The Complete Works of



Charles Dickens > American Notes > Chapter III

American Notes

Chapter III


IN all the public establishments of America, the utmost courtesy
prevails. Most of our Departments are susceptible of considerable
improvement in this respect, but the Custom-house above all others
would do well to take example from the United States and render
itself somewhat less odious and offensive to foreigners. The
servile rapacity of the French officials is sufficiently
contemptible; but there is a surly boorish incivility about our
men, alike disgusting to all persons who fall into their hands, and
discreditable to the nation that keeps such ill-conditioned curs
snarling about its gates.

When I landed in America, I could not help being strongly impressed
with the contrast their Custom-house presented, and the attention,
politeness and good humour with which its officers discharged their

As we did not land at Boston, in consequence of some detention at
the wharf, until after dark, I received my first impressions of the
city in walking down to the Custom-house on the morning after our
arrival, which was Sunday. I am afraid to say, by the way, how
many offers of pews and seats in church for that morning were made
to us, by formal note of invitation, before we had half finished
our first dinner in America, but if I may be allowed to make a
moderate guess, without going into nicer calculation, I should say
that at least as many sittings were proffered us, as would have
accommodated a score or two of grown-up families. The number of
creeds and forms of religion to which the pleasure of our company
was requested, was in very fair proportion.

Not being able, in the absence of any change of clothes, to go to
church that day, we were compelled to decline these kindnesses, one
and all; and I was reluctantly obliged to forego the delight of
hearing Dr. Channing, who happened to preach that morning for the
first time in a very long interval. I mention the name of this
distinguished and accomplished man (with whom I soon afterwards had
the pleasure of becoming personally acquainted), that I may have
the gratification of recording my humble tribute of admiration and
respect for his high abilities and character; and for the bold
philanthropy with which he has ever opposed himself to that most
hideous blot and foul disgrace - Slavery.

To return to Boston. When I got into the streets upon this Sunday
morning, the air was so clear, the houses were so bright and gay:
the signboards were painted in such gaudy colours; 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,
the knobs and plates upon the street doors so marvellously bright
and twinkling; and all so slight and unsubstantial in appearance -
that every thoroughfare in the city looked exactly like a scene in
a pantomime. It rarely happens in the business streets that a
tradesman, if I may venture to call anybody a tradesman, where
everybody is a merchant, resides above his store; so that many
occupations are often carried on in one house, and the whole front
is covered with boards and inscriptions. As I walked along, I kept
glancing up at these boards, confidently expecting to see a few of
them change into something; and I never turned a corner suddenly
without looking out for the clown and pantaloon, who, I had no
doubt, were hiding in a doorway or behind some pillar close at
hand. As to Harlequin and Columbine, I discovered immediately that
they lodged (they are always looking after lodgings in a pantomime)
at a very small clockmaker's one story high, near the hotel; which,
in addition to various symbols and devices, almost covering the
whole front, had a great dial hanging out - to be jumped through,
of course.

The suburbs are, if possible, even more unsubstantial-looking than
the city. The white wooden houses (so white that it makes one wink
to look at them), with their green jalousie blinds, are so
sprinkled and dropped about in all directions, without seeming to
have any root at all in the ground; and the small churches and
chapels are so prim, and bright, and highly varnished; that I
almost believed the whole affair could be taken up piecemeal like a
child's toy, and crammed into a little box.

The city is a beautiful one, and cannot fail, I should imagine, to
impress all strangers very favourably. The private dwelling-houses
are, for the most part, large and elegant; the shops extremely
good; and the public buildings handsome. The State House is built
upon the summit of a hill, which rises gradually at first, and
afterwards by a steep ascent, almost from the water's edge. In
front is a green enclosure, called the Common. The site is
beautiful: and from the top there is a charming panoramic view of
the whole town and neighbourhood. In addition to a variety of
commodious offices, it contains two handsome chambers; in one the
House of Representatives of the State hold their meetings: in the
other, the Senate. Such proceedings as I saw here, were conducted
with perfect gravity and decorum; and were certainly calculated to
inspire attention and respect.

