May 2nd, 1867
THE BLIND ASYLUM
IT IS a huge, castellated granite block of buildings, with a broad grassy yard in front, situated in the Ninth avenue, between Thirty-third and Thirty-fourth streets. I was loafing around that part of town this afternoon and stumbled upon it. I recognized it in a moment. I went out there once when I was stopping near the City Hall, thirteen years ago. It was a great journey, then, those two and a half miles, and my recollection of it is that the place was isolated, and had a seeming as of belonging to the country, rather than to the city. It is in the heart of the town, now, though, and is walled in with elegant brown-stone dwellings of the first-class.
It was unrulable to admit me, to-day, because it was not visiting-day, but they let me in because I was a newspaper reptile and a stranger. A young woman, quick of gesture and speech, and a nimble walker, conducted me through the school-rooms, music-rooms, work-rooms, map-rooms, chapel, sleeping-wards, dining-room, factories, and so forth, and I never suspected that she was blind until it was all over. She was not entirely blind, but might as well have been. They said she would not run over a chair in daylight, because she would detect a dark shape in her way, though she would not be able to say what it was without feeling it. And this reminds me that throughout that large establishment everything that one could run over seemed carefully kept out of the way.
I watched a dozen boys weaving mats, some on looms and some by hand. They worked fast and with decision, and as they generally seemed to look at what they were doing, I could not feel satisfied, somehow, that they were sightless.
We stopped at the foot of a stairway, and the girl told me to go up and see the boys making brooms. I went up softly, and stood on the landing without having made a noise. The work men were noisy, and all were gossiping freely and chaffing each other. Presently one of them, half-a-dozen steps in front of me, and with his back to me, leaned over, and looked intently at some object at the other end of the room, and also seemed to be listening. Then he shook his head and fell to work again. Presently he took another long look, and then went softly and spoke to his neighbors and then stopped talking; so did they all, a moment after; and I said, to myself, surely this fellow sees me in a mirror somewhere, though I don't see one. I felt like a detected eaves-dropper, however, and went up and asked him what he had been looking at? "At you," he said. "But you looked almost in the opposite direction from where I was," I said. He smiled and made no reply. I spoke to the girl about the matter when I went down, and she said he probably could see a little out of the extreme back corner of his eye, but was blind to all objects before or beside him. She said such a case was not unusual.
In another place I talked some time with three women and a man who were making hair mattresses, and I thought they were gifted with sight. The fact is, one needs to be reminded all the time that he is among blind folks. Their dreadful eyes shock him once, and after that he looks at those organs no more; and so there is nothing left save a stoop in the shoulders, a painful one-sided twist in the face and a sort of sideways inclination of the head, to suggest to him that there is something unusual the matter with these people; but at the same time, these things need not necessarily suggest to him that their trouble is blindness .
They walk about the rooms freely, go from place to place and lean over and speak to each other, and yet never grope, or hesitate, or stumble, or bump their heads. They act a good deal as other people do.
We went into a room where fifteen or twenty girls, from nine years to sixteen, were making little fancy bead baskets and such things. Most of them were cheerful and chatty, but some looked very sober and were silent; one or two looked sad, I thought, and one child, sitting by a window, with her tedious basket in one hand half finished, had dropped her head upon her arm and forgotten all her troubles in slumber.
Those little ornamental open-work baskets look simple enough, but when you come to understand how they are made, and how the little wire must wind its devious course and be passed many times through the same mustard-seed of a bead, you comprehend that the workmanship is wearisome and intricate. One girl had arrived at a point in her labors where the wire had travelled its course many times through handles and sides and top and bottom, and had to be thrust for the fourth time through a tiny bead. And every time she tried, she failed; the wire bent, or the bead slipped, or something else happened that prevented the consummation. But patiently and without a word, the girl tried and tried again, and in anxiety and tribulation I watched the operation, and my spirits rose as she almost succeeded, and fell again when the cursed bead slipped - and when at last she did get it through, I wanted to give a good round three cheers with a will!
In another part of the house a dozen or so of blind young ladies were knitting all manner of elaborately-figured tidies, and such things. One of them was pretty - the only pretty girl I saw, except the wide-awake one at the office down below who admitted me. It seemed strange to me that Nature should have so sorely afflicted these unfortunate girls, and then made them so fearfully and wonderfully homely into the bargain - a thing in itself which the sex hold in proper horror. The knitters were talking with all their might, and seemed perfectly jolly and contented - at least the majority of them did. But it didn't cheer me up a particle. It was the saddest place I ever got into. I don't mind blind boys - they ought all to be blind, for that matter - and deaf and dumb, and lame and halt and paralyzed, and shaken up by earthquakes and struck by lightning - just to make them behave themselves, you know - but I felt so sorry for those girls. They could not see the sun, or the moon, or the ocean, the green trees, or the flowers, the gilded clouds or the rainbow - they could not even see the faces they loved. It were better to be dead and buried. They seemed to be happy, but I could not understand how they managed to come at it.
