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sanguine temperament ; a large and beautifully-shaped head ;
and the whole system in healthy action. The parents were
easily induced to consent to her coming to Boston, and


on the 4th of October, 1837, they brought her to the

" For a while, she was much bewildered ; and after waiting
about two weeks, until she became acquainted with her new
locality, and somewhat familiar with the inmates, the attempt
was made to give her knowledge of arbitrary signs, by which
she could interchange thoughts with others.

" There was one of two ways to be adopted : either to go
on to build up a language of signs on the basis of the natural
language which she had already commenced herself, or to
teach her the purely arbitrary language in common use : that
is, to give her a sign for every individual thing, or to give
her a knowledge of letters by combination of which she might
express her idea of the existence, and the mode and condition
of existence, of any thing. The former would have been easy,
but very ineffectual ; the latter seemed very difficult, but, if
accomplished, very effectual. I determined therefore to try
the latter.

"The first experiments were made by taking articles in
common use, such as knives, forks, spoons, keys, &c., and
pasting upon them labels with their names printed in raised
letters. These she felt very carefully, and soon, of course,
distinguished that the crooked lines spoon, differed as much
from the crooked lines key, as the spoon differed from the
key in form.

"Then small detached labels, with the same words printed
upon them, were put into her hands ; and she soon observed
that they were similar to the ones pasted on the articles. She
showed her perception of this similarity by laying the label
key upon the key, and the label spoon upon the spoon.
She was encouraged here by the natural sign of approbation,
patting on the head.

"The same process was then repeated with all the articles
which she could handle; and she very easily learned to place
the proper labels upon them. It was evident, however, that
the only intellectual exercise was that of imitation and memory.


She recollected that the label book was placed upon a book,
and she repeated the process first from imitation, next from
memory, with only the motive of love of approbation, but
apparently without the intellectual perception of any relation
between the things.

" After a while, instead of labels, the individual letters were
given to her on detached bits of paper : they were arranged
side by side so as to spell book, key, &c. ; then they were
mixed up in a heap and a sign was made for her to arrange
them herself so as to express the words book, key, &c. ;
and she did so.

" Hitherto, the process had been mechanical, and the success
about as great as teaching a very knowing dog a variety of
tricks. The poor child had sat in mute amazement, and
patiently imitated everything her teacher did; but now 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 up a sign of anything that was in her own mind, and
show it to another mind ; and at once her countenance lighted
up with a human expression : it was no longer a dog, or
parrot : it was an immortal spirit, eagerly seizing upon a new
link of union with other spirits ! I could almost fix upon
the moment when this truth dawned upon her mind, and
spread its light to her countenance; I saw that the great
obstacle was overcome; and that henceforward nothing but
patient and persevering, but plain and straightforward, efforts
were to be used.

"The result thus far, is quickly related, and easily con-
ceived ; but not so was the process ; for many weeks of
apparently unprofitable labour were passed before it was

" When it was said above, that a sign was made, it was
intended to say, that the action was performed by her teacher,
she feeling his hands, and then imitating the motion.

" The next step was to procure a set of metal types, with
the different letters of the alphabet cast upon their ends;


also a board, in which were square holes, into which holes
she could set the types ; so that the letters on their ends could
alone be felt above the surface.

"Then, on any article being handed to her, for instance, a
pencil, or a watch, she would select the component letters, and
arrange them on her board, and read them with apparent

" She was exercised for several weeks in this way, until her
vocabulary became extensive ; and then the important step
was taken of teaching her how to represent the different
letters by the position of her fingers, instead of the cumbrous
apparatus of the board and types. She accomplished this
speedily and easily, for her intellect had begun to work in aid
of her teacher, and her progress was rapid.

"This was the period, about three months after she had
commenced, that the first report of her case was made, in
which it was stated that 'she has just learned the manual
alphabet, as used by the deaf mutes, and it is a subject of
delight and wonder to see how rapidly, correctly, and eagerly,
she goes on with her labours. Her teacher gives her a new
object, for instance, a pencil, first lets her examine it, and
get an idea of its use, then teaches her how to spell it by
making the signs for the letters with her own fingers : the
child grasps her hand, and feels her fingers, as the different
letters are formed ; she turns her head a little on one side
like a person listening closely ; her lips are apart ; she seems
scarcely to breathe ; and her countenance, at first anxious,
gradually changes to a smile, as she comprehends the lesson.
She then holds up her tiny fingers, and spells the word in
the manual alphabet ; next, she takes her types and arranges
her letters; and last, to make sure that she is right, she
takes the whole of the types composing the word, and places
them upon or in contact with the pencil, or whatever the
object may be. 1 *

"The whole of the succeeding year was passed in gratifying
her eager inquiries for the names of every object which she


could possibly handle; in exercising her in the use of the
manual alphabet; in extending in every possible way her
knowledge of the physical relations of things ; and in proper
care of her health.

