her to trace them over embossed or raised letters on paper or in a book. Once she learned the letters he combined them into words and she would learn those. To help her put words and objects together, the teachers made labels with upraised letters then attached them to ordinary objects, such as a spoon or a cup. This let her learn the word for the object and then she would use the raised letters to spell out the name of the object and attach the letters to it. Her success at this provided the encouragement and enthusiasm to continue to learn, and she made great progress.
She made even more progress when she learned the manual alphabet and to use it to spell out words with her fingers. Originally developed by monks to communicate while under a vow of silence, this practice meant someone formed letters on Laura’s palm to compose words. Once she learned this Laura now could communicate with another person, and with this she advanced even further. It also meant that she pestered her teachers to name objects for her—so much that the teachers could not care for other children. She also learned writing and arithmetic.
During the early years of her stay at Perkins, Laura became particularly close to Dr. Howe, even sharing his living quarters along with his sister. She thus became almost like a daughter to him.
Anxious to publicize Laura’s progress, Howe wrote regular reports and submitted them to international publications, leading Laura to become an international celebrity of sorts. In fact, once a Boston editor proposed that Laura’s name was possibly “known to a larger number of persons than that of any female person in the world, unless we accept the Queen of England.”
One admirer was wildly popular English novelist Charles Dickens and when he came to Boston in 1842 he visited Laura and then described her in his later book American Notes. He, described her as a “fair young creature” whose face was “radiant with intelligence and pleasure.” In short, he provided a sentimental image for Laura, that Howe wanted to project
However, Howe’s attitude to Laura changed as she became an adolescent. When she came to Perkins at age eight, Laura was an appealing even cuddly creature who flourished under Howe’s teaching yet, as she grew up it was different. In fact, he later wrote, “I hardly recognized the Laura I had known.” So by 1844 Laura had outgrown her usefulness to Howe and his plans for her as the charming deaf-blind child with a driving desire to learn had turned into a deaf-blind woman who was less appealing. Eventually he distanced himself toward Laura, and she sensed it. Though she had been and continued to be cared for by favorite teachers, Howe’s distancing himself caused her to become depressed and anxious.
As she became an adult the admiring crowds were no longer there. The people who had previously flocked to see a charming and cuddly child learn with enthusiasm did not want to see what her biographer called, “a gaunt and nervous adult woman.” Laura’s physical care was not an issue since she would remain at Perkins the rest of her life.
As time passed Laura turned introspective and became more interested in the spiritual. Howe’s Boston Unitarian church teaching of God as a benevolent but distant deity was no longer enough, and she wanted something more personal. As a biographer put it: “The real Laura, bewildered by death, terrified of abandonment, and impatient with evasion, needed definitive and comforting answers.” Eventually her family’s evangelical Baptist faith proved appealing and to Howe’s possible surprise or irritation she joined that church and was baptized in 1862 in a creek near the Bridgman farm.
With this new purpose, she turned to writing devotional poetry and in 1867 she put her feelings into words:
“Heaven is holy home
Holy home is from everlasting to everlasting.
Holy home is Summerly.
I pass this dark home toward a light home.
Earthly home shall perish,
But holy home shall endure forever.
Earthly home is Wintery.
With sweeter joys in Heaven I shall hear and speak and see.
With glorious rapture in holy home for me to hear Angels sing and perform upon instruments.
When I die, God will make me Happy
In Heaven music is sweeter than honey, and finer than a diamond.”
In her later years Laura lived at Perkins, occupying her days with writing letters to her family and former teachers, sewing, reading books in Braille and tidying her room. She crocheted doilies, purses, and embroidered handkerchiefs and their sale provided her with spending money.
Then in 1886, three years before Laura died, a lady in Alabama with an unmanageable small deaf-blind daughter, read Dickens’ account of Laura Bridgman and reached out for help. A referral sent her to the Perkins school and after a while a one-time Perkins student named Anne Sullivan traveled arrived to become the lifetime teacher to Helen Keller. The rest is well known.
Yet despite her obscurity, Laura still had an indirect role in these events. For Miss Sullivan had once shared quarters with the adult Laura, and in fact Laura had possibly taught Anne the manual alphabet, that enabled Helen to communicate. Also, as Miss Sullivan traveled to Alabama to begin her life with the young Helen Keller she brought as a gift for Helen—a doll that Laura had dressed for her.
The Imprisoned Guest: Samuel Howe and Laura Bridgman the Original Deaf-Blind Girl by Elisabeth Glitter (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2001)
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.