A matron gave a girl a needle, in order to show how deftly she could thread it - a girl who was as blind as a brick bat. The needle was a No. 6, the matron said, and I judged that the thread was about No. 14. It was thick enough to be. The girl did it, and quickly. Then the same service was required at the hands of an other girl, and she performed it, too, but in an unusual way- she put the end of the needle in her mouth and worked the thread through the eye with her tongue. The matron said either of them could thread a No. 10 needle with great facility. I expressed cordial surprise at that, although my admiration was modified some by the fact that I didn't know just what style of a needle a No. 10 might be.
Several methods of teaching the blind to write are used. In some cases the paper is placed upon a board in which groove like depressions have been made, and these grooves prevent the pen from wandering abroad. But this is but a shabby system at best, because after the poor devil has spent months and years in learning to write, he cannot read his own work when it gets cold, because he cannot see it. A new method has come into vogue in the New York and Missouri asylums, which is in high favor with the blind. By it they learn to write in a few months, and another blind person can read the manuscript easily. It consists in punching a series of letters and signs (they were suggested by the telegraphic signs) with a blunt awl; then they turn the paper over and spell out the sense of the raised perforations with the finger ends. But see how many difficulties the blind have to labor under anyhow: of course when they turn the paper over to read, all the writing is reversed; so, the pupil must learn to write one way and read another - must write upside down and read right side up. Still, this new system, which is called the Braille, is immensely popular with these unfortunates.
The blind have books to read, of course - books printed on coarse paper in heavy raised lower-case sharply-angular letters (no capitals,) without ink. They have a Bible, in eight monstrous volumes, each one a heavy load for a school-girl, and the whole set a cargo for a pack-mule. And they have the History of England and of America - but that seems to be about all. The deaf and dumb scholar can smouch a poem or a sensation novel and revel in it in secret, but they have got the blind child in the door. It has to confine itself to the most substantial literature.
One of the girls read the ninth chapter of Second Corinthians for me. She spelled the words rapidly with her fingers, and when she came to familiar biblical words like wherefore, therefore, lo, behold, etc., she recognized them with a single nervous touch and went on. She made no mistakes.
One room was hung with great maps of all parts of the globe, carved out of wood - with raised knobs for islands, nail heads for cities, veins or grooves for rivers, etc., but no names written anywhere. On a table was a great map of the United States, all sawed to pieces - each State sawed apart and the whole put together like a puzzle. A little girl pulled this map to pieces and jumbled the States up like a pile of bricks, and then the young disunionist repented of her work, and quickly reconstructed her country again - did it about as fast as she could pick up the several States, pass her hand across their faces and lay them down again. And she mentioned the capital of each State and described its location correctly. I was granted the privilege of questioning her and testing her geographical knowledge, but did not try it. Those blank wooden maps were little more intelligible to me than a flag-stone pavement would have been.
Another girl played on the piano, and played very sweetly and without any flourishes. They use no written music in the asylum, but are taught bar after bar, till they know a piece by heart. It is a tedious process.
WHAT BLINDED THEM
There are 124 pupils on the books of the asylum - about half boys and half girls. The statistics which show the various causes of their blindness are curious enough. Out of 844 blind persons who have been cared for at the asylum, 150 inherited blindness from their parents. The cases of apthalima number 196; amourosis, 77; cataract, 21; small pox, 22; scarlet fever, 16; measles, 16; syphilis, 19; mal-practice, 10; overdose of arsenic, 1; vaccination, 1; pen-knife wounds, 11; gun-shot wounds, 16. Then we have blindness resulting from all sorts of accidents. Blowing glass; blow of an arrow; blow of a stone; blow of a hammer; blast; fall; kick of a horse; looking at the sun; pitchfork wound; run over; sawdust in the eyes; sand in the eyes; silver in the eyes; sting of insect; scissors wound; singing broadcloth; sun stroke; whip-lash; verdigris.
In two cases, repulsive sights seen by mothers caused their infants to be born blind. In one case the mother frequently saw a house servant who had very sore eyes, and in the other the mother looked at the skinned head of a calf, with the eyes in it. In both instances the eyes of the children were like those of the objects of dislike.
"YOU'RE A FRAUD!"
That is the new word for "dead beat" and the other slang expressions used to express the same thing. If any slang term can have a merit, this one has, in that it may succeed in entirely expelling two or three frightful vulgarisms from our dialect as spoken outside of drawing-rooms, (yes, and sometimes in them) "You are a fraud" - he is a fraud - they are frauds - you hear the term used here every day and at all hours of the day and night. Sometimes drunken men get it "You're a frog" - and then it sounds funny. If you cannot get along without adopting Eastern slang, adopt this; and if you must invent slang yourselves, invent none that is more repulsive.
It was reported, years ago, that this writer was dead - accidentally shot in a Tennessee doggery before the war; but he has turned up again, and is a conductor on a railway train that travels somewhere between Charleston, S.C., and Memphis. His real name is George Harris. I have before me his book, just forwarded by Dick & Fitzgerald, the publishers, New York. It contains all his early sketches, that used to be so popular in the West, such as his story of his father "actin' hoss," the lizards in the camp-meeting, etc., together with many new ones. The book abounds in humor, and is said to represent the Tennessee dialect correctly. It will sell well in the West, but the Eastern people will call it coarse and possibly taboo it.
