William Chambers.

Chambers's miscellany of useful and entertaining tracts (Volume v.5-6) online

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allowed his eyes to be touched with an apparent interest and
anxiety, as if he had been aware of the object of my occupation.
On expressing' to his father my surprise at the apparent con-
sciousness of the boy of what was to be done, he said that he had
frequently, during the voyage from Scotland, signified his ex-
pectation and his desire that some operation should be performed
on his eyes ; thus showing an accurate recollection of his former
visit, and a conception of the objects of it. During the first
examination, and on several future ones, when I purposely
handled the eye roughly, I was surprised to find him submit to
everythins;' that was done with fortitude and complete resig-
nation, as if he was persuaded that he had an organ imperfectly
developed, and an imperfection to be remedied by the assistance
of his fellow-creatures.

Many little incidents in his life have displayed a good deal of
reasoning and observation. On one occasion a pair of shoes were
given to him, which he found too small, and his mother put them
aside into a closet. Some time afterwards, young Mitchell found
means to get the key of the closet, opened the door, and taking
out the shoes, put them on a young man, his attendant, whom
they fitted exactly. On another occasion, finding his sister's
shoes very wet after a walk, he appeared uneasy till she changed



them. He frequently attempted to imitate his father's farm-ser-
vants in their work, and was particularly fond of assisting- them
in cleaning- the stables. At one time, when his brothers were
employed making basket-work, he attempted to imitate them -
but he did not seem to have patience to overcome the difficulties
he had to surmount. In many of his actions he displayed a re-
tentive memory, and in no one was this more remarkable than in
his second voyage to London. Indeed, as the objects of his
attention must have been very limited, it is not to be wondered
at that those few should be well remembered. He seemed to
select and show a preference to particular forms, smells, and
other qualities of bodies. He has often been observed to break
substances with his teeth, or by other means, so as to give them
a form which seemed to please him. He also preferred to touch
those substances which were smooth, and which had a rounded
form ; and he has been known to employ many hours in selecting'
smooth water-worn pebbles from the channel of the river. He
also seemed to be much pleased with some shells, and equally dis-
gusted with others ; and this latter feeling he expressed by squeez-
ing his nostrils, and turning his head from whence the smell
came. He showed an equal nicety in the selection of his food.

He sometimes showed a good deal of drollery and cunning,
particularly in his amusements with his constant companion and
friend, his sister. He took great pleasure in locking people up
in a room or closet ; and would sometimes conceal things abouis
his person or otherwise, which he knew not to be his own pro-
perty, and when he was detected doing so, he would laugh
heartily. That he was endowed with affection and kindness to
his own family cannot be doubted. The meeting with his mother
after his return from this London visit shovv^ed this very strongly.
On one occasion, finding his mother unwell, he was observed to
weep ; and on another, when the boy who attended him happened
to have a sore foot, he went up to a garret room, and brought
down a stool for his foot to rest upon, which he recollected to-
have so used himself on a similar occasion long before. He
seemed fond too of young children, and was often in the habit of
taking them up in his arms. His disposition and temper were
generally placid, and when kind means were employed, he wao
obedient and docile. But if he was teased or interrupted in any
of his amusements, he became irascible, and sometimes got into
violent paroxysms of rage. At no other time did he ever make
use of his voice, with which he produced most harsh and loud
screams. It is not one of the least curious parts of his history
that he seemed to have a love of finevy. He early showed a
great partiality to new clothes ; and when the tailor used to
come to make clothes at his father's house (a practice common
in that part of the country), it seemed to afford him great plea-
sure to sit down beside him whilst he was at work ; and he never
left him until his own suit was finished. He expressed much



disappointment and ang-er when any of his brothers got new
clothes and none were g-iven to him. Immediately before he
eume to London, each of" his brothers got a new hat, w^hile his
father considered his own good enough for the sea voyage. Such,
however, was his disappointment and rage, that he secretly went
to one of the outhouses, and tore the old hat to pieces. Indeed
his fondness for new clothes afforded a means of rewarding him
when he merited approbation ; and his parents knew no severer
mode of punishment than by oblig'ing- him to wear old ones.

