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Writing on Water: What Alexander Graham Bell knew about the Mystic Oral School

The Mystic Oral School is on the lips of many people these days because of its potential transformation from a deserted campus into a commercial and residential enterprise. But its place in history began 150 years ago with a father’s quest for a way to communicate with his son.

My ancestor, Jonathan Whipple, a stonemason by profession, was a self-educated teacher at the Quakertown School in Ledyard when his youngest son, Enoch, was born in 1825. Within the year, he noticed that Enoch was different from his other four children. Jonathan’s autobiography (now in the Jane Adams collection at the Swarthmore College Library) notes that, while the boy seemed active and curious, he didn’t respond to sounds of any kind and he appeared unable to speak.

Jonathan tested Enoch with all types of noises. Nothing made the child respond, but Jonathan noticed that, if Enoch looked directly at a speaker’s mouth, he would sometimes attempt to repeat a word.

While Jonathan had never heard of lip-reading, the thought occurred to him that perhaps every word had a physical shape, and that by learning the shape of each letter, as it appeared when spoken, the boy might be taught to imitate it.

He worked daily with Enoch. Other members of the family also acted as teachers and, as Enoch grew, he became proficient at reading, writing and reading lips. His speech became so flawless that, as an adult, he carried on business transactions without revealing that he was hearing impaired.

When Enoch died in 1897, at age 72, he was the oldest deaf person in the United States who had been taught to read lips and speak.

The story spread about Jonathan’s method and parents throughout New England approached him to teach their children.

The original Whipple Home School for the Deaf was established at the Whipple homestead in Quakertown in 1869.

Jonathan’s grandson, Zerah Whipple, assisted by inventing the phonetic “Natural Alphabet” with pictures showing the various positions of the face and mouth during speech.

Jonathan was also an abolitionist and advocate for universal peace. As president of the Connecticut Peace Society he had organized the first public meeting in 1868 along River Road in Mystic in the area now called the Peace Sanctuary. The meetings continued for 41 years, attracting hundreds.

When his school in Quakertown overflowed with students, Jonathan remembered a large house on 100-plus acres overlooking River Road and bought the property with Zerah in 1872.

During the first year of operation, the Connecticut General Assembly passed a law granting state aid for each student to cover tuition and board.

Jonathan died in 1875, and Zerah died in 1879 at the age of 30, leaving a huge gap in the leadership of the school. Other family members stepped up temporarily until, finally, cousin Clara McGuigan, M.D., the first woman to graduate from the Philadelphia School of Medicine, took over as director in 1895. The school was re-named that year as the Mystic Oral School.

But a conflict was brewing between supporters of lip reading and others who believed that sign language should be primary in the education of the deaf.

Supporters of the oral method, or lip-reading, wrote impassioned statements of confidence for Jonathan and Zerah’s legacy and on behalf of the Mystic Oral School. Among them was Clara’s friend and colleague, Alexander Graham Bell.

In 1897, Bell wrote: “To Jonathan Whipple of Mystic belongs the honor of having first demonstrated auricular development of the deaf, a discovery that was neither understood nor appreciated at the time … Zerah Whipple’s methods of instruction were unique and his success marked. His early death … was a great loss to the State of Connecticut and to the cause of oral instruction … Of these two men, Connecticut should be proud.”

The curriculum survived and remained focused on the oral method as Clara led the school through the challenges and deprivations of WWI and the pandemic of 1918. In 1921, she negotiated the sale of the school to the State of Connecticut, as well as its continuance with the oral method.

The school continued to serve residential and day students from nursery school through high school with the motto: “A very special place where the deaf learn to speak.”

The small, booklet-sized year books produced by the six to 12 graduating seniors each year showed a senior class small by intention because the goal was for students to leave the Oral School and hold their own in the world and regular classrooms as soon as they were ready.

After the school closed in 1980, facilities were used for community programs until it was closed down entirely by the state in 2011. And the rest is history.

Ruth W. Crocker lives in Mystic. She can be reached at ruth@ruthwcrocker.com.

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