Samuel Gridley Howe (1801 – 1876)

March 15, 2012

Samuel Gridley Howe was a revolutionary, reformer, and educator.

Born in Boston, Samuel Gridley Howe was the son of Patty Gridley and Joseph Neals Howe, a successful rope and cordage maker. After losing his fortune following the War of 1812, Joseph Howe knew that he would not be able to send all three of his children to college. He instead decided that the son who could best read the Bible would be the one that he sent to college. Samuel Howe, the best reader of the three, entered Brown University in 1817 and graduated in 1821.

Howe continued his studies at Harvard Medical School, graduating in 1824. He only spent a few months practicing medicine before he decided to aid in the Greek War of Independence (1821 – 1829). From 1825 – 1829 Howe was both a soldier and doctor for the Greek army, fighting for independence from Turkish rule. For his services, the Greek king knighted Howe a Chevalier of the Order of St. Savior. Before returning home, Howe decided to further his medical studies in Paris. Howe found himself involved in an uprising in Paris against the newly restored Bourbon monarchy.

During this time he also became a friend of Lafayette, who sent Howe to Prussia to aid Polish insurgents. Howe was caught and put in jail in a Berlin dungeon where he was kept in solitary confinement for five weeks until the United States government intervened and had Howe released.

Upon returning to America, Howe met John Dix Fisher, an old college friend and founder of the New England Asylum for the Blind. The school had no building, no teachers and no students. Fisher appointed Howe director of the school and sent him to visit the great institutions for the blind in Europe. Howe returned to Boston in July of 1832 with ideas about how to run such a school and two instructors he recruited while abroad. He opened the school in his father’s home and had six students enrolled within a month’s time. Almost immediately, the school was in need of a bigger building.  Thomas Handasyd Perkins (Lot #108 Central Avenue), an extremely wealthy Boston Merchant and trustee of the school, donated his home for its use. Six years later, when it needed to expand further, Perkins sold his home and used the funds to purchase a hotel in South Boston to house the school. At the same time, the school changed its name to the Perkins Institute for the Blind, in honor of its benefactor.

Howe believed that the blind should be taught exactly like sighted children. To overcome the obstacle of reading, Howe developed a system of raised letters that could be read by touch. This raised lettering, known as Boston Line Type, remained popular until the early 1900s when Braille was adopted almost universally. Proving himself successful in his first endeavor with the blind, Howe was ready for a new challenge. In 1837 he heard of Laura Bridgman, a seven-year old left deaf and blind from scarlet fever. Howe recruited Bridgman as a Perkins student and dedicated himself to teaching her to read and “speak.” Bridgman quickly learned to read the Boston Line Type and to communicate by spelling words into her teacher’s hand. To showcase his prodigy student, Howe took Bridgman on tour, exhibiting her to both potential donors and students.  Both were national celebrities. In 1842 during his visit to America, Charles Dickens even ranked Laura Bridgman along with Niagara Falls as the two most impressive sights of his trip.

In 1843 Howe, forty-two years old, married Julia Ward, a New York socialite, whom he first met in 1841 when she visited Perkins with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Charles Sumner. Following their marriage, the Howes set off for a European honeymoon that included visiting London, the continent and finally, Italy. While in Italy, Julia Howe learned that she was pregnant. Julia Romana, their first child, was born in Rome in 1844. The Howes had five more children: Florence (1846), Henry Marion (1848), Laura Elizabeth (1850), Maud (1854) and Samuel Gridley, Jr. (1859). Their last son, Samuel Gridley, Jr., died in 1863 at age three.

Well-known for his work with the blind, Howe used his popularity to aid other causes and reform campaigns. He aided Dorothea Dix in the fight to enforce state regulations in the treatment and care of the mentally ill. Along with Boston reformer Horace Mann, Howe crusaded for reforms to the prison system in Boston and helped to institute regulations for the operation of Boston’s normal schools. Interested in the education of the mentally retarded, Howe helped to establish a school specifically for such students. Initially housed in a wing of the Perkins Institute, the Massachusetts School for Idiotic and Feeble-Minded Youth (now the Fernald Center in Waltham, MA) was the first institution of its kind in America.

As the anti-slavery sentiments in America grew, Howe devoted himself almost exclusively to the abolitionist cause. He and wife Julia began publishing the abolitionist paper The Boston Commonwealth. The Commonwealth, viewed by even most abolitionists as extreme in its tone, was published for three and a half years. As political tensions over slavery came to a boiling point, Howe joined a group of five other men later known as the “Secret Six.” The Secret Six included Howe, minister and author Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, educator Franklin Sanborn, and businessmen Gerrit Smith and George Luther Sterns (Lot #1454 Sedge Path). Together, these six men helped arm and finance abolitionist John Brown. Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, however, ended the work of the Secret Six and instead brought the country even closer to war. Through the Civil War, Howe focused his attentions on emancipation.

After the Civil War Howe returned his focus to education of the blind and deaf but found himself involved in two separate international events. In 1866 Howe returned to Greece to aid in the uprising on the island of Crete, still under Turkish rule. In 1871 Howe was part of a committee to facilitate the U.S. annexation of Santo Domingo. Unfortunately for Howe, both the revolution on Crete and the annexation of Santo Domingo ended in failure.

Howe died in January of 1876. He was initially buried in his brother’s lot on Willow Avenue at Mount Auburn.  In 1886 his wife Julia had Howe, their son Samuel Gridley Howe, Jr. and their daughter Julia, who died in 1886, moved to a newly purchased lot on Spruce Avenue.

Adapted from the research of Bree Detamore (Harvey) as published in Mount Auburn Cemetery’s Person of the Week: Samuel Gridley Howe, 2003.


Portrait of Samuel Gridley Howe: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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