This article looks to the genre of letter-writing and to epistolary rhetoric in order to recover perspectives seemingly lost amongst the medicalized discourse of asylum histories. These hard-to-find letters written in the nineteenth century by pupils, family members, and teachers open us up to new perspectives not available in other archival documents. I give a brief introduction to the history and theory of epistolary rhetoric, delimit a disability epistolary, and then consider a group of letters in terms of the rhetorical action they perform. I conclude by emphasizing the significance of this cross-disciplinary work for both rhetoric and disability studies.


One defining characteristic of the writing of "New Disability Histories" and of Disability Studies more generally has been the move to be accountable to the perspectives of people with disabilities who are the subjects of historical recovery: as the saying goes, nothing about us without us. Yet, to retrieve the past from primary perspectives, logically, we are more apt to document and analyze the lives of those who have left writing simply because of the understandable tendency to rely on written documentation. But this inclination to focus only on written evidence is problematic and in need of circumspection. As we research and write histories, we must nudge ourselves further to ask: how can we, and why must we, recover lives and histories when there is no self-authored writing? How can we dig through the layers of dominant discourse to reach submerged perspectives? How do we make historical that which is silent? How can we "listen" to that which is seemingly not there?1

While some scholars have effectively pursued the primary perspectives of deaf and disabled people from their self-authored writings,2 there is still a gap in methods for how we can account for lack of written evidence from communities of disability. As Douglas Biklen and Christopher Kliewer point out, people with disabilities have historically been denied access to literacy practices. This denial of literacy has made documenting histories from primary perspectives potentially difficult because the written evidence that remains is often not written by people with disabilities themselves and, in addition, writing by institutions is generally more accessible than writing by people with disabilities and their families. In invoking Paul Longmore and Lauri Umansky who reveal that "Disability has been present, in penumbra if not in print, on virtually every page of American History" (2), I urge us to think further about exactly whose histories have been present. We must account for those who did not write or speak and for those who have not been able to insert their perspectives into the evidence that remains.

In this essay, I argue that researching disability should involve an approach to evidence that recasts silence as a rhetorical device.3 I look to The James Thornton Correspondence, a collection of 23 letters written by the staff and administration of the New York State Asylum for Idiots at Syracuse to Mrs. Mary Thornton of Cinncinatus (and later Caton), New York between 1855 and 1866 regarding her institutionalized son, James Thornton.4 This correspondence offers much insight into how silence operates rhetorically and how an analysis of silence is crucial to historical recovery. The letter-writing between the institution and Mrs. Thornton lasted eleven years between 1855, when "Jimmy" first came to the asylum-school, until 1866 when Superintendent Hervey B. Wilbur attempted to find out about Jimmy's whereabouts five years after Jimmy left to go home. The historical record is one-sided in that we have few remnants left from the family's perspective except those that I can extract from the layers of bureaucratic rhetoric. Looking for the perspectives of the family and pupil himself —and attempting to recover the Thorntons' story on the whole—is important because this work adds to our understanding of asylum life during what Wolf Wolfensberger calls "the educational period."5 This work also develops a consciousness that resists further historical erasure. That is, while I do not have written evidence from the family themselves in this set of letters, I do have remnants that necessitate some sort of assemblage.

To open up possibilities for recasting silence as a rhetorical device, I utilize methods of imaginative reconstruction (claim-making based on contradicting possibilities) and rhetorical accretion (analysis of the layers upon layers of rhetoric and "voice") in the context of letter-writing at the New York State Asylum for Idiots at Syracuse (1855-1866). This work allows me to confirm the notion that silence is rhetorical as much as articulation is rhetorical and to demonstrate how a deepening of our understanding of silence as rhetorical can open the path to retrieve the "voices" of people with disabilities. Rather than defining rhetoric as simply verbal persuasion, a revised understanding values rhetoric as a complex and multi-layered epistemological and methodological tool for negotiating gaps and silence in historical evidence. Rhetoric(s) are, as John Duffy has written, "the ways of using language and other symbols by institutions, groups, or individuals for the purpose of shaping conceptions of reality…rhetorics are the languages of ideologies and offer symbolic means through which ideologies become known and are imposed, shared, understood, and overthrown" (15, 17). Duffy's expansive definition helps point to our need to acknowledge which "conceptions of reality" families and pupils/inmates of institutions experienced. 6

And, as feminist rhetoric scholar Cheryl Glenn reminds us, "Rhetoric itself has always inscribed the relation of language and power at a particular moment, indicating who may speak, who may listen, and what may be said" ("Octalog II," 28). In other words, the "push and pull" of discourse that occurs between people has, in the past, often produced a "victor" in the sense that the dominant rhetorics come to be heard and seen more often than the non-dominant rhetorics. Alongside Duffy and Glenn, rhetoric scholar James Berlin establishes rhetoric as "a set of rules to naturalize an ideology," the ideology generally being that of dominant culture ("Octalog I," 35). Berlin points to this sense of rhetoric as a "push and pull" or a struggle for power between individuals and groups: he writes, "If there were something such as objective truth that we could agree on, we wouldn't need rhetoric. Why we need rhetoric is that we disagree, [we exist within] a probalistic realm" ("Octalog," 33). Rhetoric is the negotiation that we engage in with each other, privately and civically and individually and collectively, to attempt to reconcile our multiplicitous understandings of "truth" and "reality." These negotiations can be silent, unspoken, and tacit as much as they can be voiced, written, or expressed alphabetically.

At first glance, when looking only to what is overtly written in these letters, pupils and families may appear somewhat silent and acquiescent. My point in this essay is to show how families and pupils may be silent in the extant historical record but in no way were they absent or entirely acquiescent. In her work, Glenn explores the ways in which silence is rhetorical and the ways in which "speaking or speaking out continues to signal power, liberation, culture, or civilization itself…The dominant group in a social hierarchy renders inarticulate subordinate or muted groups (any of the traditionally disenfranchised) and excludes them from the formulation, validation, and circulation of meaning" (3, 25). However, while the dominant group (the institutional "voice") is by and large the primary voice left within the historical record of the asylum-school, that is not to say that the subordinate group (families and pupils) never spoke, wrote, or engaged in rhetorical practice. Because it is imposed on people in the historical record, we can assume that, as Glenn suggests, silence could be an expression of a multitude of things: agreement, disagreement, lack of information, lack of power, anger, doubt, empathy and more (16). While Glenn looks mostly at tactical and intentional silence, I look at silence as:

  1. imposed in terms of the historical record,
  2. tactical in terms of a few instances within the correspondence where Mrs. Thornton possibly decides not to write or where the asylum perhaps intentionally does not communicate certain things in the letters, and
  3. neither wholly imposed nor wholly tactical but as a "site of knowing, composing, generation" (Glenn, 8).

