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Searing Poetry ~ When Silence Speaks

To My Rightful Readers

Venturous boy and curious girl,

Glancing shyly through the roses,

Each at other's conscious face,

While you tie your April posies, --

You are looking out for Love,

Having nothing else to do;

While you wait for him to come,

Read what here is writ for you!

Ye, whose feet at last have found

Pathways lined with Passion Flowers

And whose hearts are in revolt

At the shortness of the hours, --

See, as in a mirror here,

Much of what you think and do.

Lovers' lives are all akin;

Therefore this is writ for you!

You, who know so well the taste

Of the bitter, after sweet;

And who time no more your steps

To the steps of other feet, --

Memory, not less sweet than sad,

Turns the page without ado;

You have time enough to read

What is written here for you!" (1)

As I celebrate women's history month, I wanted to include those in the deaf community. I have always been interested in American Sign Language (ASL) as a language, especially because of its visual nature. I first fell in love with ASL when I watched a film and later read books about Helen Keller. Besides Helen Keller, I have also enjoyed watching Marlee Matlin as Joey Lucas in The West Wing. Then as I was in college, a friend of mine invited me to go with her to deaf church. Eventually in my senior year of college, I was able to take an introductory ASL class and thoroughly enjoyed it.

This week's story is one of a deaf poet.

Laura Catherine Redden was born in Somerset, Maryland on 9 February 1839. Her parents were Littleton John and Wilhelmina Waller Redden. Laura had two little brothers, who became part of the family before their father Littleton's murder in 1848. Her mother remarried (Henry Ashbrook) and the family moved to St. Louis, Missouri.

Laura, in 1851 near Christmas time, came down with cerebrospinal meningitis which left her deaf. She was still able to speak but, "only in a tone she later described as 'sepulchral, like a voice from the grave.' "(2) Because of her disability Laura acquired a speech impediment, yet she was able to still remember the rhythms of spoken English.

Her lack of hearing did not stop Laura from gaining an education. She began a course of study the Missouri School for the Deaf in 1855. Laura originally did not want to go and, "adamantly refused . . . to attend the newly established Missouri Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb, a name she abhorred. 'Who wants to go to any asylum' Laura angrily wrote. 'If I am sent there I shall, indeed, become Dumb.' "(2) Yet, she did go. The Missouri School for the Deaf was located on the same campus as the asylum, yet was a different school. Laura learned many things that would help her in her life to come, these included sign language as well as the manual alphabet. She, "also developed the habit of communicating by pencil and paper with persons who did not understand these modes of communication." (3)

Even so, Laura would write to her parents, begging them to learn the manual alphabet so that she would not feel so alone when she came home.

After school, Laura worked to collect and write poems as well as publishing a few literary pieces. As her publishing increased, Laura took on the pseudonym (pen name) of Howard Glyndon.

"When the American Civil War broke out in 1860, Laura was sent by the St. Louis Republican to cover the war in Washington DC. She was strongly pro-Union, and wrote lots of patriotic poetry that was published in the papers in addition to her more serious articles. During this time, she interviewed President Lincoln and became personal friends of both Lincoln and General Grant, among other influential people in Washington. Laura also toured the battlefields with General Grant, a place in which women usually weren’t allowed. Her first book of poems, Idylls of Battle, was published during this time as well as the book Notable Men in The House of Representatives." (4)

Laura's poetry (as Howard Glyndon) also appeared in Frank Moore's 1864 anthology, Lyrics of Loyalty. Her poetry sat alongside the works of Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Julia Ward Howe.

After the Civil War, Laura went to Europe as a companion to Clara Louise Hastings. They along with Clara's father Serranus Clinton Hastings, spent four years traveling the continent. She wrote newspaper articles from Italy and France, and learned German, Spanish, Italian and French. While in Italy, Laura met the Irish artist Michael George Brennon, they fell in love, and were soon engaged. However, they would never marry, due to Michael's untimely death.

Upon her return to the US, Laura attended the Clark Institute for the Deaf, in Northampton, Massachusetts, in the early 1870s (the school still exists and is called the Clark Schools for Hearing and Speech, because they have five locations). One of her teachers at the school was Alexander Graham Bell. Bell's father-in-law, Gardiner Greene Hubbard, established the school after his daughter Mabel became deaf because of scarlet fever at the age of five.

On 9 August 1876, "Laura married Edward Whelan Searing, a hearing attorney who was the son of a well-respected Quaker and New York State legislator. The wedding took place at a friend's home in Mystic, Connecticut. While they honeymooned in eastern Canada, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island, the bride sent regular columns to her editors." (5)

In 1877, the couple's first child was stillborn. Then, on 4 May 1880, the couple's only child Elsa Waller Searing (McGinn) was born. Shortly after Elsa's birth, she and her mother traveled to Laura's mother-in-law's home in the Quaker community of Sherwood. Laura cared for her mother-in-law as well as caring for Elsa and continuing to write articles and poetry.

