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Laura Bridgman

Kathryn S Gardiner | Published on 5/11/2024

Forgotten Foremothers

Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights

In 1842, famed English author Charles Dickens traveled the eastern United States. He recorded and published his observations in American Notes for General Circulation. He visited Boston where he enjoyed that “the gilded letters were so very golden; the bricks were so very red; the stone was so very white, the blinds and area railings were so very green…” 


While in Boston, Charles visited the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts Asylum for the Blind, founded just 13 years earlier by Samuel Gridley Howe, a military surgeon and abolitionist. “Like most other public institutions in America, of the same class,” Charles wrote, “it stands a mile or two without the town, in a cheerful and healthy spot.” 


There at this institute, Charles met “a fair young creature with every human faculty, and hope, and power of goodness and affection, inclosed within her delicate frame” by the name of Laura Bridgman. 


Laura Dewey Bridgman was born over 100 miles northwest of Boston in the green and woodsy area of Hanover in New Hampshire on Dec. 21, 1829, to Harmony and Daniel Bridgman. The family had welcomed two daughters before Laura, who was born frail and unwell; she suffered convulsions for the first months of her life.


Throughout the 1800s, scarlet fever, a disease caused by the Streptococcus pyogenes bacteria, ravaged Massachusetts in regular intervals. The disease is easily recognized by the reddish rash it causes on light skin. “When an outbreak occurs, symptoms can vary widely within the population, or even within the same family,” wrote Alan C. Swedlund and Alison K. Donta in Scarlet fever epidemics of the nineteenth century: a case of evolved pathogenic virulence? “For common strains the highest risk is for young children. Infants are often at lower risk, owing to the presence of maternal antibodies.”


This certainly bore out in Laura’s family. The 1832 outbreak claimed the lives of her two older sisters. Laura survived, though she was profoundly harmed. 


Samuel gave this account: “…her disease raged with great violence during five weeks, when her eyes and ears were inflamed, suppurated, and their contents were discharged. But though sight and hearing were gone for ever, the poor child’s sufferings were not ended. The fever raged during seven weeks; for five months she was kept in bed in a darkened room; it was a year before she could walk unsupported, and two years before she could sit up all day. It was now observed that her sense of smell was almost entirely destroyed; and, consequently, that her taste was much blunted. ... It was not until four years of age that the poor child’s bodily health seemed restored.”


Prior to the bout of scarlet fever, Laura had been learning at a standard rate. Her mother described her as curious, said she could talk and even knew a few letters of the alphabet. Her illness seemed to have halted or stripped away any of that progress.


“[S]he remained spirited and good-natured, helping her mother with chores like sewing, knitting, braiding, washing potatoes, churning butter, setting the table, ironing the muslin. She had one toy—her father's discarded boot—and one very close friend, an elderly, mentally disabled bachelor from the neighborhood, named Asa Tenney,” wrote Natalie Angier in The New York Times. Asa was the Bridgmans’ hired help, a man who had an expressive language disorder, and who was seemingly Laura’s only childhood friend. He’d learned a bit of the Plains Indian Sign Language, or “Hand Talk,” from local Native American tribes (presumed to be the Abenaki). He taught a few signs to Laura. “The two often wandered together through the fields and woods, picking wild berries or throwing rocks in the pond. ‘I loved him as a father,’” Laura would say of him after his death.


Her mother learned to communicate with gentle taps on her daughter’s back or hand, but her father was more given to stomping to startle Laura with the vibrations or to simply smack her. Aside from Asa and her mother, Laura’s childhood seems to have been a lonely, isolated one.


In 1837, when Laura was still just 7 years old, Samuel learned of her and her situation. He was, according to Elisabeth Gitter, author of The Imprisoned Guest, “vain, pugnacious, rigid, and arrogant, yet passionately committed to doing good.” Prevailing beliefs at the time were that those who lacked sight and hearing could not be educated. Loftier debates used the blind and deaf as evidence for or against their own theories about the nature of the human soul. Are we born clean slates—tabula rasa—and become who we are through the senses, or is some knowledge or understanding intuitive from birth? While these questions are worth discussing, the humanity of the individuals, namely the blind and deaf like Laura, were often forgotten in these salons of higher thought. 