With respect to the means which were employed to com-
municate to him information, and which he made use of to com-
municate his desires and feeling's to others, these were very inge-
nious and simple. His sister, under w^hose management he
chiefly was, had contrived signs addressing his organs of touch,
by which she could control him and regulate his conduct. On
the other hand, he by his gestures could express his wishes and
desires. His sister employed various modes of holding his arm,
and patting him on the head and shoulders, to express consent,
and different degrees of approbation. She sig-nitied time by
shutting his eyelids and putting down his head, which done
once meant one night. Pie expressed his wish to go to bed by
reclining his head, distinguished me by touching his eyes, and
many workmen by imitating their different employments. When
he wished for food he pointed to his mouth, or to the place where
provisions were usualh' kept."

Mr AYardrop then details the particulars of the operation of
couching the left eye," having abandoned the idea of extraction of
the lens, which operation was rendered extremel}^ difficult, in
consequence of the struggles of his patient, who although evi-
dently willing" to submit to whatever was intended to be done,
yet had not resolution when the operation was actually com-
menced. By contining' him in a machine, however, the cataract
was broken up, and so far displaced that he obtained a certain
degree of vision. " On the Htth day," continues Mr Wardrop,
"he got out of bed, and was broug-ht into a room having- an
equal and moderate light. Before even touching or seeming to
smell me, he recognised me, which he expressed by the fear of
something to be done to his ej^es. He went about hi? room
readily, and the appearance of his countenance was much altered,
having acquired that look which indicated the enjoyment of
vision. He appeared well acquainted with the furniture of the
room, having lived in it several days previous to the operation ;
and though, from placing thing's before him, he evidently dis-
tinguished and attempted to touch them, judging of their dimen-
sions with tolerable accuracy, yet he seemed to trust little to the
information given by the eye, and always turned away his head
while he carefully examined by his sense of touch the whole
surfaces of bodies presented to him. Next day he could distin-
g'uish a shilling placed on the table, and put his hand on it. as

10 9


also a piece of white paper the size of a sixpence. When taken
out on the street, he was much interested with the busy scene
around. A post suppoi'ting- a scaffold at the distance of two
or three yards chiefly attracted his notice, and he timorously
approached it, g-roping- and stretching* out his hand cautiously
until he touched it. On being: taken to a tailor's shop, he
expressed a g"reat desire for a suit of new clothes, and it wa&
sig-nified to him that his wishes would be complied with ; and
being" allowed to make a choice, he selected from among" the
variety of colours a lig-ht yellow for his breeches, and a green
for his coat and waistcoat. According"ly these were made, and
as I solicited his father not to alloAv them to be put on until I
was present, it was signified to him that he should have per-
mission to wear them in two days. The mode by which he
received this communication was by closing his eyelids and
bending down his head twice, thereby expressing that he must
first have two sleeps. One day after the clothes w^ere finished,
I called and requested that he should be dressed in them. This
was intimated to him by touching his coat and giving him a
ring of keys, one of which opened the door of the room where
the clothes were kept. He gladly grasped the kevs, and in an
instant pitched on the one he wanted, opened the door, and
brought a bundle containing" his new suit into the room where
we were sitting. With a joyful smile he loosened the bundle,
and took out of the coat-pocket a pair of new white stocking's, a
pair of yellow gloves, and a pair of new shoes. The succeeding
scene was perhaps one of the most extraordinary displays of
sensual gratification which can well be conceived. He began
by first trying on his new shoes, after throwing away the old ones
with great scorn, and then Math a smiling countenance went
to his father and sister, holding up to each of them and to
me his feet in succession, that we might admire his treasure.
He next put on the yellow gloves, and in like manner showing*
them to his father and sister, they expressed their admiration by
patting him on the head and shoulders. He afterwards sat
down opposite to a window, stretched out on each knee an ex-
panded hand, and seemed to contemplate the beauty of his gloves
with a degree of gratification scarcely to be imagined. At one
time I attempted to deceive him, by putting a yellow glove very
little soiled in place of one of his new ones. But this he instantly
detected as a trick, and smiled, throwing away the old glove, and
demanding his new one. This occupation lasted a considerable
time, after which he and his sister retired to another room,
where he was dressed completely in his new suit. The expres-
sion of his countenance on returning into the room in his gaudy
uniform excited universal laughter, and every means was taken
to flatter his vanity and increase his delight. One day I gave
him a pair of green glasses to wear, in order to lessen the influ-
ence of light on his eye. He looked through them at a number