This means silence can operate as a compass. Instead of thinking of silence as an imposition or a refusal, we might think of it as directing us toward knowledge of something new.

By investigating the rhetorics of the letters, we learn that rhetoric is silence as much as it is articulation. Rhetoric, then, can open a path to retrieve subaltern "voices," perspectives, or materialities of families and pupils of the asylum-school that are seemingly silent but definitely not absent. Rhetoric(s) include language practices, bodily performances, and symbol usages that operate within systems of power, but they also entail barely audible traces, invisible performances, and non-extant experience that have no tangible evidence left. Rhetoric is multiplicitous uses of language (utterance or enunciation) but rhetoric is also the existence of silence that—and this is crucial—must not necessarily be confused with absence.

Scholars that work at the intersection of feminism and rhetoric have, in the last 20 years, taught us to listen rhetorically to silences, to follow minimal traces towards larger streams, and to unearth gaps in order to widen the perspectives we consider in our histories.7 Feminist rhetoric scholar Jacqueline Jones Royster, in her work that recovers the rhetorics of African American women in the nineteenth century, offers insight for reconciling the dilemma of how to see meaning in silence. She explains how she uses the method of imaginative reconstruction: "in the case of this scenario where so much is unknown and undocumented, a second responsibility is to hypothesize about what remains missing in a way that is reasonable and useful for future research" (13). In bringing historical erasure to light, Royster writes that for her, "The immediate challenge is to make visible many features, factors, relationships, people, and practices, that heretofore were not visible—to articulate what is there and what seems to be going on…to make better sense" (8). She goes onto explain how in the case of her research where there is much undocumented history, as a researcher she feels a responsibility to make inferences about the possibilities in a reasonable and useful way (13). Meaning is made through generating a sense of people "being" whether or not we know the particulars. Imaginative reconstruction recognizes, in the traditions of Frederick Nietzsche, Hayden White, Jacques Derrida, and Michel de Certeau, the rhetorical and narrative nature of all history writing in the sense that what we think of as history is always incomplete, emplotted, and inclined towards particular, i.e. dominant, standpoints. This historiographic method in feminist rhetorics brings presence and awareness to perspectives and performances that seem submerged or lost in dominant discourse. These are initial cues that rhetoric gives us for uncovering hard to decipher histories of disability.

To further understand the rhetoric(s) of the asylum letters, Vicki Tolar Collins' (a.k.a. Vicki Tolar Burton) notion of rhetorical accretion is instrumental. Rhetorical accretion asks us to sort through the many layers of language that include more than just primary perspectives or what may be considered some "original" communication. Understanding the layering of language can help us to reconstruct multiple perspectives. Collins conceives of rhetorical accretion as a feminist method that comes into play when:

…the production authority sometimes decides to combine [voices]—for example, to attach an introduction representing a certain ideological viewpoint, to include a dedication indicating who supported the writer, or to publish a work in a volume with other works rather than as a solo text. This process of layering additional texts over and around the original text I call rhetorical accretion….as in the accreted growth of stones by the addition of external particles, rhetorical accretion attempts to form a whole from disjointed parts. But unlike the natural process of mineral formation, textual accretion is the result of human agency. With each accretion to a text, the speaker of the core text is respoken. Respeaking can be a way for the production authority to modify the ethos of the original speaker or call into question something in her text. (para. 7-8)

While Collins refers to texts that have been scaffolded around other texts, I extend rhetorical accretion to signify how I am only able to access—and thus only able to make meaning from—the words or sentiments of students/inmates and their families through the textual lens and layers (or accretion) of the institutional voices. Without direct access to words or sentiments of the students/inmates themselves or their families, I derive information from gaps and from second- and third-person accounts layered on top of each other rather than from primary perspectives. For example, I am interested in how Superintendent Wilbur in his letters to Mrs. Thornton is giving me an account of Jimmy's experience—however, I then turn my focus to the perspective Mrs. Thornton could have had upon reading this secondary (and sometimes even tertiary) account of her son's experience. I then rely upon imaginative reconstruction in order to hypothesize ethically about all the possibilities that exist in and around the layers. I also consider how the dominant and non-dominant rhetorics are enmeshed in each other, how dominant rhetorics, for example, are taken up by the non-dominant group and visa-versa, and how the rhetorics of both groups are at times in accordance and at times in competition. This means that I infer multiple (sometimes contradictory) possible realities and make claims akin to imaginative reconstruction. I look for traces and make inferences and probable claims based on those traces.8

The significance of the work of this essay is two-fold: first, it gives disability epistolary (letter-writing) the attention it deserves by locating it within disability studies, and two, it shows ways to negotiate silence and accretion if we cannot easily access the points of view and evidence we desire. I go on in this essay to show how possibilities emerge when we contemplate the rhetorical nature of gaps and silences as they appear in The James Thornton Correspondence and how this work offers disability history another way to pay attention. Now, I turn to the letters themselves.

Letters to Mrs. Thornton

The Special Collections at Syracuse University purchased this set of letters in 2008 and called it The James Thornton Correspondence. One would think that a collection with such a title would proffer instructive examples of letters written by James Thornton that elucidate some, any, experiences of his life. But these letters are not written by James (also called "Jamie" and "Jimmy") nor do they elucidate detailed particulars of his experience. Rather, in the letters there is little if any indication of Jimmy's point of view, though I can partially reconstruct the point of view of his mother. The 23 extant letters, barring the first letter where Superintendent Wilbur requests Ms. Thornton's name and address (strangely after Jimmy has already arrived at the institution) are responses to the petitions of Jimmy's mother. But Mrs. Thornton's petitions are missing—that is, absent from the historical record. Letters written by Mrs. Thornton to the asylum or any other letters written by family members of pupils (outside of letters excerpted in the institution's annual reports that constitute a separate project) appear to no longer exist. I was not only unable to locate Mrs. Thornton's part of the correspondence, but also was unable to pinpoint how The James Thornton Correspondence made its way into the Syracuse University Special Collections. The dealer that sold the collection to the university in 2008 had bought it from another dealer who could not recall how he had come to possess the letters nearly sixteen years ago.