At age 7, Laura left her family to live at the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts Asylum for the Blind, a tall, imposing structure along the Charles River on Boston’s western edge. She was deeply homesick at first until she bonded with house matron Lydia Hall Drew. 


The Perkins School taught students the manual alphabet created by Charles de l’Epee, a man born in France in 1712, who is known as the “Father of the Deaf.” (Though some argue that he, in truth, learned the alphabet from the Deaf themselves.) Samuel focused on teaching Laura through one of the few senses she had left: touch. So, for Laura, the signs were pressed against her palm, allowing her to feel the shape of each word or letter as it was signed. She learned to read from papers marked with raised letters, and to identify objects by the feel of those letters. On July 24, 1839, 9-year-old Laura legibly wrote her own name for the first time.

Newspapers around the country printed items about the “Remarkable Human Phenomenon” that was Laura. The Pennsylvania newspaper then called the Jefferson Republican reported on May 16, 1840, that Laura “can count to high numbers; she can add and subtract in small numbers.” She was, the newspaper said, initially confused about the idea of writing down words, “but when the idea dawned upon her mind, that by means of it she could convey intelligence to her mother, her delight was unbounded. She applied herself with great diligence, and in a few months, actually wrote a legible letter to her mother, in which she conveyed information of her being well, and of her coming home in ten weeks.”


Laura’s desire for connection is ever-present in narratives of her life. She enjoyed being with people. The Jefferson Republican reporter shared this anecdote as to how Laura comprehended this written language that she could write but not see: “Sometimes her process of werd making is very interesting; for instance, after some time spent in giving her an idea of the abstract meaning of alone, she seemed to obtain it, and understanding that being by one’s self was to be alone, or al-one. She was told to go to her chamber, or school, or elsewhere, and return alone, she did so: but soon after, wishing to go with one of the little girls, she strove to express her meaning thus—Laura go al-two.” 


“Laura had no idea of the extent of the world’s interest in her or of how much of her private daily life was exposed to the public, and she certainly had no control over it,” said Rosemary Mahoney in “The Education of Laura Bridgman” for Slate. “Able to read only that which was available to her in raised type, she was not privy to most of the essays published about her. Her sense of self was strong enough, though, that she would probably have been annoyed and upset by the trespass on her privacy. Emotionally, Laura was extremely attached to and dependent on Howe, yet when Howe once opened a letter that was addressed to her, she was offended and firmly told him, ‘Doctor was wrong to open little girl’s letters. Little girls open theirself.’”

Laura in her mid-20s, around 1855. Image by Southworth & Hawes; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Public Domain

Many flocked to see Laura, to watch this young girl with a green ribbon about her eyes (a common accessory at the Perkins School so the sighted would not be distressed by sightless eyes) as she read, wrote, and spoke. Laura liked the attention, but “she began to chafe under the constant pressure to perform, and she would lash out and attack her teachers and the other Perkins students,” Natalie wrote. “She hated numbers and avoided her math lessons. She was bright and insatiably curious, but she had her limits.”


It was this intense local then national notoriety that brought Charles Dickens to Perkins School and made Laura’s fame international.


“The children were at their daily tasks in different rooms, except a few who were already dismissed, and were at play,” Charles wrote of his visit. “Here, as in many institutions, no uniform is worn; and I was very glad of it… [T]he absence of these things presents each child to the visitor in his or her own proper character, with its individuality unimpaired.”


Sitting before Laura, Charles’s observations were both admiring and pitying. “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. ... Long before I looked upon her, the help had come. Her face was radiant with intelligence and pleasure. Her hair, braided by her own hands, was bound about a head, whose intellectual capacity and development were beautifully expressed in its graceful outline, and its broad open brow; her dress, arranged by herself, was a pattern of neatness and simplicity; the work she had knitted, lay beside her; her writing-book was on the desk she leaned upon.—From the mournful ruin of such bereavement, there had slowly risen up this gentle, tender, guileless, grateful-hearted being.”


