Before Helen Keller: The Education of the Deaf, Mute and Blind Girl — Laura Dewey Bridgman of Hanover NH (1829-1889)

Daguerreotype of Laura Dewey Bridgman, Blind Poetess, taken about 1855, Southworth and Hawes; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Today through the film, The Miracle Worker, [the source material came from the H. Keller book “The Story of My Life”] many people are aware of the story of Helen Adams Keller who was born in 1880 and became deaf and blind as the result of an unknown illness. Helen’s famous teacher was Anne Mansfield Sullivan, a graduate of the Perkins School for the Blind.

Before Helen Keller was born, there was an amazing woman from New Hampshire, named Laura Dewey Bridgman who overcame similar challenges and became one of the “most celebrated women of her time.”  An article in The Scranton Republican of 14 May 1915 describes that “a doll dressed by Laura Bridgman, born forty years earlier, afforded the basis of the first teaching [of Helen Keller], helping the child to learn with amazing rapidity.”

Sketch of Laura Bridgman being taught by Dr. Howe. From book: “Laura Bridgman : Dr. Howe’s famous pupil and what he taught her,” by Maud Howe Elliott. Hathitrust.

Laura Dewey Bridgman was known as the first deaf-blind American child to gain a significant education in the English language some fifty years before the more famous Helen Keller.  She was born on 21 December 1829 in Hanover, New Hampshire to a farming family, the 3rd child of Daniel and Harmony (Downer) Bridgman.

One of the many biographies written about her states: “”During infancy she was puny and rickety. She was subject to disturbances of the nervous system, the outward symptoms of which some persons call ‘fits’…. [which] recurred, at various intervals until she was about a year and a half old. During that period, therefore, she lost the healthy growth and development which should have been going on… at about twenty months old, she became apparently well, and continued so for four months… [when[ all her senses seemed to be in normal condition; and she showed more intelligence than one would expect….she sickened again at two years old. The scarlet fever ravaged her system with great fury, destroying utterly the organs of sight and hearing, blunting the sense of smell and prostrating her whole system so completely that recovery seemed impossible. She was kept in bed, in a darkened room, for about five months, and was ill and feeble for two years..”

In October of 1837 she was taken by her parents to Boston, to the institution of Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe and his sister, Miss Jeanette Howe.  He was the director of the Perkins Institute and Massachusetts School for the Blind, and he became her first teacher. This sort of education for those who were both blind and deaf was ground-breaking at the time, and paved the way for the education of Helen Keller and many others.

According to a Boston Globe newspaper story of 2 June 1912, on one summer afternoon in 1841, the poet Longfellow went for a buggy ride with Julia Ward, and they along with another party visited the Perkins Institution for the Blind “to see the wonderful achievements of Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe in the case of Laura Bridgman.  Laura spoke before large audiences surprising and wowing them with her knowledge and wit. She wrote letters and poems. Charles Dickens and Henry James wrote about her. [Editor’s note: Charles Dickens devoted a chapter to her in his “American Notes.”]

Laura Dewey Bridgman died on 24 May 1889 at the age of 59 in Boston Massachusetts.  She was buried in the family plot in Hanover, New Hampshire.

A liberty ship was christened in her honor. The Greenville News (Greenville, SC) newspaper included this article on 27 October 1944 with the headline:  SHIP IS LAUNCHED.  Brunswick, Ga., Oct 26 — (AP) — The liberty ship SS Laura Bridgman, named for a famous New Hampshire woman who taught Helen Keller [editor’s note, Laura was not directly a teacher of Helen Keller], will be launched by the J.A. Jones Construction company here Monday night (8:45 p.m. EWT). Mrs. Clare Purcell, wife of Bishop Clare Purcell of Charlotte, N.C. will sponsor the vessel along with her daughter, Miss Claire Purcell and her sister, Mrs. Isaac Andrews of Spartanburg, S.C.

=====PARTIAL GENEALOGY OF LAURA DEWEY BRIDGMAN=====

Bridgman Homestead in Hanover NH.

Isaac-4 Bridgman [#12] b 1718 in Covemtry CT, d. 25 Feb 1781 in Hanover NH; m. 10 June 1741 Elizabeth Hatch of Coventry CT. She d. Aug 1781 in Hanover NH. Isaac is mentioned as freeman 28 Apr 1730 in the Coventry CT town records. He d. of cancer in the outh and his wife, becoming insane from grief, committed suicide not long after.
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For earlier generations see: Genealogy of the Bridgman Family: Descendants of James Bridgman
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Children of Isaac & Elizabeth (Hatch) Bridgeman: [all born in Coventry CT]
1. Clara Bridgman b 12 Jan 1742
2. Elizabeth Bridgman, b 14 Oct 1744
3. John Bridgman, b. 26 Jan 1747, d. 23 Oct 1780 in Hanover NH.
4. Anna Bridgman, b 29 March 1749
5. Olive Bridgman b 7 July 1751, d. 12 July 1753 in Coventry CT.
6. Gideon Bridgman b 21 May 1753
7. Dorothy Bridgman b 20 Feb 1755 Coventry CT; m. Feb 1771 Eleazer Goodrich [Hanover NH Town recs]
8. Isaaac Bridgman b 20 Apr 1757; d. 28 Aug 1815 in Hanover NH.
9. Abel Bridgman b 15 Apr 1759; d. 23 Sep 1800 in Hanover NH
10. Eunice Bridgman b 8 Apr 1761; m. 3 Feb 1780 Jonathan Curtis. Five children.
11. Salomy Bridgman b 20 May 1763; m. 6 Jan 1785 Jonathan Bass [Hanover records]
12. Joseph Bridgman b 10 Sep 1767, d. 2 Sep 185 in Concord NY
13. +Asa Bridgman b 1770 in Hanover NH (?) and d. 6 Aug 1817 in Hanover.