Because of these and other gaps in the written record, instead of asking what writings did pupils and their families leave, I ask what action can we infer based on the inscriptions and writings that were left? How can the pupils (Jimmy) and their families (Mrs. Thornton) be made part of the historical record without much evidence from their perspective? We must account for the fact that even though the pupils' and families' speaking, writing, and experience more generally were not preserved, the absence of words evokes an undeniable presence. In attending to this question of presence, I give a brief overview of what I found in the written record of The James Thornton Correspondence. Subsequently, I discuss what is there but not to be found in the writing—the seemingly silent rhetoric—and what we learn by peeling away the layers and looking into possibilities.

What we know from the letters is that Jimmy Thornton was probably around seven years old when he entered the asylum at Syracuse in September, 1855. We know from the letters that he would have been one of the very first pupils in the new building at Syracuse after the asylum moved from Albany in 1854. We know Dr. R.H. Gray of Cinncinatus, New York most likely wrote the letter of application for Jimmy's admittance, as the first letter in the collection is written to Dr. Gray from Dr. Wilbur requesting the name and address of the mother of "the little boy from Cinncinatus." Jimmy's mother was Mrs. Mary Thornton, also from Cinncinatus, who became Mrs. Mary Whead most likely because she remarried in 1859 and thus moved further away from the asylum to Caton, New York. We know that this move and her remarriage must have somehow influenced her relationship with her son and her relationship to the asylum, as we can observe a marked change in circumstances around 1859 which corresponds to Mrs. Thornton's remarriage and her request, for various possible reasons, for Jimmy not to return for a visit home. There are three major points of dissonance in the correspondence: an initial discord over visitation one month after Jimmy arrives (1855), her remarriage and relocation (1859), and the lack of response or progress report the asylum receives from the family once he is home. These major conflicts all center around the issue of visitation and how it is difficult for inmates and families to come and go at will into or out of the asylum.

From the letters, we also know that Jimmy Thornton was deaf, did not speak, knew sign language, and read and wrote in English (Letter 14). We know he most likely attended the school as a state-funded pupil, which indicates that his mother was too poor to pay for his special schooling.9 Even after her remarriage in 1859, it appears that Jimmy continued on as a state-funded pupil (rather than the family paying for his institutionalization) since there is no indication in the letters that his status changed.10 We cannot be completely certain of Mrs. Thornton's financial status before or after remarriage nor can we be sure of the ways in which her remarriage and re-location further away from the asylum-school affected her relationship with Jimmy and with the asylum's administration. We do know that there is none of his own writing left, not even any inscriptions, even though he is said to have been able to write a "good copy." While Jimmy was given reasonable access to basic bi-lingual literacy education, through his learning to read and write English and American Sign Language, it is significant that in the historical record he remains silent—but certainly, not absent.

In contrast to what is easily known, I emphasize two things beyond what we can easily know from the written record: that the rhetoric of the senders (the asylum staff and administration) includes repeated attempts to gain and maintain consent of the family for their child's institutionalization and that what remains missing from the written record is Mrs. Thornton's discordance and likely displeasure with at least some parts of institutionalization. I can recreate these missing parts of the record with the help of imaginative reconstruction and an awareness of accretion, both which are heavily influenced by the negotiation of social hierarchies. We get a glimpse into Jimmy's lack of agency and his mother's lack of agency immediately in the correspondence. The very first letter of the correspondence, dated September 7, 1855, is from Superintendent Wilbur to Dr. Gray, the authorizing physician from the town in which the Thorntons lived. The letter signals an initial intent of reassurance and consolation, though brief, that points to the potentiality of the asylum's new acquisition, referred to anonymously as "the little boy from Cinncinatus." Dr. Wilbur begins his letter to Dr. Gray reassuring him that the boy has arrived and is well:

Dear Sir,

The little boy from Cincinnatus is very well and quite at home and contented with us. I think that he will make a very good pupil. If you will please to write to me giving the name and P.O. address of the mother—I will write to her occasionally of her child's welfare.

Yours Truly

H.B. Wilbur (Letter One, Sept. 7, 1855)

As in this first letter, letter-writers of the asylum throughout the correspondence avoid entirely the medicalized labels and phrases of the time like idiot, destitute, unfortunates, or feeble-minded. The letters attempt to console and reassure the family who has just lost their son or daughter by erasing remnants of the feared "idiot asylum;" instead, the letter-writers usher in an illusion of the idyllic home away from home where the treasured student (in this case, Jimmy) grows up into a man. Asylum letter-writers avoid use of deficiency-based observations by deploying lines of argument related to benevolence, praise, progress, goodwill, and sentimentalism. Wilbur's reference in Letter One (above) to the fact that Jimmy is "at home" will be reiterated in the bulk of the letters as a way to assuage and console the family for any regret felt at sending the child away. The letters continually remake the asylum into an intimate household that cares for the "well-being" of its kindred and replaces the "real" family home. The home that Mrs. Thornton gave Jimmy is no longer acknowledged as beneficial.11

Strangely, the "boy" in Letter One remains nameless even though the school had only 50-60 students in 1855 (Annual Report, 1856). Jimmy somehow arrived in Syracuse without a name. Wilbur goes on to promise Dr. Gray that he will "occasionally" write to "the boy's mother" (also nameless) to inform her of "her child's welfare." In Letter One, Mary Thornton is "the child's mother" rather than "Jimmy's mother" since Wilbur has no knowledge of the family name. This must have been an odd reality (even atypical for the time period) to have a child arrive in this anonymous fashion with nothing more than an admittance form sent ahead by a doctor. This letter of Wilbur's to Dr. Gray, acknowledging the boy's admittance, is in typical fashion, brief—a total of three sentences in which an assurance of the boy's well-being comes first, followed by a simple request for the family (and the boy's) name. The letter is unemotional and to the point. Wilbur desires only a name and address to attach to the "little" body that has thus entered his school. We have no way of knowing how exactly Jimmy arrived in this fashion, who brought him if anyone, or what method of transportation he used to travel. Even with all of these unknowns, this first letter demonstrates a dynamic that continues throughout the correspondence where harmony and benevolence are combined with bureaucratic brevity: even amidst serious lack of information, the letter implies no displeasure or discord with this.