He noted also that Laura, barely 13 as she met one of the English-speaking world’s most famed authors and orators, had a small doll beside her. She had tied a green ribbon about the doll’s eyes, too.


“The real Laura Bridgman was both more interesting and less angelic than Howe and Dickens led the public to believe,” Rosemary wrote. “She was intelligent and had a very strong will... When she was instructed not to make loud and ‘disagreeable’ noises with her unmodulated voice, she responded, ‘God gave me much voice!’ She occasionally deceived her adult teachers; several times stole food from other students; sometimes pushed, pinched, and bit people; and could be irritable, moody, and selfish. She was contemptuous of students who seemed to lack intelligence, and she treated them imperiously. She was emotionally needy, had fits of nerves, and in her late teens became anorexic. She was, then, not unlike a lot of teenagers.”


Following Charles’s visit, the number of Laura’s visitors only increased. Publications, especially evangelical journals and women’s magazines, followed her story with great interest. Her teachers worried that Laura drew far too much attention compared to her classmates.


Her fame was short-lived, however, and by 1841, her life’s moderate stability took several blows as well. Beloved matron Lydia left Perkins School to get married. She was replaced by Mary Swift, who was a capable teacher but not the warm and loving presence that Lydia had once been. Then, in 1843, Samuel married Julia Ward (author of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”) and the two left on a long honeymoon. When Samuel returned 16 months later, his interest in Laura and her education had faded. Laura and Julia never bonded. In 1845, Mary Swift left the school to get married as well, and 15-year-old Laura was left without any teacher at all.


Samuel, “disillusioned by both his own failure and Laura’s glaring and seemingly sudden faults,” as Rosemary put it, “effectively turned against her. After years of pouring praise on her for the public’s consumption, he now stated that his hopes for her had been disappointed ‘clearly because they were unreasonable.’ ... Howe had stated firmly at the start of his career that the blind were no different from the sighted and that blindness was a superficial handicap, but after 10 years of work at the Perkins Institution, he radically reversed his position. ... Howe went on to insist that the senses, especially sight, are crucial to the development of the mind, and that people who were born blind, or became blind due to illness, were victims of poor heredity that left them inferior both mentally and physically.”


He would even go on to speculate that blindness was a punishment for flawed moral character. Samuel withdrew from Laura almost entirely, and likely gave the young girl no understanding as to why.


After months without any instruction, a teacher named Sarah Wight came to Perkins. She taught Laura math, geography, and history, but Laura’s favorite times were when they would have “finger” conversations and just talk. After so many losses, Laura could be demanding with this young teacher. She was barely 16 years old, rarely sociable with other students, and jealous when Sarah gave attention to anything or anyone but her.


Rosemary noted, “It seems obvious to me that whatever Laura’s emotional difficulties were, they had less to do with her physical disabilities than with the various traumas she had suffered in her young life. ... She was used as a public socio-scientific experiment, constantly surveyed, corrected, manipulated, tested, and entreated to perform. One can only imagine the emotional riot that went on in her head. And the sole way for her to express her feelings civilly was to spell them out painstakingly with her fingers to those few people able to understand that language.”


Laura barely ate, a development of her anorexia, and her weight plummeted to 79 pounds. Hoping to raise her spirits and stabilize her health, Samuel sent her home with teacher Sarah for a visit. Reuniting with her mother and younger siblings did indeed bolster Laura’s mental health. She began eating again and even got to spend time with her old friend Asa Tenney. 


But the losses continued when Laura returned to school. In 1850, Sarah left to get married, leaving Laura once again without a teacher and now truly kept at arm’s length from Samuel. It was decided that Laura, now 20, had completed her education and should return to her family in New Hampshire permanently. 