There is no doubt that much of the intellectual refinement and
superiority of Boston, is referable to the quiet influence of the
University of Cambridge, which is within three or four miles of the
city. The resident professors at that university are gentlemen of
learning and varied attainments; and are, without one exception
that I can call to mind, men who would shed a grace upon, and do
honour to, any society in the civilised world. Many of the
resident gentry in Boston and its neighbourhood, and I think I am
not mistaken in adding, a large majority of those who are attached
to the liberal professions there, have been educated at this same
school. Whatever the defects of American universities may be, they
disseminate no prejudices; rear no bigots; dig up the buried ashes
of no old superstitions; never interpose between the people and
their improvement; exclude no man because of his religious
opinions; above all, in their whole course of study and
instruction, recognise a world, and a broad one too, lying beyond
the college walls.

It was a source of inexpressible pleasure to me to observe the
almost imperceptible, but not less certain effect, wrought by this
institution among the small community of Boston; and to note at
every turn the humanising tastes and desires it has engendered; the
affectionate friendships to which it has given rise; the amount of
vanity and prejudice it has dispelled. The golden calf they
worship at Boston is a pigmy compared with the giant effigies set
up in other parts of that vast counting-house which lies beyond the
Atlantic; and the almighty dollar sinks into something
comparatively insignificant, amidst a whole Pantheon of better

Above all, I sincerely believe that the public institutions and
charities of this capital of Massachusetts are as nearly perfect,
as the most considerate wisdom, benevolence, and humanity, can make
them. I never in my life was more affected by the contemplation of
happiness, under circumstances of privation and bereavement, than
in my visits to these establishments.

It is a great and pleasant feature of all such institutions in
America, that they are either supported by the State or assisted by
the State; or (in the event of their not needing its helping hand)
that they act in concert with it, and are emphatically the
people's. I cannot but think, with a view to the principle and its
tendency to elevate or depress the character of the industrious
classes, that a Public Charity is immeasurably better than a
Private Foundation, no matter how munificently the latter may be
endowed. In our own country, where it has not, until within these
later days, been a very popular fashion with governments to display
any extraordinary regard for the great mass of the people or to
recognise their existence as improvable creatures, private
charities, unexampled in the history of the earth, have arisen, to
do an incalculable amount of good among the destitute and
afflicted. But the government of the country, having neither act
nor part in them, is not in the receipt of any portion of the
gratitude they inspire; and, offering very little shelter or relief
beyond that which is to be found in the workhouse and the jail, has
come, not unnaturally, to be looked upon by the poor rather as a
stern master, quick to correct and punish, than a kind protector,
merciful and vigilant in their hour of need.

The maxim that out of evil cometh good, is strongly illustrated by
these establishments at home; as the records of the Prerogative
Office in Doctors' Commons can abundantly prove. Some immensely
rich old gentleman or lady, surrounded by needy relatives, makes,
upon a low average, a will a-week. The old gentleman or lady,
never very remarkable in the best of times for good temper, is full
of aches and pains from head to foot; full of fancies and caprices;
full of spleen, distrust, suspicion, and dislike. To cancel old
wills, and invent new ones, is at last the sole business of such a
testator's existence; and relations and friends (some of whom have
been bred up distinctly to inherit a large share of the property,
and have been, from their cradles, specially disqualified from
devoting themselves to any useful pursuit, on that account) are so
often and so unexpectedly and summarily cut off, and reinstated,
and cut off again, that the whole family, down to the remotest
cousin, is kept in a perpetual fever. At length it becomes plain
that the old lady or gentleman has not long to live; and the
plainer this becomes, the more clearly the old lady or gentleman
perceives that everybody is in a conspiracy against their poor old
dying relative; wherefore the old lady or gentleman makes another
last will - positively the last this time - conceals the same in a
china teapot, and expires next day. Then it turns out, that the
whole of the real and personal estate is divided between half-a-
dozen charities; and that the dead and gone testator has in pure
spite helped to do a great deal of good, at the cost of an immense
amount of evil passion and misery.

