Half a century before famed Helen Keller, the “Original Helen Keller,” Laura Dewey Bridgman, became the first deaf and blind person to learn a language. By the time that Keller became famous in the early twentieth century, Bridgman’s story had faded and been forgotten — but like Keller, Bridgman moved souls around the world by triumphing over her multiple disabilities.
Laura Dewey Bridgman was born in the expansion period of the United States on December 21, 1829, just shy of President Andrew Jackson’s message to Congress to relocate the Native American tribes west of the Mississippi River. With her parents, Daniel and Harmony Bridgman, Laura resided in Etna, New Hampshire, just a few miles east of Vermont. Although Native Americans had moved from that area decades earlier, it remained rural.
When she was two, Laura contracted scarlet fever, which eradicated both her hearing and her sight, while seriously damaging her senses of taste and smell. Touch was the only one of the five senses that was not impaired.
Her early means of communication and expression were through imitation by touch. Laura learned to perform tasks by following her mother’s hands; she even learned to sew that way. However, it was Asa Tenny, a local handyman, who taught her to begin communicating using a system of signs. That attracted the interest of a professor at Dartmouth College, nearby in Hanover, New Hampshire, and he wrote a newspaper article about Laura.
Dr. Samuel Howe, head of the Perkins School for the Blind, read it and was eager to try to teach her. Even though educational experts believed that a deaf and blind student could simply not be taught such abstractions as reading, writing, and arithmetic. Howe – the husband of feminist and writer Julia Ward Howe — was a progressive person willing to delve into new challenges.
On October 4, 1837, when she was almost eight years old, Laura left New Hampshire to live at the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston. There she would learn how to read and write using grooved paper. Dr. Howe used an innovative method: he had her feel items – a spoon, for example — and then ran her fingers over a label with raised letters that spelled “spoon” to her touch. Laura did this with various items and words for several weeks, but the association between the item and the written word seemed beyond her comprehension. But one day, Dr. Howe wrote, her face “lighted up with human expression… [as] this truth dawned upon her mind.”
After having lost the most valuable of human senses, Laura Bridgman learned to use the sense of touch to replace her sight and hearing. She first “read” words, and then, in the opposite of the usual approach, went backwards to learn the alphabet and numbers. By age ten, she could write her name. She moved on to keeping a journal, in which she recorded her thoughts and what she had learned that day. To be able to write, as well as read and otherwise communicate with people, was truly miraculous. It was clear that the fever had not destroyed the thinking part of her brain and that this girl was extraordinarily intelligent.
Dr. Howe had European contacts and was enough of a self-promoter to use them on behalf of his school. Laura’s story was published in England, and when novelist Charles Dickens visited American in 1842, one of his main intentions was to meet the then 13-year-old girl. The British author of Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, and other popular works wrote in his travelogue, American Notes (1842):
“I sat down…before a girl, blind, deaf, and dumb; destitute of smell; and nearly so of taste: before a fair young creature with every human faculty, and hope, and power of goodness and affection, enclosed within her delicate frame, and but one outward sense — the sense of touch. There she was, before me; built up, as it were, in a marble cell, impervious to any ray of light, or particle of sound; with her poor white hand peeping through a chink in the wall, beckoning to some good man for help, that an Immortal soul might be awakened.”
The publicity that Dickens’ visit generated turned Laura into something of a tourist attraction, as countless Bostonians and visitors to Boston emulated Dickens. Although arguably inhumane, the Perkins school set up barriers for people to stand behind and watch her, much as though she were an exhibit in a museum. Because she was sightless, this may have not been as exploitive as it appears, and Howe certainly thought that her popularity was good for the school. Her formal education stopped when she turned twenty, however, and her family brought her back home.
That did not work out, though, as she could not adjust to the isolation of rural New Hampshire. Unable to cope with living at home, she returned to Perkins after an absence of three years. Except for summer vacations in New Hampshire, she would remain at the Boston school for the rest of her life. She earned money by making and selling crafts to the tourists who flocked to visit her, especially in the pre-Civil War era. Her days at Perkins were busy with domestic tasks, too, and she even taught sewing to other sightless students.
Bridgman progressed intellectually to the point that she wrote and received letters from many people. She also thought about philosophical issues deeply enough that she decided to be baptized at Hanover, New Hampshire in 1862. Although she never achieved the status that Helen Keller did with her exceptionally devoted teacher, Anne Sullivan, Bridgman’s life was a genuine success story. She died at Perkins, which still is extant, on May 24, 1889 of pneumonia, just a few months short of her 60th birthday.