SYMHC Classics: Laura Bridgman's Education

Laura Bridgman circa 1855 Public domain

Today we're revisiting the 2012 episode from previous hosts Sarah and Deblina on Laura Bridgman, the first deafblind person to be educated -- a feat accomplished by Samuel Gridley Howe in the 1830s. People from around the world came to see her, including Charles Dickens, who wrote about her in his "American Travels."

The original episode can be found here:

Episode Transcipt:

Tracy Wilson: Happy Saturday, everybody. This classic is coming out during Deaf History Month, which goes from March 13 to April 15 each year. Its first day commemorates the successful conclusion of the Deaf President Now protests, which were covered on a previous episode of the show and a previous Saturday classic. And then the last day of Deaf History Month marks the establishment of the American School for the Deaf, which was the first permanent school for the deaf in the United States.

Holly Frey: So today we’re sharing one of our earlier episodes related to Deaf history, which is on Laura Bridgeman. She was the first deafblind person in the U.S. to receive a formal education, and she also came up on our recent Saturday classic on Charles Dickens

Tracy Wilson: In this 2012 episode, Sarah and Deblina talk about potential future episodes on Helen Keller and Louis Braille, both of whom are still on our ongoing list of topics.

Holly Frey: So, enjoy!

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from

Sarah Dowdey: Hello and welcome to the podcast. I'm Sarah Dowdey.

Deblina Chakraborty: And I’m Deblina Chakraborty.

Sarah: And earlier this year, some interesting news came out of Georgia Tech here in Atlanta. Researchers there announced that they'd come up with the texting app called Braille Touch, which applies computer braille, a specific type of braille to touchscreen devices. And the app has mostly been in the news because it has potential as a general eyes free texting app, even for people who aren't visually impaired. You could text under the table or something. But for folks who are visually impaired, a braille app could really mean a lot less stuff to lug around, no keyboard, just a phone and easier communication. And it really got me thinking about how much communication has improved for people with visual disabilities in the past century.

Deblina: Yeah. And today we're going to revisit a subject that we touched on briefly in our Dickens Visits America episode, and it's kind of related to that topic of communication. It's about Laura Bridgman, who was the first deaf-blind person to learn language, also to communicate with letters and writing and to be educated. And she didn't use the now ubiquitous braille system that we just talked about, which was only beginning at the time. But instead she used the manual alphabet to spell out words. And she also read from raised Roman text, and learned to hand write with a special grid system.

Sarah: Bridgman was about 50 years older than the more famous Helen Keller. But if you remember from that earlier episode, their stories are really closely connected aside from the fact that young Helen Keller annoyed Bridgman by stepping on her foot when the two of them met. But while Keller really became a champion of disability rights and an international figure, somebody who's internationally famous, Bridgman with on the earlier end of the disability rights story. And in fact, when she started school in the 1830s, people are just starting to believe blind people could be educated. So the idea of educating a deaf-blind person, this deaf-blind girl seemed completely impossible.

Deblina: Yeah. So we're going to tell you a little bit about her early story and the challenges that she had to face before we get to that story of her learning. Laura Dewey Bridgman was born December 21st, 1829 near Hanover, New Hampshire. Her parents, Daniel and Harmony, had a farm and Laura was their third daughter. She was a pretty baby with bright blue eyes, but she was really sickly. At 20 months, she finally started getting bigger and lively. She was chatty and seemed very smart. But at 24 months, she and her two older sisters came down with scarlet fever. Her two sisters died, but for Laura, the fever went on for weeks after that and when she finally started to get better, she was in one eye, nearly blind in the other, deaf, and she had very little of her senses of smell and taste left. Her vision in her non-blind eye was destroyed when she walked into the spindle of her mother's spinning wheel.

Sarah: So a really sad start here, but remarkably by age four, she had recovered the strength she had lost during the fever. She was strong again and while she wasn't talking anymore, she was still very smart. She was still displaying that interest she had as a two year old in everything she came across, she would touch everything she encountered. She'd cling to her mother and feel her arms and her hands and try to mimic her mother's hand. So she learned how to help out with housework that way. She even learned how to knit and to sew. From a workman on her family farm, Asa Tenney, who himself had some impairments that made speech difficult for him. She did pick up some ability to communicate or at least communicate a more fully with her family. He had a way of sort of understanding what she was going through and helped her perfect this basic sort of sign language and so each family member had a name sign that they could respond to and a pat on her head meant yes or okay. A pat on her back meant no, she had a way of expressing really basic needs at least.

Deblina: But by age seven she started throwing these really violent temper tantrums. She'd only obey her father who would stomp on the ground when he was upset with her. And she'd reached the limit of communication basically with her family. And she was just overwhelmed.

