Address by Mr. Swett
[WE GAVE a notice in the last Annals, of the miniature Battle of Lexington, constructed by Mr. William B. Swett, a former pupil of the American Asylum. Mr. Swett came to Hartford, and exhibited his work to the pupils and teachers of the Asylum, on Christmas day, and at the same time delivered an Address, which he had previously committed to writing. We insert it here, not merely for the gratification of his friends and fellow mutes; the frank simplicity with which he has laid open his experience, gives it a peculiar interest for every reader.
Mr. Swett disposed of his work, while in Hartford, to Messrs. Goodwin & Co., proprietors of an attractive and popular show; which comprises a number of pieces of a similar description. He at the same time engaged his personal services in their employ, on terms advantageous to him.
Mr. Swett was born deaf of one ear, and perhaps partially with the other. He lost hearing entirely at ten years of age, by the measles and mumps. His mother, also a deaf-mute, is a sister of Mr. Thomas Brown, President of the New England Gallaudet Association of Deaf-Mutes, and he has several other deaf-mute relatives.
The intelligent readers of Mr. Swett’s story, will be impressed with the importance of providing thorough instruction in the elementary principles of mechanics for pupils of a natural bent and capacity like his.—Editor]
Ladies and Gentlemen, the Officers and Teachers and the Pupils of the American Asylum—
I CONFESS, I am totally incapable of saying what the expressions of my heart are while I stand before you. I must leave you to imagine one’s feelings after a long absence, to find himself back again here on this place he has so often trod in his school days; everything is brought back to his mind, the school exercises, religious services, &c., &c. I can not but say, that I offer up my heartfelt gratitude to our Heavenly Father for his great kindness in keeping me alive, and in his kind care of my life’s journeying, and at last bringing me safe to this place I so long desired to see, and to feel again all its blessings I bore when I was a schoolboy; for even now I retain all those boyish feelings, and I still yearn to become a pupil again and commence with the A, B, C. Oh! let me again be under the rule of the teachers; let me sit in the same room that I used to, and study my lessons again; let me sit at the same table and eat my meals, and let me again sit in this dear chapel, where I may drink much of that religious teaching again, which I so often attended in my school days. All would have been forever darkness with me, but for the kind care of Providence, by which this Institution sprung up as if by miracle, and thousands of minds were enlightened, and thousands know their God. Allow me to say, that I owe all the education I got, and all the success I met with since I left Hartford, to the beneficent Institution itself, and to your (the teachers’) kind care and exertions and your teachings. I have now returned with pride, to show the fruits of it.
You now ask, when did it originate in my mind to make this diorama, the Battle of Lexington? I will now proceed to give you all the information I am capable of remembering. Once on a time, I can not remember precisely, but should think it was about the middle of my term at school, the pupils and myself were invited to see the diorama of the Battle of Bunker Hill at the City Hall. Time never can erase it out of my mind, on seeing the first scene, how I was startled and enraptured, and would not turn away my eyes from the moving figures, and I wondered if they had souls, until the performance was through. When, on leaving the Hall, and while on our way back to the Asylum, Mr. Turner came up to where I was walking alone, separate from the boys; he put his hand on my arm, and I could see by moon-light, with a smile, and asked me how I liked the exhibition; and what answer I gave I do not remember, but I am sure I made some remark which appeared to please him, and ever after he said nothing about it, nor did I attempt to say about it to him again. I tried to forget the beautiful thing, but could not, and have spent many restless days and sleepless nights. I dreamed of it while in bed, amused my mind in various ways by day. I do not exactly remember what the nature of the show was. I feebly tried to find out. I found I was too young, and destitute of inventive genius, as I have now in my older age. I have often told the boys that when I am older, I meant to make a diorama, but all the answers they gave me were none of the pleasantest. They believed a deaf and dumb person would never be able to make one, nor succeed in taking an exhibition journey. I determined to surprise them some way, if there was any chance, which I happily had on a Christmas day. It had been customary with them to decorate their sitting room with evergreen, pictures, and any thing they could find at their wit’s end, and for my part I was too lazy to do any thing, and at the same time, I unconsciously kicked up a quarrel with one of the boys, when I forgot I had a beam in my eye, for I accused him of his want of interest in helping the boys. It proved a good lesson to me, and