Little Bitz – Tewksbury Miracle Worker Anne Sullivan
The story of Helen Keller and her amazing teacher has its roots right here in the Valley. Anne Sullivan was the oldest child of immigrants who fled the Irish potato famine. When her mother died of tuberculosis in 1874, 8-year-old Anne was sent with her younger brother to live in the almshouse in Tewksbury. The institution was overcrowded and filled with the ill, alcoholics and the “pauper insane.” Her writings recall the place: “Very much of what I remember about Tewksbury is indecent, cruel, melancholy, gruesome in the light of grown-up experience; but nothing corresponding with my present understanding of these ideas entered my child mind. Everything interested me. I was not shocked, pained, grieved or troubled by what happened. Such things happened.” Anne’s brother died after being there only six months.
An untreated eye infection earlier in her life had left Anne with severely limited vision. Reports of cruelty, sexually perverted practices, and cannibalism were made to the state about the place, and the resulting investigation was spearheaded by a founder of the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston. This turned out to be good news for Anne, who worked up the courage to approach him and ask about attending the school. Her plea was successful, and she moved to the Perkins School in 1880. At age 15, she finally had surgery that improved her vision.
Anne graduated as valedictorian in 1886, and began working with the Keller family in March of the following year. She married a Harvard professor, but unlike the relationship between the two women, the marriage didn’t last. As the years passed, Anne and Helen toured the vaudeville circuit to make ends meet. But despite Anne’s exposure to education and culture, the ugliness of the almshouse never left her. “I doubt if life, or eternity for that matter, is long enough to erase the errors and ugly blots scored upon my brain by those dismal years,” she wrote.
In the late 1920s, Anne’s eyesight began to give out. She traveled to try to re-establish her health, and eventually died in 1936.
In 1992 a life-size bronze sculpture by Romanian-American Mico Kaufman was erected next to Tewksbury Town Hall. The piece is titled “Water,” and depicts Anne teaching Helen her first miraculous word.