While living in Sherwood, Laura became close friends with Emily Howland. Besides being an abolitionist, Emily Howland was a well known teacher in the Normal School for Colored Girls in Washington DC. Emily also "founded or financially supported some fifty schools for African Americans across the south." (6)

Marriage was not all roses for Laura, as her marriage to Edward was not a successful one.

"Deaf friends later told Laura they had never like Edward Searing's looks. In 1883 Laura, with Elsa returned to Washington, D.C., where Elsa was enrolled in Alexander Graham Bell's experimental kindergarten with both deaf and hearing children. Laura knew the marriage was over; however, Edward refused to give her custody of their child if she left him, and he ordered her to return to New York. Instead, Laura and Elsa fled to Chicago, Illinois. Assisted by Dr. Phillip G. Gillett, superintendent of the Illinois School for the Deaf, mother and daughter joined 200 teachers and others who were traveling by special train to a July 1886 convention of teachers of the deaf in San Francisco; Laura remained in California for the rest of her life. Ultimately Edward Searing suffered financial ruin, public humiliation, and a sheriff's auction of their household goods. Laura divorced him in 1894; he died in New York in 1908." (7)

Laura's daughter, Elsa, would often help her mother with sign interpreting. After attending Miss Head's Preparatory School for Girls in Berkeley, California, Elsa worked as a stenographer and typesetter. On 20 April 1904, Elsa married John Labbe McGinn in Nome, Alaska. John worked as a lawyer in Alaska "where he conducted mining law, and explored mineral development opportunities in the Alaska Territory and Yukon, Canada." (8) The family lived and were influential in the San Mateo, California community. Elsa served as the fire commissioner, acting mayor of San Mateo (in 1920), as well as President of the San Mateo Women's Club.

"She [Elsa] was also the first woman nominated for a seat on the California State Assembly (1926), and election that she lost. She gave birth to two children--Laura Edith and John W. McGinn--and was remembered by her friends and community as a fearless and tactful, yet compassionate, leader." (9)

Laura passed away on 10 August 1923 at Elsa's home.

Laura's struggles as a child to communicate with her hearing family and others who didn't understand sign is a problem still faced in the deaf community.

Below I have included the trailer to a short film called, The Silent Child. This film tells the story of a profoundly deaf little girl named Libby who is living with her hearing family. Libby is isolated in her own world, much like Laura was. This all changes when a social worker named Joanne gives Libby a language (by teaching her sign) and a voice.

The Silent Child's screenwriter, Rachel Shenton, says this about the film:

"Deafness is a silent disability, you can’t see it and it’s not life threatening so it’s easy for it to slip under your radar. We hope this movie helps to get sign language recognised in schools and give a voice to all the silent children around the world." (10)

Like the silent voices of the MMIW, those in the Deaf community often don't have a voice in the same way as those of us who can hear. If you have some time, look for a way to get involved in the deaf community, they are very inviting and are always willing to help teach people their language. You may be surprised how much those who live in silence have to say.





Laura Redden Searing:

Academic (Wikipedia) ~ Laura Redden Searing

American National Biography ~ Searing, Laura Catherine Redden

Clay County Historical Society ~ CCHS Newsletter July/Aug 1995 (pages 17 - 20)

Deaf Women United ~ Laura Redden Searing

Exploring the Past ~ "Belle Missouri"

Gallaudet University Press ~ Sweet Bells Jangled Book Page and Review

The Searing Family Blog ~ Laura Redden Searing

The State Historical Society of Missouri ~ other pictures of Laura (one, two, and three)

For those who have Mr. Zuckerberg's Gazette (otherwise known as Facebook):

Edward Searing:

Find A Grave ~ Edward Searing

Elsa Searing (McGinn):

Alaska Mining Hall of Fame Foundation ~ John Labbe 'Johnny' McGinn

ArchiveGrid ~ Elsa S. McGinn Papers

San Mateo County CA Archives Biographies ~ Elsa Searing McGinn

Emily Howland:

Freethought Trail ~ Howland, Emily

New York Heritage - digital collections ~ Emily Howland Papers

Howland Stone Store Museum ~ The Howland Family

Wikipedia ~ Emily Howland

Mr. and Mrs. Bell:

Gallaudet University - Library Guide ~ Bell, Mabel Gardiner Hubbard

Online Archive of California ~ Collection about the Bells

Wikipedia ~ Mabel Gardiner Hubbard and Her father, Gardiner Greene Hubbard

Michael's Paintings:


Clark Schools for Hearing and Speech ~ Our History

DC Historic Sites ~ Miner Normal School (the school that Emily Howland taught at)

National Parks Service ~ Sherwood Equal Rights Historic District

The Daily Journal ~ San Mateo's Peninsula Hotel



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