Alice Cogswell was born on August 31, 1805, in Hartford, Connecticut, on 8 Prospect Street to Dr. Mason Fitch Cogswell, a well-known physician specializing in surgical ophthalmology, and his wife, Mary Ledyard. Alice was the third in a family of five children. At age two, she took ill with cerebral spinal meningitis, otherwise known as “spotted fever,” and became deaf as a result. Her parents were distressed and sent her to a doctor who attempted various methods such as pouring saltwater and oil into her ears and leeching. Eventually, her parents accepted Alice’s condition and the family developed a system of home signs to communicate with her.
Alice grew up a happy child, the “darling” of her family. She had a naturally quick mind and was anxious to learn. Her family would watch her “inquiring glances” and communicate by “graceful signs of passing conversations.” Family friends described Alice as being observant, lively and possessing an ability to amuse others by mimicking the actions of their friends. Like her father, she enjoyed dancing and was fascinated by music, leaning over the piano to feel its vibrations. She also enjoyed handiwork and did a piece of knit lace that was passed along in the family for several generations. She was close to her sisters, but her brother Mason was her more frequent playmate.
The relationship between Alice and her father, Dr. Cogswell, was exceptionally close and he sought to find educational opportunities for his daughter. Daniel Wadsworth had just established a private girls’ school in Hartford, in 1814, with Lydia Huntley (who would later become a famous poet and marry, taking on the name Sigourney) as a teacher. Fifteen girls, including Alice and her three sisters, from the Hartford’s elite families, were selected as pupils. Alice’s mother was believed to have taught her the British two-handed finger alphabet as well as the basics of reading before Alice started school. Miss Huntley’s notes of Alice’s signed utterances indicated that the Cogswell family used home signs that were “sophisticated enough for detailed narratives” and exhibited a grammar likely similar to that of a “genuine sign language.” Alice was making progress at the school but Dr. Cogswell believed that other deaf people would benefit from such education and he wanted to help them.
Thomas H. Gallaudet came to play a pivotal role in Alice’s life. His family and the Cogswell family were neighbors. Gallaudet met Alice when he returned home from Andover Theological Seminary during the winter of ’14 – ’15 as indicated in his notes. However, it is now disputed whether or not the story of Gallaudet teaching Alice to write the word “hat” did occur as there are insufficient records to support that. Gallaudet met Alice while she was attending Miss Huntley’s school. At the time, at age nine, Alice possessed a rudimentary knowledge of words and used home-based signs. Therefore, it was unlikely that Alice was “wholly uneducated” and in “deplorable condition” when Gallaudet met her, as depicted by Gallaudet’s son, Edward Miner Gallaudet in his biography of his father. However, Gallaudet recognized Alice’s potential to learn and, along with Miss Huntley, encouraged Dr. Cogswell to seek ways to establish a school for the deaf in America.
While Gallaudet undertook the long journey to Europe to learn more about educating the deaf, Alice wrote him several letters. A draft of such a letter was:
Hartford, Thursday, July 6, 1815
My dear Sir;
I am very glad. few days. I you go long, ship to wave. God keep away. must. Forgot. I was not, Morning and Evening Pray is God keeps Alice yes. Hartford.
After determining Alice’s meaning through sign language, Miss Huntley helped her revise the following letter before sending to Gallaudet:
My dear Sir;
I am very glad you write to me. You stay long on the ship on the waves. God loves and keeps you. I pray morning and evening, God to keep Alice and all men. He is sorry that we are wicked – I do not know so much as Mary and Elizabeth. But I am glad that, I understand. I hope. I shall learn to read well before you come back – I love my arithmetic and my school, Miss Huntley…says, “Yes, you are very good, Alice”…
In another letter a year later responding to Gallaudet’s questions about God, the Bible and praying, Alice expressed concern about her salvation and a desire to be able to read the Bible:
Hartford, April 1816
My dear Sir;
I am very much afraid God thinks me very wicked, and bad heart. I am not good heart, I wish good heart so very want not I am feeling bad very sorry. I sometimes day little prayed morning…I think so very wicked…God made me deaf and dumb…perhaps me very bad…perhaps blind and deaf and dumb.