Letter Two, undated12 and written by E.F. Mulford, the Matron of the asylum,13 offers more reassurance, though it is a reassurance that does not come directly to Mrs. Thornton but rather through an intermediary who must have come to the asylum to gather news on Jimmy, deliver the letter to the asylum, and report back to the family. In the letter, the Matron Mulford consoles Mrs. Thornton with a brief description of Jimmy's experience. The letter goes as follows:

I hope you will hear [through the intermediary] a favorable account of your boy's progress and feel satisfied that he remembers you for really I was quite surprised to see him show so much emotion—he actually shed tears. But this gentleman who is the bearer of this will tell you all.

From The Matron Mrs. E.F. Mulford (Letter Two, undated).

In this letter the Matron tells of the arrival of what must have been a family friend to the asylum who called (came) in order to inquire on behalf of Mrs. Thornton. The letter tells us that Jimmy shed tears at the memory of his mother. We can thus infer that for numerous reasons it would have been very difficult for Mrs. Thornton to visit her son herself. It is possible that her first husband may have died, making her a widow (Jimmy entered the asylum before her remarriage). Mrs. Thornton most likely could not have easily traveled alone as a woman, and possibly did not have the money or the time to make the trip from Cinncinatus to Syracuse which would have been 43 miles. In 1855, only the larger towns in Central New York like Syracuse, Albany, and Rochester were connected by the New York Central Railroad. The Erie Canal went only east and west, not south where Mrs. Thornton lived. If she had had the money, felt safe traveling alone, and could get time off from work (if she indeed worked), Mrs. Thornton would have had to get to Syracuse by horse in a carriage or wagon which would have taken three days one way. Letter Two offers the first of many indications to come of how Mrs. Thornton likely did not have easy access to her son. This fact forces her to rely upon letters as the most accessible mode of being privy to her son.

Amidst what most likely must have been a difficult experience for both mother and son, the letter-writers from the asylum put forth a ceremonial display of goodwill towards Jimmy who is consistently praised as the treasured pupil, a jewel of a student whose bodily, behavioral, and intellectual presence, as it is rehabilitated, brings joy to the entire asylum. This apparent goodwill is extended to Jimmy's family. In continuing to look at the letters, here, Superintendent Wilbur reassures Mrs. Thornton a year into Jimmy's schooling:

Your little boy continues well—he is perfectly happy in his new home and getting on nicely in school matters. He is an affectionate little fellow and all the teachers and attendants are quite attracted to him. (Letter Five, Nov. 20, 1855)

Wilbur's assistant H.H. Saville goes on to console the family in another letter a year later. As Saville tells us, Wilbur does not have enough time to write to all the families, so Saville writes for him:

Your little boy is perfectly well and very well supplied with clothes. He appears perfectly contented and his teachers like him very much. Indeed he is a favorite with everybody in the Asylum. (Letter Seven, Sept. 1, 1856)

Wilbur and his staff discursively manifest the impression of everything that is good. The two letters above (Letter Five and Seven) repeat lines of argument that reassure and console Mrs. Thornton that her son is well-liked and acclimating successfully to his new "home." The letters have an undercurrent that implies encouragement for Mrs. Thornton to endure the distance between herself and her son. In Letter Seven, as Wilbur continues to be too busy to write, Saville continues to console and reassure:

I hope you feel quite easy about him for he seems healthy and he is much more in the way of improvement here than could possibly be at home.

Yours Truly H.H. Saville for Dr. H.B. Wilbur. (Letter Seven, Sept. 1, 1856)

Within all 23 letters, Jimmy is said to be very well (x2), very happy (x3), well and happy (x2), very well and happy (x3), very happy here now, very well and quite at home, perfectly well and enjoys himself, continues well (x2), continues very well, perfectly well and very well, moreover happy and contented, and quite well and never unhappy. These repetitions of terms indicating "wellness" create the conception that Jimmy is content even when he is away from her. The repetitions could also imply intentions on the part of Wilbur and his staff to assuage Mrs. Thornton's regrets for sending her son away. Also, it is possible that Jimmy really was well and that the asylum wished to convey that fact to his mother, the effect of which, again, would have been consolatory.

But what becomes apparent in these letters, and most instructive, is how this demonstration of goodwill and this reporting of only what is concordant and pleasant acts as some sort of epistolary and bureaucratic artifice as Jimmy's stay at the institution lengthens. After noting such an overwhelming level of polite mannerism in the letters, I began to ask myself: what lies beneath the artifice? What's not being recorded? This is to say that the goodwill of Wilbur and the asylum staff towards Jimmy and Mrs. Thornton could have been in some sense sincere—we can infer that they potentially cared about him and could have believed that what they were doing was best for him, for society, and for his family. Yet an irreconcilable tension lies in the fact that what is absent in the discourse of these letters from the asylum is detailed accounts, and more importantly, any acknowledgement of discord or non-acquiescence. In sifting through the layers of rhetoric, the family's experience and perspective emerges, perhaps not surprisingly, at least partially at odds with that of the asylum. Mrs. Thornton was in no way overtly resistant to institutionalization; she may have, at least initially and most likely even later, conceived of the asylum-school as a haven which took the "burden" of caring for Jimmy off her in a society that offered little or no support services. Nevertheless, I can evoke Mrs. Thornton's presence as traces in many ways: first, the letter-writers at the asylum are anything but thorough and forthcoming in their reports to Mrs. Thornton and most likely this left her with unanswered questions like: when will I be able to visit my son? What does he do day to day? How long do you expect his stay to last? If he comes home for the summer, can he return? Second, Wilbur and others sometimes are short, dismissive, and slightly discourteous in their correspondence with Mrs. Thornton in ways that she might have found disconcerting. For example, she could have been discouraged by references to how little time they have for writing to her about her son, or she could have been bothered by a letter (discussed below) that she received from Mrs. Wilbur with no closing salutation. By sorting through the institutional layering, more traces emerge that open up various possibilities.