"At the end of the year a report of her case was made,
from which the following is an extract.

" * It has been ascertained beyond the possibility of doubt,
that she cannot see a ray of light, cannot hear the least
sound, and never exercises her sense of smell, if she have any.
Thus her mind dwells in darkness and stillness, as profound
as that of a closed tomb at midnight. Of beautiful sights,
and sweet sounds, and pleasant odours, she has no conception ;
nevertheless, she seems as happy and playful as a bird or a
lamb ; and the employment of her intellectual faculties, or
the acquirement of a new idea, gives her a vivid pleasure,
which is plainly marked in her expressive features. She never
seems to repine, but has all the buoyancy and gaiety of child-
hood. She is fond of fun and frolic, and when playing with
the rest of the children, her shrill laugh sounds loudest of
the group.

" ' When left alone, she seems very happy if she have her
knitting or sewing, and will busy herself for hours ; if she
have no occupation, she evidently amuses herself by imaginary
dialogues, or by recalling past impressions ; she counts with
her fingers, or spells out names of things which she has recently
learned, in the manual alphabet of the deaf mutes. In this
lonely self-communion she seems to reason, reflect, and argue ;
if she spell a word wrong with the fingers of her right hand,
she instantly strikes it with her left, as her teacher does, in
sign of disapprobation ; if right, then she pats herself upon
the head, and looks pleased. She sometimes purposely spells
a word wrong with the left hand, looks roguish for a moment'
and laughs, and then with the right hand strikes the left, as
if to correct it.

" * During the year she has 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.

"'But wonderful as is the rapidity with which she writes her
thoughts upon the air, still more so is the ease and accuracy
with which she reads the words thus written by another ; grasp-
ing their hands in hers, and following every movement of their
fingers, as letter after letter conveys their meaning to her
mind. It is in this way that she converses with her blind
playmates, and nothing can more forcibly show the power of
mind in forcing matter to its purpose than a meeting between
them. For if great talent and skill are necessary for two
pantomimes to paint their thoughts and feelings by the
movements of the body, and the expression of the countenance,
how much greater the difficulty when darkness shrouds them
both, and the one can hear no sound.

" ' When Laura is walking through a passage-way, with her
hands spread before her, she knows instantly every one she
meets, and passes them with a sign of recognition : but if it
be a girl of her own age, and especially if it be one of her
favourites, there is instantly a bright smile of recognition, a
twining of arms, a grasping of hands, and a swift telegraphing
upon the tiny fingers ; whose rapid evolutions convey the
thoughts and feelings from the outposts of one mind to those
of the other. There are questions and answers, exchanges of
joy or sorrow, there are kissings and partings, just as between
little children with all their senses. 1

" During this year, and six months after she had left home,
her mother came to visit her, and the scene of their meeting
was an interesting one.

"The mother stood some time, gazing with overflowing
eyes upon her unfortunate child, who, all unconscious of her
presence, was playing about the room. Presently Laura ran
against her, and at once began feeling her hands, examining
her dress, and trying to find out if she knew her; but not
succeeding in this, she turned away as from a stranger, and


the poor woman could not conceal the pang she felt, at finding
that her beloved child did not know her.

" She then gave Laura a string of beads which she used to
wear at home, which were recognised by the child at once,
who, with much joy, put them around her neck, and sought
me eagerly to say she understood the string was from her

"The mother now sought to caress her, but poor Laura
repelled her, preferring to be with her acquaintances.

" Another article from home was now given her, and she
began to look much interested; she examined the stranger
much closer, and gave me to understand that she knew she
came from Hanover ; she even endured her caresses, but would
leave her with indifference at the slightest signal. The distress
of the mother was now painful to behold ; for, although she
had feared that she should not be recognised, the painful
reality of being treated with cold indifference by a darling
child, was too much for woman's nature to bear.

"After a while, on the mother taking hold of her again,
a vague idea seemed to flit across Laura's mind, that this
could not be a stranger; she therefore felt her hands very
eagerly, while her countenance assumed an expression of
intense interest ; she became very pale ; and then suddenly
red ; hope seemed struggling with doubt and anxiety, and
never were contending emotions more strongly painted upon
the human face : at this moment of painful uncertainty, the
mother drew her close to her side, and kissed her fondly, when
at once the truth flashed upon the child, and all mistrust and
anxiety disappeared from her face, as with an expression of
exceeding joy she eagerly nestled to the bosom of her parent,
and yielded herself to her fond embraces.

