A tale of two deaf brothers

Positions of the Hands (1910) from the work of Joseph Gibbons Richardson (1836-1886). Creative commons license

One of my maternal 3rd great grandfathers was Christian Geyer, who was born in 1795 in Germany and immigrated to Ohio with his large family in 1842. My 2nd great grandfather was his son Edward. Edward had two brothers named Ernest and Gustavus, who both had an important notation next to their entries in the 1850 federal census for Huron, Ohio. Gustavus (9 years old at the time) and Ernest (11) were recorded as “deaf and dumb”.

The US government was compiling statistics across the population for characteristics such as deafness and blindness, and correlating those numbers with race and nativity (foreign born or American born), broken down by state. They also looked at whether such persons were free or enslaved. While one of the stated reasons for this analysis was to determine what kind of education these individuals were receiving, there are also obvious and disturbing racial overtones for the census questions (it was even recommended that a distinction be made “between the black and the mulatto“).

Following Ernest and Gustavus through their lives, two different paths were taken by the two brothers. In the 1870 census, they are both living with their father Christian, working as laborers on the family farm. By 1880, Christian and his wife had died, and Ernest lived with his brother Edward, working on Edward’s large farm. Fast forward to 1910, when Ernest was living with Edward’s widow Eliza, in his 70s with occupation listed as “none”. He died in 1919, never having married, and apparently never having lived on his own.

Gustavus led a different sort of life. Quite a few details on his biography are contained in the Special Census on Deaf Family and Hearing Relatives, 1888-1895. The special census was used in the 1890s to disprove a theory put forth by inventor Alexander Graham Bell that marriages between close relatives contributed to the incidence of deafness in offspring (Bell’s wife and mother were both deaf).

Gustavus was included because he married a deaf woman named Sidney Anna Gringsy in 1875. The special census recorded that Gus was born deaf, with one brother also deaf. The cause of his condition was left blank. Their parents’ names were given, and the question asked about whether each set of parents had married with a family relationship (apparently not). The names of Gus and Sidney’s children were given, and the status of their hearing ability (none of the three were deaf). It was also recorded that Gus spent seven years at a school for the deaf, from 1853 to 1860.

The location of his school can be found in the 1860 census, where he is listed as a 19 year old resident of the “Ohio Deaf and Dumb Asylum” in Columbus, Ohio. This educational institution was founded in 1829, and is called the Ohio School for the Deaf today. In 1860, it was a boarding school that taught sign language, as well as vocational skills. The life of a student there doesn’t sound easy – their days began at 5am, with breakfast followed by chores, then school from 9 until 4. Between 4pm and dinner at 6, the boys were put to work on the school grounds while the girls were given sewing tasks. Homework was done after dinner.

It’s possible that the vocation Gustavus learned was harness making, as the census listings for him starting in 1880 give that as his occupation. He lived with his wife and children for many years in Illinois, and eventually moved to California somewhere around 1915 (why? research for another day). An article in a Long Beach, California newspaper dated November 1917 described a birthday party for Sidney Geyer where sign language was used as the primary means of communication:

“The keen minds of a group of people gathered Sunday at the home of the Geyers, 256 Atlantic avenue, were expressed in sign language, that wonderful avenue of conversation among those to whom the sounds of nature are a closed book. The birthday anniversary of Mrs. Gustavus Geyer was the occasion of the gathering, which included a number of friends from Los Angeles who usually assemble Sunday afternoons to listen to a mute message delivered by Rev. C. E. Webb, rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal church.”

Why did brothers Ernest and Gus live such different lives? It’s not clear whether Ernest received an education that addressed his deafness. Perhaps not, as he doesn’t seem to have learned any skill beside the farm labor he engaged in during his lifetime, and there’s no record of him attending the school in Columbus with his brother. He may have been dependent at all stages of his life on family, living with his parents, then his brother and in-laws. I would guess that lack of a proper education, geared to his abilities, was a deciding factor. In closing, here is a small (and slightly blurry) picture of Ernest, clipped from an old Geyer family photo:

Ernest Geyer

Sources

  1. United States Census Bureau, 1850 Census: The Seventh Census of the United States, PDF titled “Relative Rank of the States, Progress of Population, Deaf and Dumb, Blind, Insane, and Idiotic
  2. Special Census on Deaf Family and Hearing Relatives, 1888-1895, ancestry.com 2009
  3. National Library of Medicine, Deaf marriage has limited effect on the prevalence of recessive deafness and no effect on underlying allelic frequency by Derek Braun et al, PloS One 2020 15(11)
  4. Ohio School for the Deaf, History
  5. New Hampshire State Council on the Arts, New Hampshire Folk life, Craft Traditions – Harness Making, 2014

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