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Authors: Charlotte Gray

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Mabel (right), with sisters Gertrude (left) and Grace (center), was always a bookish, serious child.

The crisis in Mabel’s life erupted in January 1863, when she accompanied her mother to New York to visit her McCurdy grandparents in their tall brick and brownstone house near Washington Square. The visit had begun happily—as soon as Mabel walked up the steps and under the elegant fanlight of Number 10 East 14th Street, she was embraced by her doting grandfather, Robert McCurdy. She showed him her latest treasure, a postcard picture of Mr. and Mrs. Tom Thumb, two midgets currently on display at Barnum’s American Museum of Curiosities. A day or two later, though, Mabel fell ill.

“Our dear little lovely and loved one has been and still is alarmingly sick,” Robert McCurdy wrote to a niece on February 6. “She was taken 12 days since with scarlet fever…. [A]fter a few days it assumed a malignant type and her whole system seemed poisoned, her throat swelling very large, her mouth, eyes and nose almost closed and her breathing difficult.” Death hovered over the McCurdy mansion, and the servants went about their business red-eyed and scared. A quarantine notice was pinned to the big oak front door announcing that scarlet fever had struck the household and discouraging all visitors. Straw was scattered over the cobblestones to muffle the sound of carriage wheels. Mabel’s father, Gardiner, was summoned from Massachusetts as her mother and grandparents watched the child “bravely struggling for life, with alternate hopes and fears.” At first Mabel kept trying to speak, even asking her mother if she thought Jesus wanted little girls to say their prayers when they were so sick they couldn’t. But soon the effort of breathing and swallowing made talk impossible. Gertrude and Gardiner Hubbard began reliving the grief they had felt fifteen years earlier, when their infant son had succumbed to fever. They knew that even if Mabel pulled through, she could be left blind, hearing-impaired, or brain-damaged. All the physician could prescribe was “nourishment, watching and faith.”

By mid-February the crisis had passed, but the little girl remained inert and unresponsive. When Gertrude Hubbard stroked her daughter’s damp brow, she was almost inclined to accept the doctor’s gloomy prediction of permanent brain damage. A few days later, however, Gertrude noticed that Mabel’s eyes now focused on her and followed her movements. Six weeks after the onset of fever, there was a breakthrough. Gertrude showed Mabel her treasured picture of Mr. and Mrs. Thumb. Mabel murmured, “Little lady.” Gertrude realized that the disease had not affected her daughters intellect, but it had left her completely deaf. Mabel was soon asking, “Mamma, why don’t you talk to me?” With tears in her eyes, Gertrude put her face close to her daughter’s so that Mabel could see that the problem was not with her mother’s speech but with her own hearing.

Mabel and her mother remained in New York for several more weeks that spring, as the child slowly regained her strength. Outside the bedroom windows, the city stirred as the days lengthened. Passersby hailed each other across the street. The chatter of children chalking games onto the paved walks of Washington Square, one block away, drifted through the warm April air. As Gertrude gazed out of the window of her parents’ house, she could hear newsboys yell out details of President Lincoln’s latest speech and news that the brilliant Confederate general Robert E. Lee was preparing to march north with 75,000 troops. The Civil War between the Confederate states and the Union had been raging for nearly two years. Outraged that the antislavery Republican candidate for president, Abraham Lincoln, had been elected in i860, the slave-owning southern states had seceded from the Union in February 1861. They adopted a provisional constitution for the newly formed Confederate States of America and attacked Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. This was the trigger for a far more brutal war than anybody had imagined, as each side violently defended its position on issues of constitutional principle, human rights, and economic self-interest. In 1863, the war was not going well for the Union side. But it all seemed irrelevant to a mother worried sick about her child.

When Mabel was finally well enough to join her mother at the window, she looked out at a silent world. She watched neighbors open their mouths in hushed pantomime; she saw carriages bounce along noiseless streets. She could see shapes, colors, and familiar faces, but she could not hear the laughter, birdsong, music, or chatter that, for most of us, brings our three-dimensional world to life. The damage to her middle ear left her balance uncertain; she would always need a steadying hand in the twilight or at night, or on a moving vehicle.