" After this, the beads were all unheeded ; the playthings
which were offered to her were utterly disregarded ; her
playmates, for whom but a moment before she gladly left
the stranger, now vainly strove to pull her from her mother ;
and though she yielded her usual instantaneous obedience to


my signal to follow me, it was evidently with painful reluct-
ance. She clung close to me, as if bewildered and fearful;
and when, after a moment, I took her to her mother, she
sprang to her arms, and clung to her with eager joy.

"The subsequent parting between them, snowed alike the
affection, the intelligence, and the resolution of the child.

" Laura accompanied her mother to the door, clinging close
to her all the way, until they arrived at the threshold, where
she paused, and felt around, to ascertain who was near her.
Perceiving the matron, of whom she is very fond, she
grasped her with one hand, holding on convulsively to her
mother with the other; and thus she stood for a moment;
then she dropped her mother's hand ; put her handkerchief to
her eyes ; and turning round, clung sobbing to the matron ;
while her mother departed, with emotions as deep as those of
her child.


"It has been remarked in former reports, that she can
distinguish different degrees of intellect in others, and that
she soon regarded, almost with contempt, a new-comer, when,
after a few days, she discovered her weakness of mind. This
unamiable part of her character has been more strongly
developed during the past year.

" She chooses for her friends and companions, those children
who are intelligent, and can talk best with her ; and she
evidently dislikes to be with those who are deficient in
intellect, unless, indeed, she can make them serve her purposes,
which she is evidently inclined to do. She takes advantage
of them, and makes them wait upon her, in a manner that
she knows she could not exact of others ; and in various ways
shows her Saxon blood.

" She is fond of having other children noticed and caressed
by the teachers, and those whom she respects; but this must
not be carried too far, or she becomes jealous. She wants to
have her share, which, if not the lion's, is the greater part ;
and if she does not get it, she says, * My mother will love me?


"Her tendency to imitation is so strong, that it leads
her to actions which must be entirely incomprehensible to her,
and which can give her no other pleasure than the gratification
of an internal faculty. She has been known to sit for half an
hour, holding a book before her sightless eyes, and moving
her lips, as she has observed seeing people do when reading.

" She one day pretended that her doll was sick ; and went
through all the motions of tending it, and giving it medicine ;
she then put it carefully to bed, and placed a bottle of hot
water to its feet, laughing all the time most heartily. When
I came home, she insisted upon my going to see it, and feel
its pulse ; and when I told her to put a blister on its back,
she seemed to enjoy it amazingly, and almost screamed with

" Her social feelings, and her affections, are very strong ;
and when she is sitting at work, or at her studies, 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 contented; 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 signs.

" In her intellectual character it is pleasing to observe an
insatiable thirst for knowledge, and a quick perception of the
relations of things. In her moral character, it is beautiful to
.behold her continual gladness, her keen enjoyment of exist-
ence, her expansive love, her 'Unhesitating confidence, her
sympathy with suffering, her conscientiousness, truthfulness,
and hopefulness."

Such are a few fragments from the simple but most interest-
ing and instructive history of Laura Bridgman. The name

DR. HOWE. 47

of her great benefactor and friend, who writes it, is Dr.
Howe. There are not many persons, I hope and believe, who,
after reading these passages, can ever hear that name with

A further account has been published by Dr. Howe, since
the report from which I have just quoted. It describes
her rapid mental growth and improvement during twelve
months more, and brings her little history down to the end
of last year. It is very remarkable, that as we dream in
words, and carry on imaginary conversations, in which we
speak both for ourselves and for the shadows who appear to
us in those visions of the night, so she, having no words,
'uses her finger alphabet in her sleep. And it has been
ascertained that when her slumber is broken, and is much
disturbed by dreams, she expresses her thoughts in an irregular
and confused manner on her fingers : just as we should murmur
and mutter them indistinctly, in the like circumstances.

I turned over the leaves of her Diary, and found it written
in a fair legible square hand, and expressed in terms which
were quite intelligible without any explanation. On my
saying that I should like to see her write again, the teacher
who sat beside her, bade her, in their language, sign her
name upon a slip of paper, twice or thrice. In doing so, I
observed that she kept her left hand always touching, and
following up, her right, in which, of course, she held the pen.
No line was indicated by any contrivance, but she wrote
straight and freely.

She had, until now, been quite unconscious of the presence
of visitors; but, having her hand placed in that of the
gentleman who accompanied me, she immediately expressed
his name upon her teacher's palm. Indeed her sense of touch
is now so exquisite, that having been acquainted with a person
once, she can recognise him or her after almost any interval.
This gentleman had been in her company, I believe, but very
seldom, and certainly had not seen her for many months.
My hand she rejected at once, as she does that of any man


who is a stranger to her. But she retained my wife's with
evident pleasure, kissed her, and examined her dress with a
girl's curiosity and interest.

