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American Annals of the Deaf

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Numerous stories of those who became deaf in old age also reveal an acceptance of disability in the American colonies during the seventeenth century. Richard Williams, born circa 1606, was descended from a family in Glamorganshire, Wales. In about 1636, he established himself as a tanner in Plymouth Colony. In 1666, he was one of the selectmen and, for many years, a deacon of the church. A friend recalled that “when blind and deaf from age, he was accustomed to attend public worship, saying, ‘that although he could neither see nor hear, yet it was consoling to his feelings to know that he was present while the people of God were at their worship.’”25 He died in 1692.

In contrast, that same year, a deaf woman was executed. Rebecca Nurse, a wife and mother to eight children, was a devout churchgoer, but at the height of the Salem hysteria, she was accused of witchcraft. Nurse’s own arguments included mention of her deafness: “And I being something hard of hearing, and full of grief, none informing me how the Court took up my words, and therefore had not opportunity to declare what I intended.”26 However, although the inability to hear was one “affliction” associated with the bewitched, Nurse’s deafness had little to do with the witchcraft allegations, according to historian Mary Beth Norton:

Goody Nurse’s conviction constitutes one of the most persuasive pieces of evidence that the Massachusetts authorities in general believed unhesitatingly in the truth of the witchcraft allegations. These men . . . were by midsummer heavily invested in the belief that Satan lay behind the troubles then besetting their colony. . . . Unable to defeat Satan in the forests and garrisons of the northeastern frontier, they could nevertheless attempt to do so in the Salem courtroom.27
The governor attempted to give her a reprieve, but this effort was voided by the church. Rebecca Nurse was hung at the age of 70, on July 19, 1692.

The Eighteenth Century

Since the early 1730s, when monthly news periodicals such as Gentleman’s Magazine and London Magazine made their debut, readers in England followed the events in the colonies, studying maps of the French and Indian War, enjoying the musings of Benjamin Franklin, and examining a variety of items of interest, including reports on the education of deaf children. In 1747, Gentleman’s Magazine reported on the work of Jacobo Pereire in teaching young children, deaf from birth, to speak articulately.28 In 1750, another report summarized how, after two years of instruction, a twentyone-year-old man, deaf from birth, was presented to the king of France, “giving answers very properly and distinctly, he also pronounced several lines from a book, which he had not before seen. His master discourses with him by a manual alphabet, almost as expeditious as speech; but this is not uncommon.”29

Educated American colonists kept in touch with Europe through these magazines as well as through the American Magazine and Historical Chronicle, which boldly reprinted much of the content of its British counterparts. American periodicals also included tidbits about deafness and deaf people. In 1740, for example, in his Poor Richard’s Almanac, Benjamin Franklin included the grim report that “[w]e hear from Macanja in Bucks County [Pennsylvania], that last Week two Brothers, the youngest about 10 Years of Age, and the eldest about 18, both of them deaf and dumb, went out into the Woods together, where the eldest cut the Throat of the youngest.”30

Other records provide evidence that deaf people headed families, conducted businesses, and participated in religious activity. James Anderson’s hearing son, James Anderson, Jr., was summoned in November 1768 for “not supporting his children in a Christianlike manner.”31 In the records of the Scotch-Irish settlement west of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, known as Augusta, the father is noted familiarly as “Deaf James.” In Virginia about 1784, the Reverend Lee, a Methodist itinerant preacher, recorded his observations after one visit to a family, describing the religious potential of the deaf head of the household and making reference to his signs:

. . . preached at John Randall’s, who is deaf and dumb, yet can pronounce the name of his wife and the name of his brother; but I could not learn that he ever uttered any other words. He is esteemed a pious man, and by signs will give a good experience of his conviction, conversion, and progress in the service of the Lord, and of his pleasing hope of Heaven when he leaves the world.32
Sign language is also mentioned in the family records of Andrew Moore, whose descendents included two deaf brothers in Pennsylvania, Joseph and Jacob Moore, and a deaf relative, Jeremiah Moore. All three deaf men led productive lives. Jacob Moore, the first of Andrew Moore’s deaf descendents, was born in Lancaster County in 1781 and was described
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