"Her Mother's Triumph"

Jeanie Lippitt Weeden

In 1876, a well-dressed young lady in her early twenties joined Alexander Graham Bell on the stage of the old Providence Theatre. Bell, the noted teacher of vocal physiology and inventor of the telephone, had invited Jeanie Lippitt and her parents to join his public demonstration of one of the first long-distance telephone calls. Jeanie followed the conversation with interest and answered politely when spoken to – even though she could not hear a single word of the messages transmitted over the telephone.

Jeanie, the eldest daughter of Governor and Mrs. Henry Lippitt, was completely deaf.

Twenty years earlier, in the spring of 1856, a scarlet fever epidemic struck Providence. In less than a month, the disease carried off three of Jeanie’s older siblings and completely destroyed four-year-old Jeanie’s hearing. Her mother, Mary Ann Lippitt, responded to this tragedy by adamantly deciding that Jeanie’s loss of hearing would not be a handicap. Stating that no daughter of hers would “go through life flipping her fingers to make herself understood,” she resolved that Jeanie would be taught to lip-read and speak.

Mary Ann Lippitt devoted hours to teaching her daughter. When Jeanie was able to communicate adequately, she began to attend a private day school in Providence. Although her hearing loss necessitated some changes to the traditional curriculum, she was an exemplary student. Jeanie even learned to speak French, serving as the Lippitt family’s translator when they lived for a time in France.

Jeanie’s success made her a key figure in the campaign to establish new schools for the deaf in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Existing schools in the United States favored manualism, an early form of sign language that eventually developed into ASL – the “flipping fingers” that Mary Ann Lippitt deplored. Oralism, teaching the deaf to speak and lip-read, slowly became mainstream in the 1860s, along with the understanding that people with hearing disabilities should be integrated into mainstream society.

In 1877, during her father’s tenure as Rhode Island governor, Jeanie visited the Rhode Island Statehouse and urged members of the General Assembly to create a school for the deaf. With her father’s political endorsement and Jeanie’s articulate and impassioned pleas the General Assembly passed the necessary bill.

Concerned that Jeanie’s voice did not sound entirely normal, Mary Ann Lippitt arranged for her to take private voice lessons in Boston. She studied with a young teacher of vocal physiology who “always arrived for her lesson with a curious box under his arm, about the size and shape of a carpenter’s box.” Jeanie worked for several months with the young instructor, before he finally begged off of his teaching responsibilities to devote his energies to his invention—an apparatus housed in the “curious box.” Jeanie’s teacher was the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell.

In later years, Jeanie Lippitt Weeden recounted the story of Alexander Graham Bell, her voice lessons, and the invention of the telephone with pride, remembering her experience waiting on the stage of the Providence Theatre as a thrilling moment in her life. Jeanie lived up to her mother’s expectations that she would be able to succeed in life, devoting herself to her family and involving herself in a busy Rhode Island social life.

Images

“The Idol of the Family”

“The Idol of the Family”

This photograph was originally included in a Lippitt family album, where it was captioned: "Jeanie, totally deaf, the idol of the family, her mother's triumph, loved to ride about the East Side." Always adventurous, Jeanie embarked on many exciting adventures after her husband's death in 1912, including a 1916 automobile road trip from Maine to California. | Source: Governor Henry Lippitt House Museum, a Preserve Rhode Island property View File Details Page

Young Jeanie Lippitt

Young Jeanie Lippitt

This photograph of Jeanie Lippitt, taken when she was about eight years old, shows a young girl no different from any of her siblings. After she lost her hearing when she was four, her mother was determined that she could be taught to speak again and insisted that Jeanie be raised as though she had no handicap. Like her siblings, Jeanie went attended a prestigious private school in Providence, where, among other things, she learned to speak French and to dance. | Source: Governor Henry Lippitt House Museum, a Preserve Rhode Island property View File Details Page

Mary Ann Balch Lippitt

Mary Ann Balch Lippitt

Mary Ann Balch Lippitt was the wife of Henry Lippitt, who served two terms as Rhode Island Governor, and the mother of eleven children, six of whom survived infancy. Despite her busy schedule and many responsibilities, Mary Ann was instrumental in Jeanie;s education, often spending hours each day instructing her daughter. Without her mother's convictions and determination, Jeanie would most likely have never regained the ability to speak. | Source: Governor Henry Lippitt House Museum, a Preserve Rhode Island property View File Details Page

Jeanie Lippitt Weeden

Jeanie Lippitt Weeden

This photograph of Jeanie Lippitt Weeden in her wedding gown was taken in 1893 at the time of her marriage to William B. Weeden. Partly a marriage of convenience, Jeanie noted in later years "I married a man and six children" when she became William Weeden's third wife. | Source: Governor Henry Lippitt House Museum, a Preserve Rhode Island property View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Rebecca Soules, “"Her Mother's Triumph",” Rhode Tour, accessed May 24, 2017, http://rhodetour.org/items/show/2.
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