Monday, May 30, 2011

"A Long, Beautiful and Useful Life..."

Recently I was researching my Rose relatives and learned that my fifth great-grandfather's niece, Mary Emma Rose (Mitchell) (Totten) was deaf and was prominent in the deaf community during her lifetime due to her work in education for the hearing impaired.  This is her story:


Eminent age is in itself venerable, but when it is united with eminent goodness and eminent services in a good cause it constrains our highest tribute of admiration and reverence.  An aged and excellent Christian, who for many generations has faithfully performed her duties, has befriended her race, and in her time did much to rouse public interest in the cause of the education of the deaf, deserves our gratitude; and when death removes her to join that cloud of heavenly witnesses and examples which surround us we feel that her removal is appropriate and that her example should be studied.

Among the first four pupils of the New York Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb, when it opened in 1818, was Mary E. Rose.  She was born in New York City in 1808, being deaf from birth, and had the advantage, rather rare at that time, of receiving early instruction, entering the institution as a pay pupil at the age of 9.  She came of a prominent New York family, which, having met with financial reverses, subsequently removed to Albany.  She then became a State pupil from the third senate district.

In 1822 she was selected as an assistant teacher, bearing the distinction of being one of the two first deaf teachers employed at the New York Institution, the other being John H. Gazlay, who was appointed at the same time.  Of her selection the records of the institution state:

'She is a very promising young woman, and the directors find her highly useful in the institution as an assistant teacher, while at the same time she is acquiring information as a pupil.' 

At this time Miss Rose was quite young, but already gave promise of the great personal beauty for which she was subsequently noted, and traces of which remained with her even in extreme old age.  She was, moreover, very intelligent, and though as deaf-mute from birth she could express her thoughts in well-chosen language.

In the dual position of teacher-pupil she remained until 1826, when she resigned to become the wife of Mr. Clinton Mitchell, a hearing gentleman, the nephew of Dr. Mitchell, at that time president of the board of directors of the institution.  Upon the death of Mr. Mitchell she was appointed assistant matron at the institution.

In July, 1844, she became the wife of Mr. Nathan M. Totten, a graduate and for some years a teacher of the New York Institution, and with her husband went to the North Carolina Institution, where Mr. Totten had an engagement as teacher.  Subsequently, in August, 1847, Mr. Totten transferred his services to the Illinois Institution, with which he continued until his death.  In each of these institutions Mrs. Totten, during her husband's connection with it, performed, with intelligence, energy, and womanly tact, the duties of matron.  By this latter marriage Mrs. Totten had several children, two of whom still survive, in Illinois, and have families.

In 1853 she returned to the New York institution as a temporary teacher, a position she held till the close of July, 1854.  The next year she was reappointed assistant matron, and continued in that position until September, 1871, when she retired with the love and respect of all, after nearly twenty years' service at the institution in a position where she exhibited intelligence, kindness, and administrative ability.  In his reports for 1871 Dr. Peet thus feelingly comments on her remarkable career:

'I have to record the retirement, on the 1st of September, of Mrs. Mary E. Totten, the principal assistant matron, who was specially in charge of the girls.

One of the first four pupils with whom the institution was opened in May, 1818, she was conspicuous in its early history, and her bright childhood is still remembered with interest by some of the few persons in New York who can recall the events of fifty years ago.  From being one of the pupils whose performances were the most effective in winning public interest and favor to the cause of the deaf-mute instruction, she became a teacher; but the beautiful and intelligent Miss Rose could not, more than her hearing sisters in like circumstances, be left to the quiet of an unpretending, useful vocation.  She was soon wooed and won (one of the earliest instances in our city of the marriage of a deaf mute) by a hearing gentleman, for some years a teacher of deaf mutes, and a nephew of the distinguished scholar and philanthropist, Samuel Mitchell, D.D., then president of the board of directors.

As Mrs. Mitchell she became, after the death of her husband, assistant matron of the institution, in which capacity she was for years signally useful.

Forming a second union with one of the teachers, a deaf gentleman, she changed her name again, and as Mrs. Totten, was successively assistant matron in the North Carolina, and matron in the Illinois institution, while her husband was teacher in the same institutions.

Left a second time a widow, more than twenty years, she returned to visit her family connections in the East, and was soon after persuaded to resume her connection with this institution, at first as a teacher and afterwards as assistant matron, in which she gave us sixteen consecutive years of faithful and very efficient service.'

Upon her final retirement from the institution she resided several years in its immediate neighborhood, having, through the efforts of Dr. Peet, secured a competence sufficient to exempt her from care and permit her declining years to be happy and contented.  As she grew in years her friends arranged for her comfort at the Gallaudet Home, where she passed her closing days in peaceful serenity.

Her last public appearance at the institution was on the occasion of the celebration of the seventy-fifth anniversary.  She was then 84 years old, but seemed much younger.  Her end, a peaceful one, came on Wednesday, April 21, 1897; surrounded by kind, loving faces, her spirit took its flight to its final home.  Truly, hers was a remarkable career; a long, beautiful and useful life, and a history that is a credit to the New York institution, of which she was the last survival of its original pupils. -- Thomas F. Fox"

From pages 276-278 of Proceedings of the Fifteenth Meeting of the Convention of American Instructors of the Deaf, Held at the Ohio Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, Columbus, Ohio, July 28 - August 2, 1898

The Illinois institution is now known as the Illinois School for the Deaf.  Their website mentions Mary Emma as the first matron.  Additional biographies on Mary Emma are listed here.

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