The Perkins Institution and Massachusetts Asylum for the Blind, at
Boston, is superintended by a body of trustees who make an annual
report to the corporation. The indigent blind of that state are
admitted gratuitously. Those from the adjoining state of
Connecticut, or from the states of Maine, Vermont, or New
Hampshire, are admitted by a warrant from the state to which they
respectively belong; or, failing that, must find security among
their friends, for the payment of about twenty pounds English for
their first year's board and instruction, and ten for the second.
'After the first year,' say the trustees, 'an account current will
be opened with each pupil; he will be charged with the actual cost
of his board, which will not exceed two dollars per week;' a trifle
more than eight shillings English; 'and he will be credited with
the amount paid for him by the state, or by his friends; also with
his earnings over and above the cost of the stock which he uses; so
that all his earnings over one dollar per week will be his own. By
the third year it will be known whether his earnings will more than
pay the actual cost of his board; if they should, he will have it
at his option to remain and receive his earnings, or not. Those
who prove unable to earn their own livelihood will not be retained;
as it is not desirable to convert the establishment into an alms-
house, or to retain any but working bees in the hive. Those who by
physical or mental imbecility are disqualified from work, are
thereby disqualified from being members of an industrious
community; and they can be better provided for in establishments
fitted for the infirm.'

I went to see this place one very fine winter morning: an Italian
sky above, and the air so clear and bright on every side, that even
my eyes, which are none of the best, could follow the minute lines
and scraps of tracery in distant buildings. Like most other public
institutions in America, of the same class, it stands a mile or two
without the town, in a cheerful healthy spot; and is an airy,
spacious, handsome edifice. It is built upon a height, commanding
the harbour. When I paused for a moment at the door, and marked
how fresh and free the whole scene was - what sparkling bubbles
glanced upon the waves, and welled up every moment to the surface,
as though the world below, like that above, were radiant with the
bright day, and gushing over in its fulness of light: when I gazed
from sail to sail away upon a ship at sea, a tiny speck of shining
white, the only cloud upon the still, deep, distant blue - and,
turning, saw a blind boy with his sightless face addressed that
way, as though he too had some sense within him of the glorious
distance: I felt a kind of sorrow that the place should be so very
light, and a strange wish that for his sake it were darker. It was
but momentary, of course, and a mere fancy, but I felt it keenly
for all that.

The children were at their daily tasks in different rooms, except a
few who were already dismissed, and were at play. Here, as in many
institutions, no uniform is worn; and I was very glad of it, for
two reasons. Firstly, because I am sure that nothing but senseless
custom and want of thought would reconcile us to the liveries and
badges we are so fond of at home. Secondly, because the absence of
these things presents each child to the visitor in his or her own
proper character, with its individuality unimpaired; not lost in a
dull, ugly, monotonous repetition of the same unmeaning garb:
which is really an important consideration. The wisdom of
encouraging a little harmless pride in personal appearance even
among the blind, or the whimsical absurdity of considering charity
and leather breeches inseparable companions, as we do, requires no

Good order, cleanliness, and comfort, pervaded every corner of the
building. The various classes, who were gathered round their
teachers, answered the questions put to them with readiness and
intelligence, and in a spirit of cheerful contest for precedence
which pleased me very much. Those who were at play, were gleesome
and noisy as other children. More spiritual and affectionate
friendships appeared to exist among them, than would be found among
other young persons suffering under no deprivation; but this I
expected and was prepared to find. It is a part of the great
scheme of Heaven's merciful consideration for the afflicted.

In a portion of the building, set apart for that purpose, are work-
shops for blind persons whose education is finished, and who have
acquired a trade, but who cannot pursue it in an ordinary
manufactory because of their deprivation. Several people were at
work here; making brushes, mattresses, and so forth; and the
cheerfulness, industry, and good order discernible in every other
part of the building, extended to this department also.