of o'bjects in succession ; and so great was his surprise, and so
excessive his pleasure, that he hurst into a loud lit of laug'hter.
In general he seemed much pleased with objects which were of a
white, and still more particularly those of a red colour. I observed
him one day take from his pocket a piece of red sealing-wax,
which he appeared to have preserved for the beauty of its colour.
A white waistcoat and white stockings pleased him exceeding-ly,
and he alwaj^s gave a marked preference to yellow gloves."

After leaving London, his father writes — " James seemed much
amused with the shipping in the river, and until we passed Yar-
mouth Roads. During" the rest of the passage we were so far
out at sea that there Avas little to attract his notice, except the
objects around him on the deck. He appeared to feel no anxiety
till we reached this coast, and observed land and a boat coming
along'side of the vessel to carry some of the passengers on shore.
He seemed then to express both anxiety and joy ; and we had
no sooner got into the river which led to the landing'-place, than
he observed from the side of the boat the sandy bottom, and was
desirous to get out. When we g'ot to land he appeared happy,
and felt impatient to proceed homewards. On our arrival that
evening, after a journey of seventeen miles, he expressed great
pleasure on meeting with his mother and the rest of the family.
He made signs that his eye had been operated upon, that he
also saw with it, and at the same time signified that he was
fixed in a particular posture, alluding to the machine in which
he had been secured during* the operation. He has now learned
to feed himself and to put on his own clothes. No particular
object has yet attracted his attention in the way of amusement."

This short gleam of hope and sunshine soon closed upon poor
Mitchell. Couching- for cataract is seldom permanently success-
ful. The cloudy pearl-like matter being for the most jDart only
hroken up, not altogether removed, again settles into a mass, and
blindness once more ensues. Such was the case with the object
of our memoir : his eye again became opaque, and he relapsed
into a state of, as it was thought, irremediable blindness. The
brief and partial view which he thus got of the world around
him was all that he was destined to see of the face of nature, and
all the recollections which he could treasure up of the green
earth, the sun, and sky, to cheer his future life of loneliness.

In the following year he is described as incapable of distin-
guishing even a larg'e object at the distance of only a yard or
two ; and thoug'h he recovered a little more vision a few months
afterwards, he seems to have relapsed again into as great a state
of darkness as before. In 1811 his father died. The day after,
his sister took him into the room, and made him touch the
corpse. The touch of the dead body surprised and alarmed him,
though expressions of grief were not apparent. This was the
first dead human body he had ever had an opportunity of exa-
mining : before this he had felt the dead bodies of animals, and



one dsij was seen amusing- himself by attempting- to make a dead
fowl stand on its legs. On the day of the funeral a number of
friends assembled to pay the last tribute to the honoured remains.
The poor boy, unconscious of the full extent of his loss, glided
about among the crowd, his curiosity excited by the unusual
assemblage. Two of the observers state that when the coffin
was first brought out containing his fathers corpse, he clung-
to it, and seemed for the moment deeply affected. It is certain
that he afterwards repeatedly visited the grave, and patted the
turf with his hands.

The death of his mother a few years later, after the family
Lad removed to the neig'hbouring town of Nairn, was a new
source of grief ; and the sug'gestion naturally rose in his mind
that he should lose his sister also, and for some time he showed
an extraordinary unwillingness to quit her even for an instant.
His feelings of distress on this and other occasions were some-
what assuaged by a recourse to a new species of amusement.
When he last visited London, he happened to be in the house of
a friend of his father, who was in the habit of smoking ; and a
pipe being given to him, he smoked it and seemed much delighted.
After his return home, a gentleman came on a visit to Ardclach,
who was also in the habit of smoking^ and having tobacco wished
for a pipe. Miss Mitchell gave the boy a halfpenny, and per-
mitted him to smell the tobacco. He understood her signs, went
out to a shop in the neig-hbourhood where pipes were to be had,
and returned with one in his hand. From this time the smoking*
of tobacco became a favourite indulgence, from which it was not
considered necessary to divert him.