Asa-5 Bridgman {#85] b 1770, prob.; d. 6 Aug 1817; m. about 1798 Mary Chedel. She was b. 1769 in Pomfret vT; d. 29 Jan 1829 in Hanover NH prob.
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Children of Asa & Mary (Chedel) Bridgman:
1. +Daniel Bridgman b 12 Dec 1800; d. 28 Nov 1868 in IL
2. John Bridgman b 25 March 1803 in Hanover NH, d. 29 March 1878
3. Phebe Bridgman, b. 2 March 1806; d. 13 Aug 1853 in Waupaea Wisconsin;; she m. 29 Apr 1834 John Wilkes CHandler. Three children

Daniel-6 Bridgman [#102] (Asa-5, Isaac-4, Isaac-3, John-2, James-1) was born 12 December 1800, died 28 November 1869 in Hanover New Hampshire. He married 4 November 1824 to Harmony Downer, daughter of Cushman and Hannah (Gary) Downer. She was born 27 Feb 1804 in Thetford VT and d 16 April 1891 in Etna, NH. He was a deacon of the Baptist church of Hanover for many years. He filled many of the town offices, and served in the State Legislature. He was a successful business man.
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Children of Daniel & Harmony (Downer) Bridgman:
1. Mary Cheedle Bridgman, b. 26 Aug 1825 in Hanover NH. Died 7 Feb 1832.
2. Collina Bridgman, b. 26 Aug 1827 Hanover NH; died 5 Feb 1832
3. **Laura Dewey Bridgman, born 21 Dec 1829 Hanover NH; died 24 May 1889. THIS STORY IS ABOUT HER.
4. Addison Daniel Bridgman, b. 10 Aug 1832; m. 31 Aug 1860 in Milford, MA to Salome Sprague, daughter of Willian and Lydia (Keith) Sprague of Milford MA. She was b. 30 Dec 1835. He attended Kimball Union Academy at Meriden NH from 1850-1852, and Dartmouth College from 1852-1854. Graduated from Dartmouth Medical Department in 1856. He taught school in Medway MA then went to Georgia in 1856. He served in the 25th Georgia Volunteers (Joe JOhnston’s army) nearly four years. Postmaster at Parramore Hill, Ga 1869-1874 when he moved to Decatur IL. He was a practicing physician.
5. John Downer Bridgman, b. 9 July 1834 [#132]
6. Milo Burton Bridgman, b 2 Nov 1838; d. 2 April 1839
7. Mary Cheedle Bridgman b 25 July 1842, d. 14 Nov 1859
8. Collina Frances Bridgman b 8 Feb 1845; m. 28 Nov 1867 Timothy D. Simmons of Lebanon NH.
9. Ellen Diantha Bridgman, b. 29 Apr 1850; m. 7 October 1869 to Carl Simmons. He d. 24 Sep 1874. She m2d) 29 March 1877 C.E. Pulsifer of Lebanon. two children.

=====ADDITIONAL READING/VIEWING=====

VIDEO: Forgotten Voices: Laura Bridgman

Laura Dewey Bridgman poem, Holy Home.

Laura Bridgman Scrapbook

 

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  1. What an interesting story. I remember reading the biography of Helen Keller in the 4th grade. Laura’s would have been a wonderful story to read along side it. It wasn’t required reading – I read only biographies that year.

    • Cathy, thanks as always for reading and commenting. Laura Bridgman just came to my attention a few weeks ago when I was researching something entirely different in newspapers. The story about a ship being dedicated to her actually was what I saw and then tracked down her connection to New Hampshire. Helen Keller, I thought, was the first deaf and blind person to be so trained, and now I know Laura was earlier!

    • Cathy, I also loved biographies as a child. Do you remember the series of orange books (the illustrations were all black and white silhouettes, I recall) that were all biographies of famous people written for children and focusing on the childhoods of those people? I think I read all of them in third and fourth grade! It was the beginning of my interest in history.

  2. Really interesting, Janice. I wonder why Helen Keller is the one who became so well-known. Can you imagine spending five months in bed in a darkened room as a child? I certainly can’t.

  3. She is my 2nd cousin 6x removed on my maternal side.
    Isaac Bridgman Jr is my 7th great grandfather:
    Isaac Bridgman Jr.
    Birth 8 JAN 1718 • Coventry, Tolland, Connecticut, USA
    Death 25 FEB 1781 • Hanover, Grafton, New Hampshire, USA
    Thank you for posting this in your blog. I hadn’t touched on Laura Dewey Lynn Bridgman and this branch of my tree in a few years. I think it may be time to do additional research.