Around this time, Laura began to take solace in a subject Samuel had once forbidden: Religion. When Laura was 11 years old, Samuel had struck upon a new aspect of his experiment. He wanted to know if the belief in God was ingrained or taught, and so he instructed all Perkins teachers to never speak of God around Laura and to leave unanswered any questions she may pose on the topic. But her family was Baptist and some of the teachers hadn’t obeyed this particular order. In her teens, she’d already been a believer, and in July 1852, Laura was baptized. She prayed, meditated, and even wrote a few devotional poems.


At home, she missed school and often felt neglected by her busy farm-working family and parents who now had several other children. Her worst symptoms of anorexia returned, and her health suffered greatly. Concerned, Laura’s friend Dorthea Dix raised the money to create an endowment that could, in perpetuity, pay for Laura’s residence at Perkins Institution, even if she was no longer an active student. When Samuel died in 1876, he left instructions to provide for Laura’s financial security as well.

Though she sometimes traveled back home or to visit friends, the majority Laura’s adult life was lived on the grounds at Perkins. According to the Perkins School’s History Museum, “She lived in one of the four cottages with the students and did her share of the housework. Bridgman read a great deal in her free time, principally from the Bible. She sold her needlework pieces, delighting in having money to give gifts to her friends and contributions to the poor.”


Once considered one of the most famous women in the world, Laura’s name faded from the newspapers and the talk of the town, but one of these students with whom she lived would go on to have lasting fame of her own. Anne Sullivan, who had been left partially blind after a childhood eye disease, found herself somewhat ostracized at Perkins School, owing to her Irish immigrant parents and Catholic faith. Laura was one of her only friends. From Laura, Anne learned the finger alphabet and the two communicated often.


In 1886, when Laura was nearing 57 years of age, Kate Keller read Charles Dickens’s account of the extraordinary blind and deaf girl who could read, write, and talk. She desperately wanted help for her 6-year-old daughter daughter. She contacted the Perkins School and they sent Anne Sullivan to Alabama to teach Helen Keller. The first word Anne taught Helen to spell was “doll.” By some accounts, the doll she brought for Helen was stitched by Laura.


In May 1888, Helen moved to Boston to attend the Perkins School and met 58-year-old Laura in person. Though their lives would overlap only briefly, the two were delighted by one another. Laura died peacefully at age 59 on May 24, 1889, on the Perkins grounds. She was buried in Dana Cemetery in Hanover, New Hampshire, alongside her father and the two older sisters she’d lost to scarlet fever. 


By the time of her death, Laura’s memory had already been overshadowed by Helen’s impressive progress. Helen and Anne, however, pushed back on the idea that Helen was a “better version” of Laura. Anne once commented that Laura was “intellectually superior” to Helen, and Helen didn’t disagree: If Laura had had someone like Anne Sullivan, Helen asserted, “she would have outshone me.”

Laura in the late 1880s holding one of her handmade doilies. Image by Warren’s Portraits, Boston, Massachusetts. Dartmouth College archives

“Paradoxically enough, Howe's sense of failure and disappointment may be the best evidence of his success,” commented Natalie. “For as Laura took her place as a fully realized, three-dimensional individual, entitled to her citizenship in the human race, she had to step off the pedestal Howe had built for her.”


In “Before Helen Keller, There Was Laura Bridgman,” Erin Blakemore summed it up even more succinctly: “Bridgman’s education is a reminder that children of all abilities are neither hopeless nor holy—just themselves.”










American Notes for General Circulation by Charles Dickens

Wikipedia: American NotesLaura BridgmanCharles Michel de l'Épée

Scarlet fever epidemics of the nineteenth century: a case of evolved pathogenic virulence? by Alan C. Swedlund and Alison K. Donta

The New York TimesBefore the Miracle by Natalie Angier

CUNYMatters: A Life of Laura Bridgman—Disabled Pioneer in Education (excerpt from The Imprisoned Guest by Elisabeth Gitter)

The Jefferson RepublicanMay 16, 1840

Find a Grave: Laura Dewey Bridgman

Jstor Daily: Before Helen Keller, There Was Laura Bridgman by Erin Blakemore