On the ringing of a bell, the pupils all repaired, without any
guide or leader, to a spacious music-hall, where they took their
seats in an orchestra erected for that purpose, and listened with
manifest delight to a voluntary on the organ, played by one of
themselves. At its conclusion, the performer, a boy of nineteen or
twenty, gave place to a girl; and to her accompaniment they all
sang a hymn, and afterwards a sort of chorus. It was very sad to
look upon and hear them, happy though their condition
unquestionably was; and I saw that one blind girl, who (being for
the time deprived of the use of her limbs, by illness) sat close
beside me with her face towards them, wept silently the while she

It is strange to watch the faces of the blind, and see how free
they are from all concealment of what is passing in their thoughts;
observing which, a man with eyes may blush to contemplate the mask
he wears. Allowing for one shade of anxious expression which is
never absent from their countenances, and the like of which we may
readily detect in our own faces if we try to feel our way in the
dark, every idea, as it rises within them, is expressed with the
lightning's speed and nature's truth. If the company at a rout, or
drawing-room at court, could only for one time be as unconscious of
the eyes upon them as blind men and women are, what secrets would
come out, and what a worker of hypocrisy this sight, the loss of
which we so much pity, would appear to be!

The thought occurred to me as I sat down in another room, 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, inclosed 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.

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.

Like other inmates of that house, she had a green ribbon bound
round her eyelids. A doll she had dressed lay near upon the
ground. I took it up, and saw that she had made a green fillet
such as she wore herself, and fastened it about its mimic eyes.

She was seated in a little enclosure, made by school-desks and
forms, writing her daily journal. But soon finishing this pursuit,
she engaged in an animated conversation with a teacher who sat
beside her. This was a favourite mistress with the poor pupil. If
she could see the face of her fair instructress, she would not love
her less, I am sure.

I have extracted a few disjointed fragments of her history, from an
account, written by that one man who has made her what she is. It
is a very beautiful and touching narrative; and I wish I could
present it entire.

Her name is Laura Bridgman. 'She was born in Hanover, New
Hampshire, on the twenty-first of December, 1829. She is described
as having been a very sprightly and pretty infant, with bright blue
eyes. She was, however, so puny and feeble until she was a year
and a half old, that her parents hardly hoped to rear her. She was
subject to severe fits, which seemed to rack her frame almost
beyond her power of endurance: and life was held by the feeblest
tenure: but when a year and a half old, she seemed to rally; the
dangerous symptoms subsided; and at twenty months old, she was
perfectly well.

'Then her mental powers, hitherto stinted in their growth, rapidly
developed themselves; and during the four months of health which
she enjoyed, she appears (making due allowance for a fond mother's
account) to have displayed a considerable degree of intelligence.

'But suddenly she sickened again; 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, and she was able to enter upon her
apprenticeship of life and the world.

'But what a situation was hers! The darkness and the silence of
the tomb were around her: no mother's smile called forth her
answering smile, no father's voice taught her to imitate his
sounds:- they, brothers and sisters, were but forms of matter which
resisted her touch, but which differed not from the furniture of
the house, save in warmth, and in the power of locomotion; and not
even in these respects from the dog and the cat.

'But the immortal spirit which had been implanted within her could
not die, nor be maimed nor mutilated; and though most of its
avenues of communication with the world were cut off, it began to
manifest itself through the others. As soon as she could walk, she
began to explore the room, and then the house; she became familiar
with the form, density, weight, and heat, of every article she
could lay her hands upon. She followed her mother, and felt her
hands and arms, as she was occupied about the house; and her
disposition to imitate, led her to repeat everything herself. She
even learned to sew a little, and to knit.'

The reader will scarcely need to be told, however, that the
opportunities of communicating with her, were very, very limited;
and that the moral effects of her wretched state soon began to
appear. Those who cannot be enlightened by reason, can only be
controlled by force; and this, coupled with her great privations,
must soon have reduced her to a worse condition than that of the
beasts that perish, but for timely and unhoped-for aid.

'At this time, I was so fortunate as to hear of the child, and
immediately hastened to Hanover to see her. I found her with a
well-formed figure; a strongly-marked, nervous-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 Institution.

'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 conceived; but
not so was the process; for many weeks of apparently unprofitable
labour were passed before it was effected.

'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 pleasure.

'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."

'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 childhood. 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; grasping 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."

'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 home.

'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

'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 reluctance. 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, showed 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

'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 delight.