It is especially interesting that the most cogent traces of Mrs. Thornton come during "discussion" over visitationshe appears at odds in these traces after the possibility of having so many questions unanswered and having been slightly admonished. In Letter Three, we can surmise that the gentle, advisory tone Superintendent Wilbur uses is a response to some sort of non-accommodation or displeasure on the part of Mrs. Thornton that she must have communicated in the prior (no longer extant) letter to him. In the letter, Wilbur advises her not to visit her son. He writes six months into Jimmy's stay:

He will be very glad to see you—though for the present, a visit from you might make him homesick again. (Letter Three, Oct. 8, 1855)

The letter then ends abruptly, "Yours in haste, H.B. Wilbur." The logic of this short letter follows that Wilbur could have been responding to Mrs. Thornton's request to visit her son and that the asylum's answer warned that another visit from Jimmy's mother might abrogate "the boy's" chance of becoming "an excellent pupil." Superintendent Wilbur's shift to an advisory tone in this letter within the first 13 months of Jimmy's admittance implies more than simply friendly advice. In the guise of reticent mannerisms and polite conversation, Wilbur is asserting control by warning Mrs. Thornton not to visit (even amidst the shedding of tears at thoughts of her). While it is possible that Wilbur was concerned that Jimmy would want to leave the asylum with his mother if she visited, it is also possible that Wilbur did not want Jimmy to "regress" in his adjustment to his new home and therefore was managing Jimmy and "handling" Mrs. Thornton out of sincere desire to see Jimmy succeed in his educational programming, which included a period of difficult adjustment to a new life.

Mrs. Thornton must have written back to Wilbur quite quickly after his slight admonition, and in her letter back to him she must have again appeared at odds with Wilbur. The entirety of Wilbur's response comes two weeks after Mrs. Thornton could have requested a visit, which indicates that this conversation over visitation constitutes the most intensive period of correspondence (the most number of letters back and forth in the shortest timeframe). The letter goes as follows,

Dear Madam,

I have but little time to write letters and many letters to write, so that I have to write short letters to all the friends of my pupils. Your little boy is very happy here now. He is very desirous of learning and will in time make an excellent pupil. He is a favorite with all, as I think, I wrote you before.

Yours truly H.B. Wilbur (Letter Four, October 22, 1855)

Perhaps this attempt of Wilbur to further reassure was not so successful or the attempt to reassure Mrs. Thornton was nullified by his hasty closing. Or, it is possible that she was content with Wilbur's response and, in the end, felt comfortable with his decision to deny her a visit (in Letter Three). Or, perhaps Mrs. Thornton continued to be troubled by the fact that she was advised against visiting her son. In the letter (above), Wilbur's language is more curt than in the other letters—he indicates Jimmy's progress and well-suitedness for the school program with slight irritation and impatience at having to repeat the information. It is possible that his impatience grew as Mrs. Thornton continued to request more information and as she likely felt the growing distance between herself and her son as well as a growing sense of not being able to participate in her son's life or even witness his circumstances herself. This exchange appears to be the first of three major points of dissonance in the correspondence.

Did Mrs. Thornton begin here to give up trying to be a part of her son's life and accept the reality of being cut off from him so that he could fulfill the asylum's expectations? Or, did she continue to protest the way the system cut her out? We will likely never know. With this letter (Letter Four), however, we can identify repetition in Wilbur's rhetoric in which little or no new information on Jimmy is furnished but rather consolation and reassurance appear somewhat superfluous, rushed, and mechanical. Wilbur likely had little time to attend anymore to Mrs. Thornton's opposition at not being able to visit or remain intimate with her son. Rather, Wilbur's rhetoric in Letter Four indicates an accumulation of evidence that depicts Mrs. Thornton through the layers as having unanswered questions and continued concerns, the nature of which we can never be certain.

In the subsequent three years of correspondence there is little space to sift through the layering in search of more traces of her perspective. Letter-writers between 1856 and 1859 range from H.H. Saville (who was most likely the Steward), E.F. Mulford (the Matron), and L. Hutchinson (Jimmy's teacher). Wilbur does not himself communicate to Mrs. Thornton for these three-plus years (1856-1859), which most likely indicates that there were no extraordinary situations that occurred with Jimmy, for if something dire had occurred it is likely that there would have been communication between Wilbur and Mrs. Thornton. (The entire epistolary tells us that Wilbur or his wife stepped into the conversation when something was amiss or when a situation required special attention.) As previously discussed, the letters written by Saville, Mulford, and Hutchinson (Letters Seven to 14) perform similar work to Wilbur's initial letters which served to assuage any initial regret Mrs. Thornton felt for sending her son away. While Saville's letters mimic the diction and content of Wilbur's previous letters nearly perfectly (discussed above, Letters Seven and Eight), the letters of Mulford and less so Hutchinson are the most detailed in that both letter-writers tell stories about particular things Jimmy has done or give specific details with regards to how he is faring. For example, in Letter Nine, the Matron Mulford writes:

He came in our dining room and took dinner with the family on Sunday noon. He was somewhat nervous but still enjoyed it very much. He is a sweet affectionate child and a general favorite. We made him understand that he with the other children are to have a fine time Christmas—we always devote our undivided attention to their amusement on that day and the Dr. will make them all some little present—Jamie has sufficient clothing for the winter—do not give yourself the least [illegible] for my assistant takes the best care of him. He always kisses me a sweet goodnight.

Yours resp'ly E.F. Mulford (Letter Nine, Dec. 15, 1856)

Perhaps she is more detailed than Saville or Wilbur because Mulford is engaged in the everyday routine of the asylum. Mulford also apologizes as Saville did, in the following letter, for Wilbur being absent as the letter-writer. She too repeats terms of "wellness:"

Again the Dr. has availed himself of my services in the letter writing department. I can only say that your boy is well, happy, and doing well in school…I have many letters to write and must hasten from one to another.

Briefly but sincerely yours E.F. Mulford (Letter Ten, Jan. 21, 1857)

Mulford gives the most detailed report yet of Jimmy's progress in schooling. In Letter 11, she writes:

He is a darling boy and he improves so much in school—is so easily managed. He can put up a great many words on the letter board and read almost any word on the blackboard. He is perfectly well and enjoys himself-We have more than one hundred pupils and but one case of sickness

Yours in haste E.F. Mulford (Letter 11, March 25, 1857)

Like Mulford's letters, L. Hutchinson's letters (Jimmy's teacher) demonstrate that she observed Jimmy first-hand and worked with him daily. Her first letter is brief (Letter 13), essentially attesting that he is a good pupil, is well, and is in good health. Her following letters (Letters 14 & 15) offer more educational information. Hutchinson writes:

He seems very much delighted with any exercise and perhaps it would be gratifying to you to know that. I consider him one of the best pupils under my charge. He can write any thing with a copy before him and a great many words and sentences without [copy]. He is also learning to read but slowly of course because you know he is deaf and dumb and obliged to be taught wholly by signs.