Eventually Mabel was well enough for her mother to take her home, and Gertrude made her way to New York’s train station, holding her daughter’s hand tightly. Back in Cambridge, Gertrude’s three other daughters—Sister, now thirteen, Roberta, age three, and Grace, age one—had been eagerly awaiting their mother’s return. In the homecoming tumble of embraces and laughter, Mabel’s sisters were at first oblivious to her inability to hear their voices. Gertrude Hubbard watched the interchanges between her children carefully. She observed how Sister and Roberta hugged Mabel and started chattering to her. She saw how Mabel clung to her sisters as she stared silently into their faces, then stuttered out their names awkwardly. She watched Sister, older and more aware of the problem, speak more and more emphatically to Mabel as she willed her to understand her words. Mabel backed away from Sister, clutching at her mother’s hand.

Gertrude set some rules in her Brattle Street home that ensured that Mabel had to keep talking and didn’t lose what spoken language she had despite the fact that she could no longer hear her own voice. Gertrude told everybody that if Mabel tried to communicate by signs, they were to ignore them. When Gertrude herself was with Mabel, she made the little girl look carefully at her lips so she could see what words were being formed. Before her illness, Mabel had learned the words of the 23rd Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Now Gertrude insisted she repeat it regularly, then built on the words to improve her vocabulary. She encouraged family and servants to stand face to face with Mabel so that she could see their lips, then talk to her as though she could hear. Gradually Mabel started following the speech of others through their lip movements. She learned to intuit what the conversation was about so that she would know which of similar words (“bat” and “pat” for instance) the speaker meant. And her family learned to say things in different ways if Mabel missed the first way they had phrased a remark.

While Gertrude pushed to keep Mabel in the speaking world, she and Gardiner explored educational possibilities for deaf children. They refused to be discouraged by teachers who told them that Mabel would soon be incomprehensible (one physician insisted that her voice would be “worse than the whistle of a steam engine”). In Boston there was already a fascinating example of the way new teaching methods could help blind children operate in the seeing world. The Perkins Institution for the Blind had been established by the Christian reformer Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, husband of Julia Ward Howe, in 1839. Dr. Howe’s techniques for educating blind children, involving musical instruments and raised alphabets, had attracted educators from all over Europe and North America. His most celebrated success was a young woman named Laura Bridgman, who had been born deaf as well as blind and who could now speak and read raised letters. Charles Dickens himself had gone quite overboard with the Laura Bridgman story in
American Notes,
ranking her, alongside Niagara Falls, as one of the two most impressive phenomena he had witnessed on his trip to the United States. Gardiner Hubbard determined to ask Howe what he recommended for Mabel.

Yet Mabel’s speech began to deteriorate as, locked in her silent world, she failed to model the volume of her speech and her pronunciation on the voices of those around her. She sounded increasingly weird. Berta and Grace started excluding her from their games, and she became less talkative, withdrawing into her own silent play. Gertrude herself could not give Mabel as much of her undivided attention as she wanted—besides her four daughters, the Hubbard household now also included Gertrude’s invalid mother, and in April 1865, Gertrude Hubbard gave birth to a fifth daughter, Marian.

Go-ahead Gardiner promptly decided that the Brattle Street house needed extensive renovations to accommodate the growing household. Mabel never forgot the innovations: “a wonderful new flooring of inch thick diamond shaped blocks of white and brown wood” in the dining room; crystal gas chandeliers “that caught the morning sunshine and broke it into a thousand lovely rainbows”; rich red velvet wallpaper in the hallway, and soft silver-gray paint on the library walls. Gardiner decreed that while the work was being done, his family should spend the summer in the country. He engaged rooms for his wife and daughters in the little Maine village of Bethel, on the Androscoggin River, in an old white-walled house with green shutters, belonging to the local doctor, Dr. Nathaniel P. True. When the family moved into the house in July, the stolid New England villagers were amused at the sight of the little blonde girls in their dainty white pinafores and black boots. The children captivated Dr. True’s twenty-one-year-old daughter, Mary, who had just finished training to be a teacher. Mary was particularly drawn to the child who played by herself, spoke strangely, and called her “Miss Rue.” By the time the Hubbards left Bethel, Mary had been hired as the new governess. She would remain with the family for three years.

