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"A Chapter on Idiots"

Creator: n/a
Date: June 1854
Publication: Harper's New Monthly Magazine
Source: Available at selected libraries

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PEOPLE whose ancestors came in at the Conquest, are apt to have one idea over-ruling all others -- that nobody is worthy of their alliance whose ancestors did not come in at the Conquest. Of course this has been an idea ever since the Conquest began to be considered an old event; and, of course, there have been fewer and fewer families who had a right to it. Of course, also, those families have intermarried, and the intermarriage has been more and more restricted. Another "of course" follows, on which we need not enlarge. Everybody knows the consequences of prolonged intermarriages between any sort of people who are few enough to be almost all blood relations. The world was shocked and grieved, some years since, at the oldest baronage in England "going out at the ace of diamonds" -- expiring in the disgrace of cheating at cards. The world ought to be quite as much shocked and grieved at seeing -- what has been seen, and may be seen again -- the honors of the same ancient birth being extinguished in a lunatic asylum.


It used to be thought a very religious and beautiful thing (it certainly was the easiest thing) to say that it pleased God to send idiots, and other defective or diseased children, to try and discipline their parents by affliction, and so on; but religions physicians now tell us (showing reason for what they say) that there is something very like blasphemy in talking so -- in imputing to Providence the sufferings which we bring upon ourselves, precisely by disobedience to the great natural laws which it is the best piety to obey. It is a common saying, that families who intermarry too often, die out; but no account is taken of the miseries which precede that dying out. Those miseries of disease of body and mind are ascribed to Providence, as if Providence had not given us abundant warning to avoid them! Dr. Howe, the wise and benevolent teacher of Laura Bridgman, says in his Report on Idiocy in Massachusetts, that "the law against the marriage of relatives is made out as clearly as though it were written on tables of stone." He gives his reasons for saying so; and of those reasons, the following sample will, we think, be enough. When the tables of health and disease were compiled for Massachusetts, a few years ago, the following was found to be the state of seventeen families, where the father and mother were related by blood. Some of the parents were unhealthy, and some were intemperate -- but to set against this disadvantage to begin with, there is the fact, that the evil consequences of such intermarriage very often do not appear until the second generation, or even later. However, in these seventeen households there were ninety-five children. What were these children like? Imagine a school of ninety-five children, of all ages, or the children of a hamlet at play, and think what the little crowd would look like; and then read this! Of these ninety-five children, one was a dwarf. Well, that might easily be. One was deaf. Well, no great wonder in that. Twelve were scrofulous. That is a large number, certainly; but scrofula is sadly common, and especially in unhealthy situations. Well, but FORTY-FOUR were IDIOTS.


Of all the long and weary pains of mind to which the unselfish can be subject, we know of none so terrible as that of the mother attaining the certainty that her child is an idiot. Reviewing the whole case as we have ourselves observed it, it seem to us an affliction made tolerable only by its gradual growth, and the length of years over which it is spread. How sweet was the prospect of the little one coming -- not only in the sacred anticipations of the parents, but when the elder children were told, in quiet, joyful moments of confidence, that there would be a baby in the house by-and-by! And when it came, how amiable, and helpful, and happy every body was -- keeping the house quiet for the mother's sake, and wondering at the baby, and not minding any irregularity or little uncomfortableness while the mother was up-stairs. Perhaps there was a wager that baby would "take notice," turn its eyes to a bright watch, or spoon, or looking-glass, at the end of ten days or a fortnight, and the wager was lost. Here, perhaps, was the first faint indication. But it would not be thought much of, the child was so very young! As the weeks pass, however, and still the child takes no notice, a sick misgiving sometimes enters the mother's mind -- a dread of she does not know what, but it does not last long. You may trust a mother for finding out charms and promise of one sort or another in her baby -- be it what it may. Time goes on; and the singularity is apparent that the baby makes no response to any thing. He is not deaf. Very distant street music probably causes a kind of quiver through his whole frame. He sees very well. He certainly is aware of the flies which are performing minuets and reels between him and the ceiling. As for his other senses, there never was any thing like his keenness of smell and taste. He is ravenous for food -- even already unpleasantly so; but excessively difficult to please. The terrible thing is his still taking no notice. His mother longs to feel the clasp of his arms round her neck; but her fondlings receive no return. His arm hangs lax over her shoulder. She longs for a look from him, and lays him back on her lap, hoping that they may look into each other's eyes; but he looks at nobody. All his life long nobody will ever meet his eyes; and neither in that way nor any other way will his mind expressly meet that of any body else. When he does at length look at any thing, it is at his own hand. He spreads the fingers, and holds up the hand close before his face, and moves his head from side to side. At first, the mother and the rest laugh, and call it a baby trick; but after a time the laughter is rather forced, and they begin to wish he would not do so. We once saw a child on her mother's lap laughing at the spinning of a half-crown on the table, when, in an instant, the mother put the little creature down -- almost threw her down on the carpet, with an expression of anguish in her face perfectly astonishing. The child had chanced to hold up her open hand before her face in her merry fidget; and the mother, who had watched over an idiot brother from her youth up, could not bear that terrible token, although in this case it was a mere accident.

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