Yours Respectfully,

L. Hutchinson (Letter 14, March 3, 1858)

His teacher, Hutchinson, writes only three letters. Her correspondence may have been severed due to the end of the school year in 1859 when most of the teachers left and only the Wilbur family and a few employees remained.

Letter 15 is the first letter addressed to Mrs. Whead, which signifies the second major shift in the correspondence. Letter 15 not only utilizes Jimmy's mother's new name (which indicates her re-marriage) but also is written for the first time by Harriet (or H.H.) Wilbur, Wilbur's wife. We cannot know why Mrs. Wilbur became the letter-writer in January 1859, but it is possible that asylum employees left for a winter vacation and that Superintendent Wilbur gave her the responsibility of writing to families since he traveled frequently to lectures. Mrs. Wilbur is again the letter writer later that same year (Letter 16, July 10, 1859), and again we can infer that either no one else was left during the summer to write to the families or that the situation that required correspondence was dire enough to necessitate a letter from Harriet in lieu of her husband, who she tells us is out of town (Letter 15).

In the letter dated July, 10, 1859, Harriet adamantly attempts to persuade Mrs. Whead (her new, married name) to send for her son so Jimmy would not have to stay at the asylum through summer vacation (Letter 16, July 15, 1859). Mrs. Wilbur writes:

The annual vacation of the Asylum commences on the Monday of next July 18thinstant. Your son is very desirous of going home and Dr. Wilbur wishes me to say that he wishes it also. You will please reply to this immediately [her underline] and state when you will come or send for him.

This constitutes the second major shift in the correspondence (again, focused on the issue of visitation) because now Jimmy's wishes are not only voiced but are also attempted to be carried out ("Your son is desirous of going home"). But, Mrs. Whead must have responded by requesting that Jimmy stay on at the asylum through the summer of 1859—at which point Mrs. Wilbur responds:

Dr. Wilbur wishes me to say in reply to the letter of yours of date of July 25, that your son can remain through the vacation. He is very well. (Letter 17, Aug. 1, 1859)

While we have no way of knowing why Mrs. Thornton might have requested her son to stay at the asylum through the summer, it is possible that she may not have preferred him to stay but could not, for numerous possible reasons, have him return home at this point. It is possible that she feared that he would lose his "hard-to-come-by" spot as a pupil or that she simply could not manage her son's return home for financial, emotional, or other unforeseen circumstances in life. Perhaps her new husband did not wish Jimmy to return.

What we do know is that Mrs. Wilbur offers no closing in Letter 17—which had been typical prior to this letter—she offers only her signature. This is a fraught moment: here, Mrs. Thornton's words, were we to imagine them from the perspective of a contemporary reader, are uncomfortably strange and unexpected. She most likely wrote back to Harriet Wilbur asking, "Can he indeed remain on through the summer?" It is unlikely that she was at ease with having to ask this but asked it nonetheless. And, more importantly, Jimmy's wishes are not part of either the asylum or his mother's considerations.

The next letter does not appear until nearly two years later (March, 1861). This is the longest period without correspondence, which suggests that Mrs. Whead's request to have him stay on through the summer may have somehow had larger repercussions for everyone. This letter (Letter 18), coming two years later, too, demonstrates the battle between the asylum and the family over who crosses over the border between the asylum and the community and when that border is crossed. And again, the asylum encourages Jimmy to leave. In July 1861, Dr. Wilbur is again the letter-writer, which indicates the possible urgency of the situation. This is the third major turning point of the correspondence where Jimmy's departure is set in motion. Wilbur writes,

Mrs. Whead, Dear Madam,

Should you like to have your son Jimmy come home if I would send him to Elmira without expense to you? Would you meet him there and like him home, if I would write you? It would do him much good to go home.

Yours Truly H.B. Wilbur (Letter 18, July 1861)

It is probable that Jimmy has not returned home for the entire six years he remained at the asylum; moreover, there is no evidence of even a visit from Mrs. Whead. But it is this belated gesture of Wilbur's to finance Jimmy's trip home that allows him to leave. If Wilbur could send Jimmy to Elmira (where she relocated after re-marriage), Mrs. Whead could easily pick her son up from there. So home Jimmy went for the first time in six years on a five-day journey to Elmira and then Caton in the summer of 1861. It appears that the asylum sent Jimmy home thinking, most likely, that he would return to the asylum after his visit to Caton, New York.

Then, six months after James Thornton left the asylum, in January of 1862, he still had not returned to Syracuse. Four years later still Jimmy had not returned and no word from Mrs. Whead. On January 8, 1866, Dr. Wilbur communicates in his final letter what seems an almost desperate situation. This salient moment demonstrates how dynamics and lines of arguments shifted once the pupil/inmate left. It is Wilbur who is pleading for information—Wilbur himself takes time to write,

Is [Jimmy] still living? What is his state of health? How has he grown? What does he do and how does he amuse himself? Does he ever speak of his life here? We were talking about him the other day, and I cannot resist the desire to hear from him once more. Please write me about him…What has become of Jimmy Thornton, as we used to call him?

…I remain yours truly, H.B. Wilbur (Letter 19, Jan. 1866)

And, thus, we are left contemplating the same questions: what has become of Jimmy Thornton? Unfortunately, we may never know. I have not been able to locate census (birth or death) information on the Thorntons/Wheads but continue to attempt to historicize and document as best I can the family's presence, experience, and perspective.


What we can know from this brief introduction to the correspondence is that the crossing of the border between the asylum and the rest of the world was highly patrolled, ironically, in the most familiar, cordial, and seemingly friendly ways. We know that Mrs. Thornton had sent her son at the behest of a physician in 1855, thereafter lost control over visitation, and did not have him return home until the asylum was ready to finance his trip home in 1861. We know that the relationship between Mrs. Thornton and the asylum was contingent upon financial resources but that power shifted once Jimmy left the asylum; after Jimmy left, it was the asylum that expressed a sense of distress at not knowing what had become of him. We know that when Jimmy left the asylum the family gained, at the very least, communicative power back—the family no longer petitioned for information, no longer received incomplete reports, and no longer was told what was best for Jimmy. We also know that once home he did not return nor did the family write to offer an update and this final silence could, potentially, have been defiance.