I got worsted by him. As if by magic, I forgot the quarrel, ran to the city, got some colored papers, and by the assistance of an old pupil I succeeded to a charm in making and arranging soldiers; I borrowed war-horse with an officer on, I made a cannon, I set it on the west shelf in the sitting room. Christmas evening came. The teachers came, next the ladies and girls, and at the head was the venerable Mr. Weld, to enjoy the sight of the decoration the boys had made. I can never forget, Mr. Weld, with a look which appeared like surprise, walked quietly up to the shelf, while I stood near by with both of my hands in my pockets; he surveyed the work with his piercing eyes so natural with him, he turned round slowly full before me, and with his face lightened up with pleasure, asked me who made those pretty soldiers, &c., pointing at them with his straight fingers. I told him it was I. Some of the teachers followed him round, and at this instant I got myself out of their presence; my heart beat with delight at the success; I learned to think possibly I could succeed in any work if I should try. Though very trifling as you suppose, yet it led me deep into thought for many years, and here is the effect of this memorable event. I learned two words, patience and perseverance. When I lay hold of any thing, I go to work with a will and overcome all difficulties if I meet them.
You are welcome to make good use of this example in your work, toward the pupils; they will follow your advice and my example to good effect during their lives after they leave the Institution. You would ask, why was I willing to devote so much time on the Battle, when I ought to have attended to other things more necessary? If I am to say all the particulars which induced me to pursue the work, it would tire you to hear at present, but I will give you a few reasons and make the story short: I was born to be an inventor, or so I thought I was. I have been a great whittler, a curious and amusing business from the age 24 years old to my present age. You are welcome to laugh to your heart’s content, but I turned it to good account. I loved all kind of machinery, and often felt gloomy and sick they were not of my own invention, nor could I invent any. I have studied natural philosophy, and many things, but I was not content with it. I wished I had been thrown into a good field, where I could make myself the most useful to my friends and the deaf-mutes in general. I wanted to have a good privilege to improve my mind with writing language, &c., &c. I thought by going on a journey with a show there may be a fine time to go to learning again and to great advantage, by conversing with persons, who have any interest with me. Very happily I had it to my heart’s content, and hope I may continue to enjoy it a long time. I have been very fond of military music and seeing parade, ever since I was four years of age. I commenced to practice on the drum at five years old, with a tin pan and a stick. I thought to myself, before I lost my hearing, when I grow up to be a fine soldier, I will handle the musket, or brandish the sword, ride on a horse, a plume in the hat and epaulettes on my shoulder, &c., &c. Often I would get a long stick, tie a string on one end for a bridle, and vault on it with pride, and gallop away with a wooden sword to my side and a cock’s feather in my hat; but I was checked in my youthful career by being deprived of my hearing, and to this day I have a longing to follow the army. I had a brother who went but never returned. He was wounded at the storming of the castle of Chepultepec, and died from a wound. I tried hard to get the consent of Gen. Pierce to accompany my brother to the war, but the laws of the United States forbid deaf-mutes enlisting for the army. At the age of twenty-five, I determined to settle down. I married and settled down in my native town. I worked diligently at my trade, and after eight years of experience, I found the competition in the carpenters’ business so great, I being a mute, I found it hard work to support a family. I have been much hindered in all kinds of work by sickness, and the expense more than I could get by steady work, &c. I hoped, if I could take a journey with the exhibition, I might be able to make myself and family independent and comfortable.
All the success I met with on this work, is owing much to my wife’s encouragement and kind advice. She would lessen or drive away any gloomy thoughts that I was always apt to bear, and she would bear all the troubles with me with great patience, and I confess I have been more than once morose and cross to her in the day of trouble, but thank her for her kind look. When I succeeded, after a long time, in finding out a method I could work the figures, how her eyes brightened up! and she foresaw I might eventually succeed in the show business, and she often and alone of all my friends urged me along, showing pictures of future happiness and comfort to us all, put to silence so much malicious stories against us; God bless her, and let her be forever an ornament and a precious jewel to me, a brute of a man, and may she always by her kindness and gentleness, lead me along to prosperity.
