Samuel Gridley Howe’s Thoughts on Blind Marriages

Nineteenth century reformer Samuel Gridley Howe is one of the world’s most famous educators of people who are blind. He was one of the first men in the United States to publicly advocate for the education of people who were blind. He also devised a way to communicate with Laura Bridgman, who was deaf-blind. The Perkins School for the Blind, the residential school that Howe pioneered in 1832, blazed a path for dozens of other educational institutions for people who were blind in the United States. In many ways, Howe’s ideas about blind people were revolutionary. In other ways, his beliefs placed him squarely in his own time. Although he lived and died before the heyday of eugenics in America,  his discussions of the marriage and intermarriage of people who were blind illuminate these proto-eugenic ideas.

Early on in Howe’s tenure as director, his views on the marriage of blind people became known. His first student, Thomas Takes, married a sighted woman. Howe believed this kind of marriage was acceptable because it would dilute the hereditary blindness in the next generation. Furthermore, Howe was more amenable to the idea of a blind man marrying than he was to a blind woman marrying. Soon thereafter, Sarah Clough and Charles Morrill, both students, wished to wed. Howe strongly opposed this union, fearing that the couple would pass on their blindness to their offspring and successive generations. He eventually gave up after numerous attempts at blocking the nuptials failed.[1]

Howe’s views on preventing the transmission of blindness to the next generation through the separation of the sexes foreshadowed later eugenic concerns about the intermingling and reproduction of “defectives.” He, like blindness professionals for generations after him, believed that separation of the sexes was an integral duty of schools as a means to prevent intermarriages and therefore to prevent more children born blind. In 1849, he set forth his opinion on the separation of the sexes:

There must be a separation of the sexes.  Surely, little need be said to prove this. In view of the present condition of society, and in view of the various objections to intermarriage among blind persons, it seems to be an imperative necessity.  I am aware that there is a difference of opinion among intelligent managers of similar public establishments with respect to the necessity of a separation of the sexes.  Waiving, however, all arguments respecting the best mode of preserving a healthy state of feeling among the inmates, whether by entire separation or moderate indulgence in each other’s society, I maintain, that, in the case of the blind, and all those who have a marked hereditary tendency to a physical infirmity, there is a stern moral duty to use every precaution against a perpetuation of such tendency through successive generations. Marriage in cases where one of the parties has such hereditary predisposition is generally unwise, often wrong: intermarriage between two persons so predisposed is always wrong, very wrong. . . This is a most unpopular doctrine to preach; it is an odious one to enforce in practice; but no one fully impressed with respect for the immutable will of God, as manifested in his natural laws, can hesitate between incurring the odium and doing the wrong.[2]

He argued that blind people themselves disapproved of intermarriage. As will be shown, there is some truth to this statement. However, two sentences later, Howe notes that other professionals do not agree with this policy, and he wished to waive all arguments concerning the contentedness of the students. This seems to be in direct contrast to his assertion that blind people themselves did not favor intermarriage. If they did not favor intermarriage as completely as Howe seems to say, then blindness professionals and students would not argue that separation of the sexes is not good for the happiness of the students. He even went so far as to say that two blind people who married each other were “authors” of their child’s blindness as if they had “gouged eyes out after they were born.”[3]

Around 1858, Howe began showing less confidence in the success of his attempts to prevent the marriages of blind people. In that year’s Annual Report, Howe noted that, despite his efforts, his students still married anyway. He wrote that, like “common marriages,” blind marriages result from “propinquity in time and space.”[4]  Along these lines, Howe recommended separation from each other, but integration with the community, in his address to the New York State Institution for the Blind on the opening of their new school in Batavia, New York. He told the audience that congregating blind people together was unwise, and that the best course of action was to let blind students interact with the broader community, but still keep a separation of the sexes within the school.[5] Two years later, in 1868, he stated that the sexes should be in two entirely separate buildings, “out of ear shot of each other.”[6] Although it is a myth that all people who are blind have exceedingly good hearing, many people who are blind, though they may not have medically better hearing, are more aware of sounds around them. Howe wished to keep blind boys and blind girls completely unaware of each other’s presence.

In 1874, two years before Howe’s death, his belief in the separation of the sexes still held firm, but his opinions on the marriages of blind people to sighted people had shifted. Howe formerly thought that people who were blind should “crucify themselves, and abstain from marriage.” However, due to “reflection and experience,” he understood that, although some people are “heroes,” most are not and would marry.[7] The sexes should still be separated, he maintained, but students should be allowed to make acquaintance with “ordinary” youth to promote “favorable marriages.”[8]

Howe’s contributions to blindness education cannot be denied. However, as with any famous historical figure, to understand the person, you must understand all aspects of that person’s thinking–the good, the bad, and the ugly.  His belief in the harmful consequences of blind marriages were not uncommon in his day. In fact, this belief was common into the middle of the 20th century. The sad part is that some people today still believe that blind people should not get married at all, or should at least not have children.

Taken from pages 18-23 of “Love is Not Blind: Eugenics, Blindness, and Marriage in the United States, 1840-1940” by Marissa Stalvey (me), ©2014, University of Toledo.

[1] James W. Trent, The Manliest Man: Samuel G. Howe and the Contours of Nineteenth-Century American Reform (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), 62-63.

[2] Annual Report of the Perkins School for the Blind, vol. 17 (1849), 20. Samuel P. Hayes Research Library, Perkins School for the Blind.

[3] Annual Report of the Perkins School for the Blind, vol. 16 (1848), 50. Samuel P. Hayes Research Library, Perkins School for the Blind.

[4] Annual Report of the Perkins School for the Blind, 1858, 15.

[5] Samuel G. Howe, “Address to the New York State Institution for the Blind,” September 6, 1866. Samuel P. Hayes Research Library, Perkins School for the Blind.

[6] Annual Report of the Perkins School for the Blind, vol. 37 (1868), 9-10. Samuel P. Hayes Research Library, Perkins School for the Blind.

[7] Annual Report of the Perkins School for the Blind, vol. 43 (1874), 106. Samuel P. Hayes Research Library, Perkins School for the Blind.

[8] Ibid., 111.