'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 existence, 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 interesting and
instructive history of Laura Bridgman. The name 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 indifference.

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 examed 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 circumstances did twice or thrice during
my visit, an uncouth noise which was rather painful to hear. But
of 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 examination 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 discovered 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 language,
laughing, crying, sighing, kissing, embracing, &c., was perfect.

'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, placed it
upon one of them, and then with my own, made the letters KEY. He
felt my hands eagerly with both 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 in among ours
so closely as to follow every motion, but so slightly 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 commenced 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 CUP, 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, and looked very attentive and
smiling. I then caused him to make the letters BREAD, and in an
instant Laura went and brought him a piece: he smelled at it; put
it to his lips; cocked up his head with a most knowing look; seemed
to reflect a moment; and then laughed outright, as much as to say,
"Aha! I understand now how something may be made out of this."

'It was now clear that he had the capacity and inclination to
learn, that he was a proper subject for instruction, and needed
only persevering attention. I therefore put him in the hands of an
intelligent teacher, nothing doubting of his rapid progress.'

Well may this gentleman call that a delightful moment, in which
some distant promise of her present state first gleamed upon the
darkened mind of Laura Bridgman. Throughout his life, the
recollection of that moment will be to him a source of pure,
unfading happiness; nor will it shine less brightly on the evening
of his days of Noble Usefulness.

The affection which exists between these two - the master and the
pupil - is as far removed from all ordinary care and regard, as the
circumstances in which it has had its growth, are apart from the
common occurrences of life. He is occupied now, in devising means
of imparting to her, higher knowledge; and of conveying to her some
adequate idea of the Great Creator of that universe in which, dark
and silent and scentless though it be to her, she has such deep
delight and glad enjoyment.

Ye who have eyes and see not, and have ears and hear not; ye who
are as the hypocrites of sad countenances, and disfigure your faces
that ye may seem unto men to fast; learn healthy cheerfulness, and
mild contentment, from the deaf, and dumb, and blind! Self-elected
saints with gloomy brows, this sightless, earless, voiceless child
may teach you lessons you will do well to follow. Let that poor
hand of hers lie gently on your hearts; for there may be something
in its healing touch akin to that of the Great Master whose
precepts you misconstrue, whose lessons you pervert, of whose
charity and sympathy with all the world, not one among you in his
daily practice knows as much as many of the worst among those
fallen sinners, to whom you are liberal in nothing but the
preachment of perdition!

As I rose to quit the room, a pretty little child of one of the
attendants came running in to greet its father. For the moment, a
child with eyes, among the sightless crowd, impressed me almost as
painfully as the blind boy in the porch had done, two hours ago.
Ah! how much brighter and more deeply blue, glowing and rich though
it had been before, was the scene without, contrasting with the
darkness of so many youthful lives within!

* * * * * *

At SOUTH BOSTON, as it is called, in a situation excellently
adapted for the purpose, several charitable institutions are
clustered together. One of these, is the State Hospital for the
insane; admirably conducted on those enlightened principles of
conciliation and kindness, which twenty years ago would have been
worse than heretical, and which have been acted upon with so much
success in our own pauper Asylum at Hanwell. 'Evince a desire to
show some confidence, and repose some trust, even in mad people,'
said the resident physician, as we walked along the galleries, his
patients flocking round us unrestrained. Of those who deny or
doubt the wisdom of this maxim after witnessing its effects, if
there be such people still alive, I can only say that I hope I may
never be summoned as a Juryman on a Commission of Lunacy whereof
they are the subjects; for I should certainly find them out of
their senses, on such evidence alone.

Each ward in this institution is shaped like a long gallery or
hall, with the dormitories of the patients opening from it on
either hand. Here they work, read, play at skittles, and other
games; and when the weather does not admit of their taking exercise
out of doors, pass the day together. In one of these rooms,
seated, calmly, and quite as a matter of course, among a throng of
mad-women, black and white, were the physician's wife and another
lady, with a couple of children. These ladies were graceful and
handsome; and it was not difficult to perceive at a glance that
even their presence there, had a highly beneficial influence on the
patients who were grouped about them.