I hope not. God, Jesus Christ know best… God made me deaf and dumb. I was a little Child 2 year old Spotted fever…
I dont know reading Holy Bible. I am very sorry. I wih and very want read I know and did not.
Mrs. Terry has got a very little baby name Eleanor Terry very sweet and very beautiful week old face very handsome, I see many. Mrs. Hudson has got a very little baby name Henry W. Hudson I see not. I write letter to Mr. Dwight he has grown a man very good live in New Haven…
Your affectionately friend
It is clear from Alice’s letters that while Miss Huntley provided guidance, she did not attempt to overcorrect Alice’s writing, allowing her to express herself in unfettered form.
Gallaudet returned to America a year later in 1816, with Laurent Clerc, a Deaf teacher from Paris, France, and they arrived at the Cogswell residence on a sunny day on August 22. Alice was summoned to the house from Miss Huntley’s school. When they met, with “all eyes on them and ours on each other,” Clerc signed, “HELLO,” and Alice, with “merriment dancing in her eyes,” signed, “DEAF YOU-ME-SAME.” She asked Clerc if he would teach her signs and what signs he would teach her. Clerc responded by signing, “I will teach you the sign for ‘love’.” Clerc developed an abiding interest in Alice’s education and well-being. He wrote in her journal before she left the asylum, encouraging her to expand her world by walking outside often, visiting her friends and reading at home.
On Tuesday, April 15, 1817, the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons opened in the City Hotel on the corner of Main and Gold Streets in Hartford. Alice Cogswell, aged eleven, was the first student and the second youngest in a class of seven. And by June 1st, fourteen more students enrolled at the school and by the end of the year, there were thirty-one. The average age of students who came to school for the first time was nearly eighteen. A typical school day would start early with worship before breakfast and classes all day until evening. Students brought their home signs and, along with Laurent Clerc’s French Sign Language, American Sign Language began to take its form over the years. Students with a more developed sign language from Martha’s Vineyard did not attend the asylum until the year 1825. Several of Alice’s classmates went on to become teachers at the asylum and elsewhere. During Alice’s years at the asylum, the school expanded and moved to a new and bigger location on Asylum Street. Alice remained at the school until 1824 when she was eighteen years old.
Alice’s father, Dr. Cogswell, became ill with pneumonia and died on December 17, 1830, at the age of sixty-nine. His death left Alice stricken with grief and she fell into “a state of almost constant delirium.” She was unable to attend her father’s funeral. Thirteen days after her father’s death, Alice died at the age of twenty-five.
Alice’s father had been a large presence in her life and she was devoted to him. He did not allow Alice to live at the school as Gallaudet and Clerc urged, and when her classmates married or left Hartford to seek jobs, she may have felt left behind. Little is known of her social contacts after she left the asylum which leads some to believe that she may have become a recluse. Since most of her writing after she left school was lost or possibly destroyed, there is very little record of her reflections about life before her death.
Lydia Huntley Sigourney, by then a noted poet, penned two poems about her former student, titled “Teacher’s Excuse” and “Lines on the Death of Alice Cogswell.” She admired Alice’s determination and dedication to learning. Sigourney wrote that Alice had a “thirst for knowledge, a loving heart and a fine intellect” and noted that she carried her little slate with her so she could converse with the people around her. In 1889, Daniel Chester French created a bronze statue representing Gallaudet teaching Alice the letter “A”. The original statue is at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., and the replica is at the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford. In 1953, Frances L. Wadsworth sculpted The Founder’s Memorial Statue located in Hartford which portrays Alice being lifted by two large hands representing the ten benefactors of the American School for the Deaf.
Alice Cogswell served as the inspiration that led to the establishment of the first school for the deaf in America and changed the world for Deaf people.