Again you will ask, where I began to plan and work on this Battle. It was in Nashua, to which place I moved and got work in a door-factory. Not long after, one day, I went to work gloomily, for I had met with a disappointment. At last, a showbill was handed to me, and on glancing at a word, I was thunderstruck to find that the very Battle of Bunker Hill I loved to think of and doted on, was to be exhibited on the following evening, at the City Hall. My apron was off instantly, for how could I hold myself at such unexpected news. I asked leave of absence, ran home, swallowed up my supper, for I could not eat it from great excitement, and before I knew where I was, I found myself the first at the Hall, begged admission; the proprietor kindly gave me a free pass. I must leave you to finish the story how I enjoyed it. I commenced right away the same evening. I did not sleep a wink until the morning sun admonished me to go to work at the shop. First, I set myself to learning to make figures with a knife, and then to study the history of the Revolution. There was a gigantic obstacle to overcome. I was undismayed, but sometimes I gave the work up in despair, and would have destroyed my plan and some of the works I had begun, but for my wife; she prevented my rash act. I fixed on Lexington, because I know it was the first place where the first blood was shed during the Revolutionary War, that rendered this country forever free from the yoke of Great Britain, and that I hoped it would be more attractive and interesting than any thing that I knew of. Before I had proceeded far into the work, I was compelled to remove back to my native place, by ill health and other circumstances. I have done this work, generally in evenings, and every spare moment when I was not engaged, and sometimes I would work on one particular thing all night, for fear what I found out would slip out of my memory. It will not be necessary for me to say any more than that I at last succeeded, after six long years of fear and doubts.
It is well for me to say, that before I began on this work, I had invented several things, such as doctor’s pocket scales, a key and lock, an artificial water-fall, and two others; but they proved nearly all failures, except the scales, which I would have entered in the Patent Office, but I had no means to pay for a caveat. I have been, and am now, trying on a perpetual rocking, though I hardly know if I can succeed. I have borne the laughs of my neighbors patiently, and now if I had failed to make my friends take notice of this last invention, I wonder if I could have borne the disappointment again, but thank God I triumphed. I felt very gloomy, and made up my mind I was the most unfortunate man in the world. But not so with my wife. I first performed to her and my brother alone, and then to a few friends, who were delighted to see it, and advised me to make it public. I followed their advice, advertised a grand show to come off on a certain evening. The effect of such announcement from a deaf-mute, among my friends, can better be imagined than described. The hall was full, and I need not say what they said of it; they assured me of a perfect success by cheerings. After the performance, I ran home, I capered for joy, my wife laughed, I caught her, hugged and kissed her, our old puss flew away, my children were astonished, and what more can I say now.
Here let me introduce this gentleman, Mr. James Winston, who deserves your esteem, and of all the deaf-mutes also, as a worthy and useful man. He came nine miles and volunteered to open the first exhibition. His kind offer I gladly accepted, and I can never have cause to be sorry I have allowed him to accompany me on my tour of exhibition. I hardly know on whom I can rely so well for honesty and interest in my behalf.
How I went to Lexington to make a survey, is too well known to you. I reached home at midnight with ears frozen; my wife was up waiting for me. She had kept up a roaring fire; how I devoured my supper you had better guess.
I came here with this Battle, for I have been very impatient to show it to my dear teachers, and the pupils, and hope it will be the means of producing a beneficial effect on their despairing minds. They will learn to struggle against obstacles, and go to work with a will. I must stop and thank you all for your kind attention and your presence. I must say, the whole work needs to be repainted and altered, and all the other fixings done up nicely. I am unable to do it at present, but I hope I may be able to, and hope you and all my friends will give me encouragement and assistance. I have a plan which I intend to accomplish at no distant day, to render the exhibition doubly interesting. When I take leave of you all, I pray you will remember me, and I will be thankful to you all my life.
Mr. Swett’s address originally appeared in the American Annals of the Deaf, 1, no. 1 (January 1859).