All of the letters regarding Jimmy Thornton up until the final three in the collection center around pervasive attempts to reassure and console Mrs. Thornton. An irreconcilable irony lies in the fact that what is missing or overtly absent in the discourse of these letters from the asylum is the family's voice and certainly the pupil's voice; yet that voice is not replaced by a hardened institutional describing and measuring, by all-out anonymity, or by use of scientific or medicalized language. While the letters show the asylum's attempt at humanity, intimacy, and sincerity, there is lack of detail and candor in these letters that indicates at least some sort of bureaucratic facade. What we can know is that in this early period before resistance to institutionalization became more overt as populations in the schools-turned asylums increased drastically, what lay beneath the bureaucratic artifice might not be mere benevolence from the asylum and might not be utter acquiescence from the family. This analysis of rhetorical accretion demonstrates how rhetoric functions at multiple levels and how that which lies beneath can be brought to the surface to reveal alternative perspectives beyond the dominant ones. This way of engaging with rhetorical accretion and imaginative reconstruction demonstrates how rhetoric can inform our work in disability studies. Rhetorical accretion helps us to unwrap layers of "voice" in search of new voices, and imaginative reconstruction helps us deal ethically with the contradictory possibilities that emerge.

To respond to a call from Phil Ferguson to "fill out the historical record of how parents of earlier eras described their experiences" (2), these letters do point us in that direction. We also are compelled to try to recover perspectives of families, many of whom were constituted primarily by women caring for their children. Close study of the rhetoric and the silences of the letters does point to the potential difficulty of the relationship that Mrs. Thornton had with the asylum. These letters show us that, even in these very early years of "asylum-schools" before mass institutionalization emerged, resistance by families most likely was more complicated and insidious than we know. Looking to these asylum letters, we can understand more deeply the frustration of Mrs. Thornton in her attempts to gain information about her child and the difficulties that may have ensued in being without him for so long.

What we cannot recreate from the written language available in these asylum letters is to what extent Mrs. Thornton and Jimmy resisted. By mining what evidence remains of letter-writing from the New York State Asylum, there are many definitive claims I cannot make. However, we need to find ways to open up possibilities rather than shut them down when it appears that some definitive "truth" cannot be reconstructed. I can make other kinds of claims that point to ways we can listen more deeply to the presence of Jimmy and his mother.

Instead of asking what writings did pupils leave, we must ask what action can we infer based on the inscriptions, writings, and artifacts that were left? Even though the pupils' speaking or writing was not preserved or advocated for, the absence of words evokes a presence. Glenn might argue that this silence is even "a linguistic art" in itself (160). My main conclusion to this historiographic dilemma of trying to open silences is that while there is such a thing as a history waiting to be told, there is also such a thing as a history that is really hard to tell. When I look to the letters, I see much complexity: I find a stifling amount of bureaucratic artifice woven among what was thought to be good intentions. As someone trying to search for alternative voices to the institutional voice, I cannot reach far outside the rhetorical accretion, selectivity, silencing, effects of display, and recurring anonymity that predominate within asylum discourse. Thus, I can name silence as a predominating consequence of the curriculum at the asylum.

Rather than—to use Jay Dolmage's phrase—"reading history normatively," we need to consider ways in which our attempts to document are fraught by the unavoidable and constant presence of silence (124). History writing is always a rhetorical act that simultaneously erases as it assembles. In the move to, as Kim Nielson puts it, avoid "erasing people with disabilities" we have to think more deeply about how our seemingly straightforward methods for recovering evidence can themselves erase people. By looking to letter-writing practices at the New York State Asylum I have theorized how we must be accountable to those who have not written (the pupils) and for that evidence which may never be found (letters that were not part of the institution's public face). In my attempt to historicize silence, social history is told in this instance through reviving the actions and subjectivity of families and pupils rather than through texts and words, and silence becomes rhetorical.

In 2001, Douglas Baynton justifiably reprimanded us when he wrote that "disability is everywhere in history, once you begin looking for it, but conspicuously absent in the histories we write" (52). But what Baynton did not account for in this statement were the difficulties of recovering primary perspectives when those perspectives were never inscribed in writing. If we fail to bring this presence to what is seemingly silent in the historical record, we fail to do justice to historical erasures.

And still, there is one more chasm left silent—Jimmy himself. While I can recreate some of the experience of his mother, it is even more difficult, perhaps impossible, to find his perspective. In the evidence that remains, neither the asylum nor Jimmy's mother inscribe his experience in any way tangible for the historian. My point in doing this work is that we do not have to know the exact experience in order to acknowledge its existence and power. Rather, we have to recognize that something happened and that we will not necessarily be able to always recreate it from language. However, if we cannot easily access the points of view and evidence we desire, we still must at least try.