Mary True proved to be a brilliant teacher for Mabel. Yet she had no instruction manual or training in deaf education, and unlike Alec Bell, there was no “professor of elocution” in her family to whom she could turn for advice. Both she and Mabel were in unknown territory, as Mary tried to enter into Mabel’s mind to see how it functioned and then build on its potential to improve Mabel’s articulation, vocabulary, reading, writing, and lip-reading skills. Day by day, she made Mabel watch her lips as she sounded out words, then made Mabel copy the positions of her lips, tongue, and mouth. She would not let Mabel revert to baby talk, communicate by gestures, or avoid hard words. Since Mabel was an avid reader, Mary worked hard to find books her student enjoyed, then made her read out loud to learn how words sounded as well as looked: “We read pages upon pages in a School Reader using the words of her own vocabulary to explain new ones, or a phrase to define a word. Sometimes the language was queer, I admit, and the definitions crude, but somehow we got on,” she later recalled. Mary was a thorough, old-fashioned teacher. “I taught her grammar after the old style of parsing. She learned the parts of the speech—noun, pronoun, verb, adverb, adjective, conjunction, preposition.” Mary expected Mabel to learn anything that her sisters could learn, including the pronunciation, during geography classes, of such complicated names as Chattanooga, Susquehanna, and Chesapeake. But with Mabel, Mary used different teaching methods. She invented word games and took Mabel on walks round Cambridge, showing her how to pay her fare on the streetcar (“Two tickets to Brattle Street, please”) or purchase material for the next day’s lesson in a shop (“We need some coloring pencils”). When Mary was explaining how government worked, she took Mabel to the Massachusetts State House in Boston to watch legislators in action, with all their ritual and rhetorical flourishes. On their return home, they traced each day’s outing on a map.

Mary’s job was made easier by her student’s intelligence and hunger to learn. Mabel soaked up new information. Her reading skills soon surpassed those of her hearing sisters, and her taste in books was extraordinarily sophisticated. In later years she described how, as a child, “I did not care to romp and play out of doors, all I wanted was to curl up in some quiet corner and read—all day if allowed. My father’s library was well-stocked and I had almost free range. When eleven years old I delighted in reading such books as Jane Porter’s
Scottish Chiefs,
and before I was thirteen I had read through, with intense interest, Motley’s
Rise of the Dutch Republic,
most of Prescott’s histories, several large volumes of the Civil War, books of travel, as well as all the stories and novels I could get hold of.”

In 1867, Mary took Mabel, now a solemn nine-year-old, back to Bethel with her for the summer. “She was very proud of new words,” the teacher later recalled. “’Worthless’ and ‘Valuable’ were rolled as sweet morsels under her tongue, and applied with great frequency to my brother Alfred when he teased her. ’You are a very, very, very
man’ settled all scores.” Mary True had become such an important figure in Mabel’s life that her pupil’s parents trusted her with a difficult job: breaking the news to Mabel of the death back in Cambridge of her baby sister, Marian (probably from diphtheria). Mary led the sobbing child to the far end of the Trues’ orchard and tried to explain to her the significance of death and heaven.

By the time she was eleven, Mabel’s proficiency in lip-reading and all her school subjects was remarkable—and so was the self-esteem that her success gave her. Her parents decided she should join her younger sisters Berta and Grace at Miss Songer’s school, a private school for girls in Cambridge. Miss Songer and her colleagues were astonished at Mabel’s skills. One teacher confessed herself “surprised at the readiness with which she reads from the lips, as I have never talked with her before, and she understood me without difficulty.” After testing, Mabel was assigned to classes where she was the youngest by several years. Mary True had done her job so well that Mabel was the equal in intellectual development and achievement of girls three to five years older. Fifty-four years after Mary had come into Mabel’s life, the latter paid her governess this tribute: “She opened my mind and gave me a mental training and grasp of things which has formed a broad and firm foundation on which could be built all I have since acquired.”

BOOK: Reluctant Genius
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