Sarah: They were overwhelmed too. They were busy farmers and they didn't know what they were going to do to help her. So fortunately at that time, an article was written by a Dartmouth professor on Laura's ability to sign, and that got the attention of Samuel Gridley Howe, and a few years earlier, actually the very same year, Laura was born, Howe had founded Perkins, which was a school for the blind, and it had opened for students in 1832 with a mission, not just to educate blind children. That's kind of how you'd see it today, but to really prove that blind children could be educated and could become independent adults.

Deblina: Kids at the school learned everything from history to philosophy plus sports, music, including piano tuning and domestic work. So it was really a very broad education.

Sarah: Getting them ready for life.

Deblina: Howe's quite a character himself, we should mention. He idolized Lord Byron and fought in the Greek revolution where Byron died. He financially supported radical abolitionist, John Brown, and he was married to Julia Ward who wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic. But he was also a proponent of education reform and not just for blind students. He wanted rote memorization replaced with a curriculum following the child's interests. He disliked John Locke's idea of the tabula rasa, the blank slate, and instead thought that the mind came with certain innate facilities, something in line with the pseudoscience of phrenology.

Sarah: Yeah, so when, Howe heard about Laura, he realized that she would really be his perfect subject. She was an opportunity for him to do good. Clearly he was very interested in that, she was excellent PR for his school, and she'd be a way for him to test his theories on the mind and probably most importantly, a challenge for him. At this point, he was doing so successfully with his school, he wanted a challenge. So Laura's parents met with Howe and they agreed to send her to Perkins. And Laura arrived there and October, 1837 when she was just shy of eight years old, she just got a little bit of time to settle into her new surrounding. She was obviously very scared, very disoriented, but Howe gave her two weeks to get used to the new world.

Deblina: So after that generous two week period that she got, he started to teach her, he quickly decided to scrap the basic sign language that she'd been using at home and instead teach her English. So here's kind of how it worked. He would give her something basic, like a key or a fork or a knife that was labeled with embossed writing. And then after she familiarized herself with objects, he'd separate the object from that label and she would have to match them to each other.

Sarah: Yeah. And he wrote of this time, "It was as though she were underwater and we were on the surface over her, unable to see her, but dropping a line, and moving it about here and they're hoping it might touch her hand so that she would grasp it instinctively, hoping that she would put two and two together and realize it wasn't just a matching game. These labels actually signified something about the objects that they went with." But according to Jane Seymour Ford and Perkins, Howe believed that her ability to match really was just kind of a game, it was just memorization at this point. She liked getting approval, so she knew the knife label went with a knife and so on.

Sarah: So the next step for him was to cut up the labels into their separate letters and he would spell out the word that she was familiar with and he'd jumble them up and then he would leave Laura to figure out how to piece them back together again and just something she was familiar with. And he describes the aha sort of moment when she finally got this, that letters made up words and words signified things and he wrote, "The truth began to flash upon her. Her intellect began to work. She perceived that here was a way by which she could herself make a sign of anything that was in her own mind and show it to another mind and at once her countenance lighted up."

Deblina: So from there, Laura tried to learn the name of every single thing that she encountered. Communication got faster when she learned the manual alphabet and could put aside those embossed letters that she had initially learned with. She only needed about a year of instruction and vocabulary building before she could join in the regular classes for the blind. And she would have a personal teacher with her who was finger spelling everything out for her so that she could follow along in class.

Sarah: Other than that, just following along with the lesson, it's pretty remarkable. One thing to mention here though, Howe promoted Laura's ability, that aha sort of moment. He promoted that as something innate. Like she just had the capacity for language there. But two of her recent biographers, Elizabeth Jeter and Ernest Freeburg, suggests that she probably did have some distant memory of spoken language before she was deaf, even if she might not have remembered being two years old, she probably had something left in her head. And Jeter also thinks that she had likely been imprinted with the capacity for grammar since her later ability to understand all these different complex tenses kind of put her apart from a lot of other deaf, blind people who've learned language.

Deblina: Which, to me just sounds like another way of saying innate ability.

Sarah: Maybe.

Deblina: So we should also point out that while braille was by this point being used in some parts of the world, Laura and the other students at Perkins read with raised Roman letters, which was known as Boston line type and made for some really huge books.

Sarah: Because they had to blow up the letters so big that you could actually feel the differences between them.

Deblina: And Laura would write with a grooved guide that was slid under her paper. So you'd write a letter in one of the grooves, cover it and then move on to the next letter. And it was called square handwriting.

Sarah: Because it has this very strange sort of square look to it. You can feel letters that Laura herself wrote and it is a very unusual looking hand, but pretty remarkable.

Deblina: It sounds really time consuming.

Sarah: It does. But apparently she was a voracious letter writer, so she must have gotten pretty fast at it.