Numerous particulars are related of the subsequent life of
Mitchell, but these it is unnecessary to repeat, and we confine
ourselves to what follows, as interest in his conduct and habits
in a great degree ceases from the time he obtained a view of the
external world — a view which, however short, must have given
him a distinct idea of light and colours, and also the appear-
ance of animate and inanimate objects. His sister, in describing-
his condition after this period, mentions that " he continued to
take an unabated interest in the emploj-ment of the various
workmen in tOAvn ; and in the progress of their work, particularly
mason work, examining" minutely what has been done in his
absence, and fearlessly ascending the highest part of their scaf-
folding, in which he has hitherto been most providentially pre-
served from any serious accident. While the addition lately made
to a house was roofing, I remarked him ascending the slaters'
ladder and getting on the roof. Laying himself down, and fix-
ing- his heel in a rough part of the surface, he moved himself
along, one foot after the other, until the fear of his slipping ren-
dered me unable to remain longer to look at him. I believe such
is his common practice whenever anything of the kind is carry-
ing on. He is so perfectly inoffensive, that all classes contribute



towards his safety and even to his amusement, allowing him to
enter their houses and handle whatever he has a mind to, as he
never attempts carrying" anything away with him or injuring
it while in his possession. Indeed, except in one instance, I
never knew him exposed to any unpleasant treatment in these
unceremonious visits. It was in the case of a family who came
to reside in this neig'hbourhood about three years ago, and who
were quite unacquainted with his situation. When he went out
as usual to the house (where with the former occupants he had
been accustomed to range at pleasure), and began feeling the
umbrellas and other articles in the lobby, with the intent, as they
supposed, of carrying them off, they first remonstrated with him,
and getting no reply, they then proceeded to turn him forcibly
out of doors, which they effected after receiving as many kicks
and blows as he could bestow in the struggle. He was afterwards
seen by two gentlemen who knew him, bellowing with rage.
They wished to get hold of him and soothe him, but found it
impossible from the furious rate at which he was going; and
although regretting his apparent irritation, they were not a little
amused upon approaching- the house to see a domestic peeping
fearfully out at a half-opened door, and the other members of the
family, which consisted mostly of females, at the various win-
dows, whence they could obtain a view of the person who had
heen the cause of so much fear and trouble to them."

In 1826 Sir Thomas Dick Lauder thus relates an interesting
visit which he received from Mitchell at Relugas, a distance of
seventeen miles from Nairn : — " It was one day about noon, in
the month of May, that I saw him pass the window of the dining-
room where I was sitting, and immediately recognising him, I
hastened to the house door, and met him in the porch, in the act
of entering. I took him by the hand, clapped him gently on the
back, and led him to the room I had just left, and taking him
towards Mrs Cumin, who was the only person with me at the
time, he shook hands with her. I then conducted him to a
sofa, where he sat down ; and being apparently a good deal tired,
he leaned back in expectation of finding support, but the sofa
being one of those constructed without a back, he was surprised,
and instantly made himself master of its form by feeling it all
over. I then took his hand and put it to his mouth, with the
intention of making him understand that he should have some-
thing to eat. He immediately put his hand into his waistcoat-
pocket, where he had some copper, as if with the intention of
taking it out. * * My impression was that he meant to

express that he could pay for food if it was given him. Miss
Mitchell seems to think that it was an indication of satisfaction
merely. I confess, however, that his action appeared to me to
be so immediately consequent on mine, that I cannot yet doubt
that it resulted from it. He may have misinterpreted my
signal, and imagined that it referred to a pipe and tobacco ;



