First Teacher of Alice Cogswell, first student of ASD
Lydia Howard Huntley Sigourney was born on September 1, 1791, in Norwich, Connecticut, the only child of Ezekiel Huntley and his wife, Zerviah Wentworth. Her father was the head gardener for a wealthy widow, Mrs. Daniel Lathrop, who was childless and leased a part of her house to Lydia’s family.
Mrs. Lathrop took an interest in Lydia and treated her like a daughter. She encouraged Lydia to use her husband’s library and introduced her to poetry. Through Mrs. Lathrop’s support, Lydia attended private schools and became a frequent guest of Mrs. Lathrop’s wealthy relatives, the Wadsworth family, who later supported her literary career.
Lydia developed an abiding belief in education for girls and dreamed of becoming a teacher. In 1807, when she was sixteen, Lydia and a friend started a girls’ school in Norwich. In 1814, Daniel Wadsworth, who became Lydia’s patron, helped her publish her first book, Moral Pieces in Prose and Verse. Around that time, he proposed that Lydia open a school at his mother’s house in Hartford for the daughters of elite families in the area. Wadsworth himself selected the fifteen pupils, including Alice Cogswell, who became deaf at age two due to spinal meningitis, and her two sisters.
Alice Cogswell, then a nine-year-old, came to Lydia’s school with “animated gestures” and an unbridled enthusiasm for learning. Guided by a belief in a progressive approach to education, Lydia decided to teach Alice by expanding upon the gestural communication that the Cogswell family was using with Alice. Lydia kept detailed notes of her work with Alice as well as some of Alice’s written letters and signed utterances. Recognizing Alice’s intellect, and despite the lack of a formal sign language and system for teaching the deaf, Lydia was able to nurture her budding literacy skills in an environment that was unusually inclusive and supportive.
In 1817, when Alice enrolled at the newly opened Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb Persons in Hartford, Lydia brought all of her other pupils and many former students to the opening ceremonies. Supportive of the pioneering work Thomas Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc did in starting the school for the deaf, Lydia maintained a life-long interest in the education of the deaf. Lydia also maintained contact with Alice, her father, and two older sisters for years afterward. She was so beloved and well regarded by her students that many of them attended the annual school reunion she hosted for many years.
Lydia gave up her teaching in 1819 to marry Charles Sigourney, a widower with three young children. He was a member of the Asylum’s board of directors, a prosperous merchant, and a bank president. Charles built an elegant mansion, and they had five children, but only two lived into adulthood.
In 1821, with a desire to continue her association with the Asylum, Lydia established a Visiting Committee of the Asylum, a group comprised of the school directors’ wives. The committee’s purpose was to provide specific instruction for the female students but evolved to undertake more political actions such as arranging for the admittance of deaf-blind Julia Brace at the Asylum.
Continuing her writing, Lydia embarked upon a literary career including numerous poems, over sixty books, and more than two thousand essays and articles for over 300 periodicals. Her stern and conservative husband did not approve of her writing career but consented to it only if she would agree to publish anonymously. When Lydia published a book of poetry in 1827 and identified herself as the author, it caused a marital discord, and Lydia asked her husband for a formal separation. He refused, and she gave in and stayed with him until his death.
Lydia bore sole responsibility for her aging parents, and when her husband’s financial situation began to decline, she started to write as an occupation. As a result, she was among the first American women to establish a successful writing career under her name. She also displayed shrewd business acumen in obtaining contracts and terms that enabled her to support her family with her writing.
She became an internationally known poet and was known as the “Sweet Singer of Hartford.” Her written works followed the sentimental tradition of the time, and her themes often included death, responsibility, and religion. She promoted a progressive agenda, calling to attention the injustices of the Native Americans, black children, and other oppressed members of society. She advocated reading among girls and stressed a proper role for women, such as being “agreeable,” but yet suggesting that women play a role in influencing society.
Lydia wrote numerous poems about deaf people and, most notably, her former student, Alice Cogswell. Her poems leaned toward a charitable and religious context but shed light on Alice’s ability to learn. One widely reprinted poem celebrated a deaf marriage giving some insight into the growing deaf community of Hartford.
She died at her Hartford home on June 10, 1865, at age seventy-four. The deaf community of Hartford held her in such high regard that the entire student body of the Asylum attended her funeral.
Since Lydia’s death, her writings were mainly forgotten or criticized, and her work with Alice Cogswell relegated to a footnote in the history of deaf education in America. However, in recent years, there has been a resurgence in the deaf community’s interest in examining the suppression that led to Lydia’s “erasure” from the deaf history books and recognizing her undeniable contributions to the emergence of deaf education in America.
COLONIAL MANSION, HARTFORD, CONN.
Once the home of Mrs. Lydia Huntley Sigourney, poetess, and later the residence of Ex-Lieutenant-Governor Catlin.
Adopted as a model for the Connecticut State Building at the Louisana Purchase Exposition at St. Louis, Mo.
Charles Sigourney designed and erected the handsome mansion with a circular portico in 1820 which commanded a fine view of Bushnell Park below and the city. The Sigourneys later sold their home to Lt. Governor Julius Catlin [1798-1888] who lived there until his death. Before its demolition in 1938, the mansion was an open air school and a rooming house. The site is now a parking lot.
|Lydia married Charles Sigourney who was ASD Board Vice President (1816-1819).
|The bust of Lydia Huntley Sigourney