She was merry and cheerful, and showed much innocent
playfulness in her intercourse with her teacher. Her delight
on recognising a favourite playfellow and companion herself
a blind girl who silently, and with an equal enjoyment of
the coming surprise, took a seat beside her, was beautiful to
witness. It elicited from her at first, as other slight circum-
stances did twice or thrice during my visit, an uncouth noise
which was rather painful to hear. But on her teacher
touching her lips, she immediately desisted, and embraced her
laughingly and affectionately.

I had previously been into another chamber, where a number
of blind boys were swinging, and climbing, and engaged in
various sports. They all clamoured, as we entered, to the
assistant-master, who accompanied us, "Look at me, Mr.
Hart ! Please, Mr. Hart, look at me ! " evincing, I thought,
even in this, an anxiety peculiar to their condition, that their
little feats of agility should be seen. Among them was a
small laughing fellow, who stood aloof, entertaining himself
with a gymnastic exercise for bringing the arms and chest
into play; which he enjoyed mightily; especially when, in
thrusting out his right arm, he brought it into contact with
another boy. Like Laura Bridgman, this young child was
deaf, and dumb, and blind.

Dr. Howe's account of this pupil's first instruction is so
very striking, and so intimately connected with Laura herself,
that I cannot refrain from a short extract. I may premise
that the poor boy's name is Oliver Caswell ; that he is thirteen
years of age ; and that he was in full possession of all his
faculties, until three years and four months old. He was
then attacked by scarlet fever ; in four weeks became deaf ;
in a few weeks more, blind ; in six months, dumb. He showed
his anxious sense of this last deprivation, by often feeling
the lips of other persons when they were talking, and then


putting his hand upon his own, as if to assure himself that
he had them in the right position.

" His thirst for knowledge," says Dr. Howe, " proclaimed
itself as soon as he entered the house, by his eager examina-
tion of everything he could feel or smell in his new location.
For instance, treading upon the register of a furnace, he
instantly stooped down, and began to feel it, and soon dis-
covered the way in which the upper plate moved upon the
lower one ; but this was not enough for him, so lying down
upon his face, he applied his tongue first to one, then to the
other, and seemed to discover that they were of different kinds
of metal.

"His signs were expressive: and the strictly natural lan-
guage, laughing, crying, sighing, kissing, embracing, &c., was

" Some of the analogical signs which (guided by his faculty
of imitation) he had contrived, were comprehensible ; such as
the waving motion of his hand for the motion of a boat, the
circular one for a wheel, &c.

" The first object was to break up the use of these signs
and to substitute for them the use of purely arbitrary ones.

"Profiting by the experience I had gained in the other
cases, I omitted several steps of the process before employed,
and commenced at once with the finger language. Taking,
therefore, several articles having short names, such as key,
cup, mug, &c., and with Laura for an auxiliary, I sat down,
and taking his hand, plrfced it upon one of them, and then
with my own, made the letters key. He felt my hands
eagerly with botli of his, and on my repeating the process, he
evidently tried to imitate the motions of my fingers. In a
few minutes he contrived to feel the motions of my fingers
with one hand, and holding out the other he tried to imitate
them, laughing most heartily when he succeeded. Laura
was by, interested even to agitation ; and the two presented
a singular sight : her face was flushed and anxious, and her
fingers twining iii among ours so closely as to follow every



motion, but so lightly as not to embarrass them ; while Oliver
stood attentive, his head a little aside, his face turned up,
his left hand grasping mine, and his right held out : at every
motion of my fingers his countenance betokened keen attention ;
there was an expression of anxiety as he tried to imitate
the motions ; then a smile came stealing out as he thought he
could do so, and spread into a joyous laugh the moment he
succeeded, and felt me pat his head, and Laura clap him
heartily upon the back, and jump up and down in her joy.

" He learned more than a half-dozen letters in half an hour,
and seemed delighted with his success, at least in gaining
approbation. His attention then began to flag, and I com-
menced playing with him. It was evident that in all this
he had merely been imitating the motions of my fingers, and
placing his hand upon the key, cup, &c., as part of the
process, without any perception of the relation between the
sign and the object.

" When he was tired with play I took him back to the
table, and he was quite ready to begin again his process of
imitation. He soon learned to make the letters for key,
pen, pin ; and by having the object repeatedly placed in his
hand, he at last perceived the relation I wished to establish
between them. This was evident, because, when I made the
letters pin, or pen, or c up, he would select the article.

" The perception of this relation was not accompanied by
that radiant flash of intelligence, and that glow of joy, which
marked the delightful moment when* Laura first perceived it.
I then placed all the articles on the table, and going away
a little distance with the children, placed Oliver's fingers in
the positions to spell key, on which Laura went and brought
the article : the little fellow seemed much amused by this,

Online LibraryCharles DickensThe works of Charles Dickens (Volume 28) → online text (page 5 of 43)