Leaning her head against the chimney-piece, with a great assumption
of dignity and refinement of manner, sat an elderly female, in as
many scraps of finery as Madge Wildfire herself. Her head in
particular was so strewn with scraps of gauze and cotton and bits
of paper, and had so many queer odds and ends stuck all about it,
that it looked like a bird's-nest. She was radiant with imaginary
jewels; wore a rich pair of undoubted gold spectacles; and
gracefully dropped upon her lap, as we approached, a very old
greasy newspaper, in which I dare say she had been reading an
account of her own presentation at some Foreign Court.

I have been thus particular in describing her, because she will
serve to exemplify the physician's manner of acquiring and
retaining the confidence of his patients.

'This,' he said aloud, taking me by the hand, and advancing to the
fantastic figure with great politeness - not raising her suspicions
by the slightest look or whisper, or any kind of aside, to me:
'This lady is the hostess of this mansion, sir. It belongs to her.
Nobody else has anything whatever to do with it. It is a large
establishment, as you see, and requires a great number of
attendants. She lives, you observe, in the very first style. She
is kind enough to receive my visits, and to permit my wife and
family to reside here; for which it is hardly necessary to say, we
are much indebted to her. She is exceedingly courteous, you
perceive,' on this hint she bowed condescendingly, 'and will permit
me to have the pleasure of introducing you: a gentleman from
England, Ma'am: newly arrived from England, after a very
tempestuous passage: Mr. Dickens, - the lady of the house!'

We exchanged the most dignified salutations with profound gravity
and respect, and so went on. The rest of the madwomen seemed to
understand the joke perfectly (not only in this case, but in all
the others, except their own), and be highly amused by it. The
nature of their several kinds of insanity was made known to me in
the same way, and we left each of them in high good humour. Not
only is a thorough confidence established, by those means, between
the physician and patient, in respect of the nature and extent of
their hallucinations, but it is easy to understand that
opportunities are afforded for seizing any moment of reason, to
startle them by placing their own delusion before them in its most
incongruous and ridiculous light.

Every patient in this asylum sits down to dinner every day with a
knife and fork; and in the midst of them sits the gentleman, whose
manner of dealing with his charges, I have just described. At
every meal, moral influence alone restrains the more violent among
them from cutting the throats of the rest; but the effect of that
influence is reduced to an absolute certainty, and is found, even
as a means of restraint, to say nothing of it as a means of cure, a
hundred times more efficacious than all the strait-waistcoats,
fetters, and handcuffs, that ignorance, prejudice, and cruelty have
manufactured since the creation of the world.

In the labour department, every patient is as freely trusted with
the tools of his trade as if he were a sane man. In the garden,
and on the farm, they work with spades, rakes, and hoes. For
amusement, they walk, run, fish, paint, read, and ride out to take
the air in carriages provided for the purpose. They have among
themselves a sewing society to make clothes for the poor, which
holds meetings, passes resolutions, never comes to fisty-cuffs or
bowie-knives as sane assemblies have been known to do elsewhere;
and conducts all its proceedings with the greatest decorum. The
irritability, which would otherwise be expended on their own flesh,
clothes, and furniture, is dissipated in these pursuits. They are
cheerful, tranquil, and healthy.

Once a week they have a ball, in which the Doctor and his family,
with all the nurses and attendants, take an active part. Dances
and marches are performed alternately, to the enlivening strains of
a piano; and now and then some gentleman or lady (whose proficiency
has been previously ascertained) obliges the company with a song:
nor does it ever degenerate, at a tender crisis, into a screech or
howl; wherein, I must confess, I should have thought the danger
lay. At an early hour they all meet together for these festive
purposes; at eight o'clock refreshments are served; and at nine
they separate.

Immense politeness and good breeding are observed throughout. They
all take their tone from the Doctor; and he moves a very
Chesterfield among the company. Like other assemblies, these
entertainments afford a fruitful topic of conversation among the
ladies for some days; and the gentlemen are so anxious to shine on
these occasions, that they have been sometimes found 'practising
their steps' in private, to cut a more distinguished figure in the

It is obvious that one great feature of this system, is the
inculcation and encouragement, even among such unhappy persons, of
a decent self-respect. Something of the same spirit pervades all
the Institutions at South Boston.