Deblina: And while she studied reading, writing, and geography, and Algebra and geometry, and all the other subjects in the classroom, she would pepper her teachers with questions at the same time outside of the classroom, things like, "Why don't flies have names? Why can't we sail to the sun in boats? If I eat fish hooks, could I be dead?" [crosstalk 00:11:08] watering your questions? Yes. And she flourished socially too. She could recognize people that she hadn't seen in a long time by feeling their faces. She made distinct noises for friends, which were kind of like individual names that people could recognize other people.

Sarah: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And Howe describes this sort of girlish social butterfly behavior that Laura had in a passage I really liked. He said "When Laura is walking through a passage way where their hands spread before her, she knows instantly everyone she meets and path of them with a sign of recognition. But if it'd be a girl of her own age and especially if one of her favorites, there's instantly a bright smile of recognition and intertwining of arms, a grasping of hands and a swift telegraphing upon the tiny finger."

Deblina: So I think that really conveys how happy she was to finally be able to communicate with people and say what was on her mind and hear what was going on in the world. And she'd joke around too. That's another important thing to mention because she does have a reputation being older is kind of severe. But as a kid she'd joke around, she'd purposely misspell words and then strike it out with the other hand. Or she would spell with her nose when finger spelling instead of her fingers. She'd spin donuts on her fingers, something that she actually did her whole life.

Sarah: When she was alone too, she could entertain herself. She liked to always be able to ask people questions, but she could entertain herself. She kept a journal her whole life. She would practice new words, spelling out the names of new words. She would carry out these sort of private dialogues and she would knit and sew and had a very strong sense of fashion. She was always very neatly dressed, very stylish. She'd sew all her own clothes and had some things that almost sound like amazing party tricks too. She could thread a needle with her tongue. Just really cool talents that kind of get overshadowed by some of the other abilities. But just these everyday things she was also able to do in addition to reading and writing.

Deblina: But even in spite of these more entertaining aspects of her personality and that sense of humor that she had, Laura would also still sometimes throw tantrums. And this was something that Howe, of course didn't cover much in that PR campaign that made Laura so famous. She'd hit students, sometimes shove teachers. She would get very upset with slow finger spellers too, and since she'd work so closely with her teachers, sometimes spending 24 hours a day with them, she'd also form these really deep attachments and really truly suffer when change has happened.

Deblina: In her time at Perkins as a student, she had four main teachers. Lydia Drew Morton, Eliza Rogers, Mary Swift Lamson, and Sarah Wight Bond. And she stayed lifelong friends with all of them. But when they leave Perkins to marry or to get new jobs, she would beg to go with them and when she would get upset when things like this would happen, she wouldn't be able to eat. And one of those really traumatic transitions came when Howe himself married Julia Ward in 1843. Laura had of course been housed pet project. He promoted her in medical journals, periodicals, children's magazines, enough to make them both internationally famous. People from around the world would come to see her sometimes just visiting, but sometimes just watching her behind partitions.

Sarah: Which, reminded me a little of some of the Barnum episodes we've been talking about, which this is around the same time. And I don't know, it's, it's a more disturbing side of the story.

Deblina: Yeah. And another kind of disturbing aspect of this, according to Louis Menand in the New Yorker, she was so well known, little girls would poke out their doll's eyes and name them Laura.

Sarah: A very special kind of fame there.

Deblina: Yes. But Laura also had kind of become Howe's adopted daughter by this point. According to Seymour Ford at Perkins, she even lived in his apartment with him and his sister. So they were really very close. So Laura was really feeling kind of abandoned when Howe married and spent a year and a half after that on a working honeymoon in Europe. She wrote to him constantly and often asked questions about one subject that she was particularly interested in learning more about. And that was religion.

Sarah: So Howe had always planned to include religion in his process of educating Laura, but he had kind of strange ideas about it. You normally think of our religious education starting as young as possible, but he didn't think she should have any kind of religious instruction until her mid-teens after her physical and intellectual educations were completed, at least to his idea.

Sarah: So he hoped that just as she had shown people possess some sort of natural innate understanding of language, or at least he believed that, she would also eventually show that people possessed an innate understanding and love of God. That was his hope. So his plan when he came back from his honeymoon was to present her, he had a plan just like his labeling system, he would present her with these everyday miracles instead of everyday items like forks and knives. In this case, it would be something like plants growing from seeds. And he expected that if she were presented with enough of these, ultimately she'd realize just as realized the significance of those embossed letters, that there was something divine about these things, something divine about the whole process.

Sarah: Also, according to Menand, he hoped that these innate inclinations and understandings of hers would match up with his own unitarian beliefs rather than more serious evangelical beliefs. So to make sure that this plan of education worked, he knew that she needed to have no sort of religious instruction beforehand. So he banned her teachers from discussing religion while he was gone from answering any kind of questions, and while she was writing him about religion, he himself didn't really answer questions in the letters, so she was left pretty frustrated and wondering what was going on.

