||A Mighty Change:
An Anthology of Deaf American Writing, 1816-1864
Christopher Krentz, Editor
Adele M. Jewel’s work provides a rare glimpse into the life of a lower-class deaf woman before the Civil War. Jewel (née George), a homeless woman in Michigan, wrote primarily to earn money to support herself and her mother. Her pamphlet, A Brief Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Adele M. Jewel (Being Deaf and Dumb), was printed for her by a local publisher, and she apparently sold it herself on the streets to passersby. Despite undergoing hardships, Jewel displays vivacity, faith, and determination in her writing. Her account of growing up apart from other deaf people, attending a residential school for the deaf, and learning American Sign Language gives us concrete illustrations of some of the general trends that other writers discuss in this collection. Moreover, Jewel provides the only reference to deaf African Americans in these pages, pointing to the existence of that overlooked group.
We do not have much information about Jewel beyond what appears in her pamphlet. She was born deaf in Cincinnati in 1834. Her parents doted on her, their only child. When she was three, Jewel and her family moved to Michigan, where they eventually acquired a farm. About nine years later, her father suddenly became ill and died. Jewel and her mother sold the farm to pay off debts and moved to Jackson, Michigan, where they eked out a living by sewing and performing any other work they could find. In Jackson, Jewel met another deaf person for the first time. Almena Knight not only became Jewel’s friend, but also taught her ASL and inspired her to attend the state’s residential school for the deaf in Flint. With financial assistance from some local citizens, Jewel was able to enroll. She flourished at the school, learning to read and write and becoming part of the community she found there. In a preface to A Brief Narrative, a “friend” describes Jewel as an accomplished young woman after she gained an education: “[She is] interesting and communicative. . .conversing rapidly, in the sign language, to those who understood that method of speaking, or writing in a clear and graceful hand with a pencil, to others.”
Despite such progress, Jewel was compelled to withdraw from school when she caught a severe illness that ruined the sight in one of her eyes and damaged her health. Since her mother was now an invalid, the two had trouble supporting themselves; they lost their property and became homeless. In these critical circumstances, Jewel came up with the idea of writing her story and selling it to the public. The plan worked, and she evidently was able to earn enough money to secure a living and a home for herself and her mother. Jewel most likely published this first version of her narrative in the late 1850s, when she was in her mid-twenties. She added to the work and sold slightly expanded editions in subsequent years.