There is the House of Industry. In that branch of it, which is
devoted to the reception of old or otherwise helpless paupers,
these words are painted on the walls: 'WORTHY OF NOTICE. SELF-
and taken for granted that being there they must be evil-disposed
and wicked people, before whose vicious eyes it is necessary to
flourish threats and harsh restraints. They are met at the very
threshold with this mild appeal. All within-doors is very plain
and simple, as it ought to be, but arranged with a view to peace
and comfort. It costs no more than any other plan of arrangement,
but it speaks an amount of consideration for those who are reduced
to seek a shelter there, which puts them at once upon their
gratitude and good behaviour. Instead of being parcelled out in
great, long, rambling wards, where a certain amount of weazen life
may mope, and pine, and shiver, all day long, the building is
divided into separate rooms, each with its share of light and air.
In these, the better kind of paupers live. They have a motive for
exertion and becoming pride, in the desire to make these little
chambers comfortable and decent.

I do not remember one but it was clean and neat, and had its plant
or two upon the window-sill, or row of crockery upon the shelf, or
small display of coloured prints upon the whitewashed wall, or,
perhaps, its wooden clock behind the door.

The orphans and young children are in an adjoining building
separate from this, but a part of the same Institution. Some are
such little creatures, that the stairs are of Lilliputian
measurement, fitted to their tiny strides. The same consideration
for their years and weakness is expressed in their very seats,
which are perfect curiosities, and look like articles of furniture
for a pauper doll's-house. I can imagine the glee of our Poor Law
Commissioners at the notion of these seats having arms and backs;
but small spines being of older date than their occupation of the
Board-room at Somerset House, I thought even this provision very
merciful and kind.

Here again, I was greatly pleased with the inscriptions on the
wall, which were scraps of plain morality, easily remembered and
understood: such as 'Love one another' - 'God remembers the
smallest creature in his creation:' and straightforward advice of
that nature. The books and tasks of these smallest of scholars,
were adapted, in the same judicious manner, to their childish
powers. When we had examined these lessons, four morsels of girls
(of whom one was blind) sang a little song, about the merry month
of May, which I thought (being extremely dismal) would have suited
an English November better. That done, we went to see their
sleeping-rooms on the floor above, in which the arrangements were
no less excellent and gentle than those we had seen below. And
after observing that the teachers were of a class and character
well suited to the spirit of the place, I took leave of the infants
with a lighter heart than ever I have taken leave of pauper infants

Connected with the House of Industry, there is also an Hospital,
which was in the best order, and had, I am glad to say, many beds
unoccupied. It had one fault, however, which is common to all
American interiors: the presence of the eternal, accursed,
suffocating, red-hot demon of a stove, whose breath would blight
the purest air under Heaven.

There are two establishments for boys in this same neighbourhood.
One is called the Boylston school, and is an asylum for neglected
and indigent boys who have committed no crime, but who in the
ordinary course of things would very soon be purged of that
distinction if they were not taken from the hungry streets and sent
here. The other is a House of Reformation for Juvenile Offenders.
They are both under the same roof, but the two classes of boys
never come in contact.

The Boylston boys, as may be readily supposed, have very much the
advantage of the others in point of personal appearance. They were
in their school-room when I came upon them, and answered correctly,
without book, such questions as where was England; how far was it;
what was its population; its capital city; its form of government;
and so forth. They sang a song too, about a farmer sowing his
seed: with corresponding action at such parts as ''tis thus he
sows,' 'he turns him round,' 'he claps his hands;' which gave it
greater interest for them, and accustomed them to act together, in
an orderly manner. They appeared exceedingly well-taught, and not
better taught than fed; for a more chubby-looking full-waistcoated
set of boys, I never saw.

The juvenile offenders had not such pleasant faces by a great deal,
and in this establishment there were many boys of colour. I saw

< Back
Forward >

Index Index

Other Authors Other Authors

Charles Dickens. Copyright © 2022,
Contact the webmaster
Disclaimer here. Privacy Policy here.