Deblina: Yeah. Knowing curious Laura, by this point, you can probably guess what happened. She managed to get something out of her teacher, Mary Swift, and she was also secretly visited by a group of evangelicals who were protesting Howe's methods. She was attracted to what they told her, and evangelical religion became a major part of her life from then on. When Howe finally came back, he was disappointed that his plan had been wrecked and he kind of wrote the whole thing off as a failure.

Sarah: Not just the religious education, but educating Laura almost.

Deblina: Yeah. He became more distant from her after this. According to Menand, he even said that her religious education was the greatest disappointment of his life and it caused him to take back some of the praise he had for the blind in general. So he took a very extreme view of this.

Sarah: He took it pretty hard definitely. But when Laura was about 20 years old, her last and favorite teacher, Sarah Wright, left to be married. And at this point, especially considering that she and Howe had drifted apart by this point a little bit, school was going to be over for Laura. So she stayed on at Perkins for a time, but she really found life a lot lonelier and isolated without having a constant companion with her anymore. So it was thought best by everyone that she go home to her family farm. That didn't really work out either. The family was too busy running the farm, doing their everyday things that they did. And they didn't have time for the 24-hour companionship and the constant questions that she was used to. And so she started getting depressed. She started to get sick and Howe eventually got word enough to loop in Dorothea Dix, who we've talked about on an earlier podcast, who was also a friend of Laura's to help raise the money for a lifetime endowment for her to live at Perkins as long as she wanted to.

Deblina: She ended up staying there for the rest of her life. Returning to our family farm only for summers. As an adult at the school, she lived in a cottage and she taught needlework. Apparently, she was a really strict teacher too. I think we mentioned that before.

Sarah: I think so. If you didn't have neat stitches, she just make you rip the whole thing out and start over.

Deblina: That's tough. But she'd also read a lot. She'd write letters constantly. She'd travel occasionally too. She knit, she'd embroider, she'd make lace and sew things to sell to people who came to see her often she would include an attached autograph with that and she liked having money of her own. She liked having some money to give to charity and buy presents for her friends. While she was home one summer, se was baptized in a brook near the family farm, and she also convinced the pastor's wife to learn the manual alphabet so that they could communicate and that way Laura could get more religious instruction.

Sarah: And we mentioned this a little bit when talking about her sense of humor, but to strangers, se did seem less friendly and less pleasant as she grew older, but perhaps that's in part due to all her losses. She got very close to her younger sister on these trips back to the farm, and her sister passed away. Howe died in 1876 and just within a year or so after that, two of her teachers died. So at age 59, Laura got sick with erysipelas, which is a streptococcus infection and died May 24th, 1889. The last word that she spelled out was mother.

Deblina: A year before she died though, Laura did meet Helen Keller. And as we mentioned, the eight year old annoyed Laura by stepping on foot-

Sarah: She's was a little too rambunctious.

Deblina: Yeah, bad first impression. But Keller's parents who were dealing with the same tantrums that Laura's family had dealt with years earlier, happened to read Dickens' 1842 American Travels, where if you'll remember from the Dickens podcast he wrote at length about the then sensational 12-year-old Laura who was imprisoned in a "marble cell."

Sarah: He was very poetic in his descriptions of her.

Deblina: And the promise of Laura's story made Keller's parents contact Perkins where they were connected with recent grad, Anne Sullivan, a good friend of Laura's and someone who was familiar with Howe's method of instruction. So the famous aha moment in Keller's story came when Sullivan spelled out water on Keller's hand while running water over the other. It's a very famous scene that I think we all probably learned in grade school. Yep.

Sarah: Exactly. And Bridgman is so closely connected with Keller because of that link and her parents and Dickens and all of that. But Keller did always acknowledge Bridgman's earlier education and its effect on her own life. But Laura story is maybe best summed up with something that she said as a child when her teacher was explaining to her that while most people had five senses, she just had three senses. And according to Crista DeLuzio in American 19th Century History, Laura thought about this for a moment and then she answered her teacher that, no, she actually had one more sense than that. She had the sense of touch, she had taste, smell, and then a fourth sense, which she called think. And I mean, how does that not just sum up everything she learned and did that you can think, but if you have the ability to express it, you can live a full life?

Tracy Wilson: Thank you so much for joining us on this Saturday. If you have heard an email address or Facebook URL or something similar over the course of today’s episode, since it is out of the archive, that may be out of date now. You can email us at Historypodcast at howstuffworks dot com, and you can find us all over social media at MissedInHistory. And you can subscribe to our show on Apple phodcasts, Google podcasts, the iHeartRadio app, and wherever else you listen to podcasts.