and this may perhaps reconcile our difference of opinion. I lost
no time in ordering* luncheon, and in the meanwhile I g-ave my
interesting" visitor a cig-ar. He took it in his hand, smelt it,
and then put it into his -waistcoat-pocket with a smile of infinite
satisfaction. I took another cigar from the case, and having
lighted it, I put it into his hand. He carried it also directly
towards his nose, but in its w^ay thither the red glare of the
burning* end of it caug-ht his eye (which is perfectly aware of
light although not of form), and arrested his hand. He looked
at it for a moment, turned it round, and having" extinguished it
between his linger and his thumb, he put it also into his pocket
with the air of being" much amused. I was then convinced that
he had never before met with a cigar, and that he knew it only
as tobacco. I therefore prepared another, lig'hted it, smoked
two or three whiffs so as to make him sensible of the odour, and
then taking" his hand, I put the cig'ar into it, and g'uided it to
his mouth. He now at once comprehended matters, and beg'an
whiffing" away with g-reat delight; but the fumes of the tobacco
ascending" from the burning" end of the cigar stimulated his eye,
and g'ave him pain, yet he was not to be defeated by this circum-
stance, for, retaining* the cigar between his fore-finger and
thumb, he stretched up his middle linger, and keeping: his eye-
lid close with it, he went on smoking until I judg'ed it proper
to remove the end of the cigar from his mouth when it was
nearly finished. By this time Lady Lauder came in, and I
beg'ged that the children might be brought. I took each of them
to him in succession, and he patted their heads, but the cere-
mony, though tolerated, seemed to g-ive him little pleasure. A
tray now appeared, and I led him to a seat at the table. I put
a napkin on his knee, and comprehending what he was to be
employed in, he drew his chair very close to the table, as if to
prevent accident to the carpet, and spread the napkin so as to
protect his clothes. I helped him to some broth, and guided his
spoon for two or three times, after which I left him to himself,
when he leaned over the table and continued to eat the broth
without spilling any of it, groping for the bread, and eating
slice after slice of it with seeming appetite. The truth w^as, he
had been wandering for some days, had been at Ardclach, had
had a long" walk that morning, and was very hungry. I then
cut some cold meat for him, and he helped himself to it very
adroitly with his fork, drinking beer from time to time as he
wanted it, Avithout losing* a drop of it. After he had finished
he sat for a few minutes, and then he arose as if he wished to go.
I then gave him a glass of wine, and each of us having shaken
him by the hand, he moved towards the door, where I got him
his hat, and taking him by the arm, I led him down the approach
to the lodge. Having made him aware of the obstruction v/hich
the gate presented, I opened it for him, led him into the road,
and giving his arm a swing in the direction I wished him to


take, I shook hands ^vith him ag-ain, and lie moved away at a
good round pace, as I had indicated. Some years ago IMitchell
paid a visit to Relug-as, but I was from home at the time, and as
he was known to no one else, his awkward g-ait occasioned his
being" mistaken for a drunk or insane person, and the doors
being" shut against him, he Avent away. He never repeated his
visit until the late occasion, but I am not without hope that the
kind treatment he last met with may induce him to come here
the next time he takes a ramble. His countenance is so intelli-
gent, and its expression in every respect so g'ood, that he inte-
rested every individual of the family, and delighted us all."

A gentleman who visited Mitchell in 1832, has thus described
to us his interview. '^ When I called he was abroad, but in a
short time he made his appearance, and w^as led into the
room by his sister. His face was weatherbeaten, but he had
the appearance of robust health. He was of middle stature,
and at this time thirty -seven years of age. His countenance
was mild and pleasant ; with nothing of a vacant look, his fea-
tures had that precise and distinct outline, especially his mouth,
that indicates a reflecting mind. His head was well-formed,
round, and what would be termed large. He was plainly dressed,
but with that appearance of neatness and cleanliness which
showed he had sufficient self-respect as to take the proper care of
his clothes ; indeed, as I afterwards learned, he is particularly

Online LibraryWilliam ChambersChambers's miscellany of useful and entertaining tracts (Volume v.5-6) → online text (page 35 of 59)