Works Cited

  • Annual Reports of the New York State Asylum for Idiots (1852-1884), transmitted to the Legislature New York State Asylum for Idiots. Obtained in part from http://www.disabilityhistorymuseum.org, Stephen J. Taylor's personal collection, and the Museum at the Developmental Disabilities Service Office, Syracuse.
  • Biklen, Douglas and Christopher Kliewer. "Who May Be Literate?: Disability and Resistance to the Cultural Denial of Competence." American Educational Research Journal 43.2 (2006): 163-192. Print.
  • Baynton, Douglas. "Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History." The New Disability History: American Perspectives. Eds. Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umansky. New York: New York University Press, 2001. 33-57. Print.
  • Collins, Vicki. "The Speaker Respoken: Material Rhetoric as Feminist Methodology." College English 61 (1999): 545-73. Print.
  • Daily Standard [Syracuse]. 9 Sept.1854. Print.
  • Certeau, Michel de. 1975. The Writing of History. New York: Columbian UP, 1988. Print.
  • Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Trans. Eric Prenowitz. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996. Print.
  • Dolmage, Jay. "Breath Upon Us an Even Flame: Hephaestus, History, and the Body of Rhetoric." Rhetoric Review 25:2 (2006): 119-40. Print.
  • Duffy, John. Writing From These Roots: The Historical Development of Literacy in a Hmong American Community. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2007. Print.
  • Ferguson, Phil M. "The Doubting Dance: Contributions to a History of Parent/Professional Interactions in Early 20th Century America." Research & Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities 33.1-2 (2009): 48-58. Print.
  • Glenn, Cheryl. Unspoken: A Rhetoric of Silence. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2004. Print.
  • Graney, Bernard. "Hervey Backus Wilbur and the Evolution of Policies and Practices Towards Mentally Retarded People." Diss Syracuse U, 1979. Print.
  • The James Thornton Letters. Syracuse U Spec. Collections, Bird Lib. Print.
  • Lewiecki-Wilson, Cynthia and Jay Dolmage. "Refiguring Rhetorica: Linking Feminist Rhetoric and Disability Studies." Rhetorica in Motion: Feminist Rhetorical Methods and Methodologies. Ed. E. Schell and K.J. Rawson. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2010. 23-38. Print.
  • Longmore, Paul and Lauri Umanski, eds. The New Disability History: American Perspectives. New York: NYU P, 2001.
  • Nielson, Kim. "Historical Thinking and Disability History." Disability Studies Quarterly 28.3 (2008). Web.
  • Nietzsche, Frederich. 1874. "On the Uses and Abuses of History for Life." Trans. I.C. Johnson. Web.
  • "Octalog: The Politics of Historiography." Rhetoric Review 7.1 (Fall 1988): 5-49. Web.
  • "Octalog II: The (Continuing) Politics of Historiography." Rhetoric Review 16.1 (Autumn 1997): 22-44. Print.
  • Rembis, Michael. " 'I Ain't Had Much Schooling': The Ritual of Examination and the Social Construction of Impairment." Disability Studies Quarterly 28.3 (2008). Web.
  • Richards,'Penny L. and George H.S. Singer.'" 'To draw out the effort of his mind': Educating a child with mental retardation in early-nineteenth-century America." The Journal of Special Education 31.4 (Winter 1998): 443-67. Print.
  • Royster, Jacqueline Jones. Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change Among African American Women. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2000. Print.
  • Taylor, Steven. "As One Door Closes, Many Open." I Can See No Downside to the Closure of the DSO: A Documentary History of the Closure of the Syracuse Developmental Center. Eds. Hall, Mair, Harris, and Lewin. Syracuse: Center on Human Policy P, 1999. Print.
  • Trent, James. Inventing the Feeble-Mind: A History of Mental Retardation in the United States. Berkeley: U of California P, 1994. Print.
  • White, Hayden. The Content of Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987. Print.
  • Wolfensberger, Wolf. The Origin and Nature of Our Institutional Models. Syracuse: Center on Human Policy P, 1975. Print.


  1. I do not mean a physiological sense of listening but rather I use the word "listen" to mean holding attention.

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  2. Some of this work includes: Longmore, A Philosophy of Handicap; Birch & Joyner, Unspeakable; Kudlick and Weygand, Reflections; Nielsen, Beyond the Miracle Worker; Penney & Stastny, The Lives They Left Behind; Holmes, Fictions of Affliction; Juarez, Writings of Theresa Cartagena; Gerber, Disabled Veterans in History; Richards and Singer, 'To Draw Out the Effort of His Mind,' Rembis, I Ain't Had Much Schooling; and Ferguson, The Doubting Dance.

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  3. This notion of silence not necessarily signifying absence is from the work of Cheryl Glenn in Unspoken: A Rhetoric of Silence.

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  4. To read more on the history of the New York State Asylum for Idiots at Syracuse, see Graney, Taylor, Trent, and Wolfensberger. Also, this essay on the letters is part of a larger history that includes more general knowledge on the institution and its curriculum.

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  5. Wolfensberger demarcates three periods of asylum growth. First, there was the educational period, which runs approximately from 1848-1870. The pity period followed, lasting roughly from 1870-1890, and the social menace period takes over close to 1884, but certainly began with subterfuge quite earlier (28-39). The New York State Asylum follows this pattern. I write more about this in my dissertation, which is entitled "Friction in Our Machinery: Rhetorical Education at the New York State Asylum at Syracuse, 1853-1883."

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  6. The term "inmate" was not used in this institution until the 1870's. While contemporary notions of an asylum reverberate more with confinement tactics than with educational practices, the New York State Asylum was, at least at first, a school imagined within the movement towards progressive education. The Asylum is memorialized as the first public school for people considered "feeble-minded" or "idiotic." It was part of Horace Mann's movement for free and universal education; yet also it diverged from those principles in that some indeed had to pay for their schooling at the asylum and some attended because they were not welcomed into mainstream schools. However, the asylum as a school is not my focus here; it is the focus of my larger project.

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  7. Such scholars in feminist rhetorics include Royster, Vicki Collins, Cheryl Glenn, Krista Ratcliffe, and Malea Powell. The rhetorical theories utilized by these scholars include rhetorical accretion (Collins), imaginative reconstruction (Royster), a rhetoric of silence (Glenn), and rhetorical listening (Ratcliffe, Powell).

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  8. Jacqueline Jones Royster uses this concept in which she "reconstruct[s] historical pathways" by reading "between the lines and around the 'facts' and artifacts" (81-2). Imaginative reconstruction is often constituted by various, sometime contradictory possibilities where conditional, reasonable claims are made.

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  9. I infer that he was a state-funded pupil rather than a privately paying one for many reasons: if he had been a privately paying pupil, he most likely would not have arrived anonymously to the asylum; he most likely would have already had all of his clothes provided for him; mother most likely would not have had the asylum pay for his return trip home in 1862, and most likely we would have documentation of Christmas and other gifts sent to him. The issue of class is important in my analysis.

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  10. At the time Jimmy went to the asylum-school, "ordinary" children ("ordinary" was used then over our use today of "normal" or "non-disabled") in Syracuse were receiving free "universal" education. It is not likely, however, that Jimmy's teachers in Cinncinatus would have known sign language even if Jimmy had attended school there. Therefore, his acceptance into the asylum-school would arguably have been his only opportunity to receive an adequate education.

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  11. We see this again in Letter Seven, which I discuss further along in the essay as H.H. Saville tells Mrs. Thornton how he is better off than he ever could be at home.

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  12. I can easily deduce the approximate date and sequencing of the letter based on its content.

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  13. The letter-writer, Mulford, was the asylum's Matron from its beginning—1852 to 1871. Mulford would have been second-in-command directly under Wilbur. She would have had under her management all of the teachers (which were female), the assistants (who dressed, washed, and performed more menial tasks with the pupils), and the "servants" or housekeepers and kitchen workers. The "Steward" was the male equivalent of the Matron (Mr. Saville, the letter-writer of Letters Seven & Eight, could have been the Steward); the Steward managed functions of the asylum considered within the province of male labor such as farming, grading and landscaping, and maintenance and repair.

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