Sometimes, down about the City Hall Park, it does seem to me that every little ragamuffin in New York has bought a brush and a foot-box, and gone in the boot-blacking business. "Blackin', sir, blackin' I" "Shine, sir? - nice shine, sir, only five cents!" So they assail a man at every step, and persecute him from the rising of the sun till the going down thereof. If you give one of them a job, half a dozen of them will crowd around and sit on the ground to see it done and criticise it; and to blackguard each other in a slang that no Christian can understand; and make remarks about the sensation of the day; and speak familiarly and disrespectfully of the gentlemen of the City Government, and abuse their stupidity; and drop critiques concerning "the Japs," discuss the leaders in the Herald, the Tribune and Times, and even find fault with Mr. Seward's statesmanship, and the general conduct of the National Government. I notice that they usually speak of great personages as "old" Seward, "old" Johnson, etc. It is because these free-souled young blackguards scorn to be respectful to anything or anybody. After they have got through discussing the new Russian Possessions purchase, they fall to pitching pennies and engaging in other disreputable species of gambling, and combine business with it as before, in the matter of persecuting passers-by.
I saw a sign on a house in an obscure street, yesterday, which read, "Boot-Black Brigade Chapel," and found out that some well meaning enthusiast is in the habit of drumming a lot of these gamins de New York together two or three times a week, and preaching to them and praying for them, under the extraordinary impression that he can save their souls. I certainly wish him well, but I bet nothing on his success.
I went in, and found a preacher earnestly exhorting about two hundred of the rattiest lot of little outlaws that any city can produce. Most of the time they listened pretty intently, but critically - always critically, for behold, the bootblack is nothing if not critical. Part of what the preacher said they seemed to receive as square and proper enough, and part they seemed to receive under mild protest - but when he said that Lazarus was brought to life after he had been dead three days, there was a pretty general telegraphing of incredulity from eye to eye about the assemblage, and one boy with a shock head and rags all over to match nudged his neighbor, and said in a coarse whisper, "I don't go that, Bill, do you? - 'cause he'd stink, wouldn't he?"
And when the preacher told how the five thousand were miraculously fed with twelve loaves and several little fishes, a boy said:
"Say, Jimmy, do you suck that?"
"Well, I do'no. It mought a ben, mebbe, if they warn't many of 'em hongry. I see the time, though, when I could a et them twelve loaves myself, I could, less'n they was busters."
And so they criticised all the while, and cast disrepute upon every statement that seemed a little shaky to them, and the longer I staid the less confidence I had in the speculation of trying to get material for salvation out of the bootblack brigade.
I attended the Old Bowery Theatre in the evening, and there, in the pit, I found the whole tribe. I suppose there were three hundred of them present, closely packed together in their rags and dirt, and the way they guyed the actors and criticised the performance was interesting. They applauded all the "ranting" passages furiously, and hurled uncompromising scorn and contempt upon the sentimental ones.
I asked one of them what he thought of the leading man as an actor?
"Oh, he ain't no force. You'd ought to hear Proctor - Oh, geeminy! - why, you can hear Proctor f'm here to Central Park when he lays hisself out in Richard Third."
Up in the fifth tier - the gallery - there was a multitude of negroes, and a sprinkling of bootblacks and women of the town. There was a bar up there, and two of the women came forward and asked us to treat. A bootblack, who had just blacked my boots and perhaps felt a personal interest in my welfare on that account, tipped at me a wink of wonderful complexity and mystery, and I went and asked him to translate it. He said:
"You keep away f'm them women. I've been around here four years, and I know all about 'em. Don't you go no wheres with that curly-headed one, nor 'tother one either - they'd go through you for everything you've got. That's their style. You ask any cop (policeman,) - they'll tell you. Why, that curly girl's rid in the Black Maria (conveyance for prisoners) oftener'n she's rid in the street cars. And don't you touch that liquor in there - don't tell anybody I told you, 'cause they'd highst me out of this, you know - but don't you drink that dern swipes - it's pi son."
I thanked the philosopher for his advice, and followed it. The bootblacks and newsboys, who did not happen to be present at the play, were all outside in front of the theatre, I think. There were dozens of them - all holding out their hands for checks, when we started home between the acts. We delivered up ours, and a noisy, struggling scramble ensued for their possession. They are a wild, lawless, independent lot, those bootblacks and street boys, and would make good desperado stuff to stock a new mining camp with.
It was a cultivated bootblack - a bootblack who had attended the chapel I spoke of above, and become learned in sacred history and felicitous in explaining and expounding it - who so happily accounted for the absence of all apparent fear on the part of both Daniel and the lion, in a picture representing the prophet in the den. Another bootblack could not under stand what it was that gave both so much confidence - could not understand what made each seem so serenely indifferent to the other. This wise boy explained it. He said:
"Humph! the lion don't give a d--n for Dan'l, and Dan'l don't give a d--n for the lion - both of 'em relies on the protection o' Prov'dence."
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