written by Sara Campbell
While preparing for production of the play “The Miracle Worker” by The Country Players at the Shea Theater in the Spring of 2010, we recorded bits of dialogue calling back the childhood of Helen Keller’s teacher Annie Sullivan. It reminded me that both Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller had roots in Massachusetts: Annie at birth and Helen as an adult.
The known facts of Annie Sullivan’s early life are published in many sources, but as a genealogist, I was interested in what documents I could access to uncover some of the local details. Annie’s birth was registered in Agawam as Johanna Sullivan, daughter of Irish immigrants Thomas Sullivan and Anna C. Sullivan, in April of 1866. Images of the town records are available at http://www.familysearch.org.
I reviewed the census records for 1870 for the Town of Agawam at Ancestry.com and found Thomas Sullivan, age 30, an Irish laborer, is listed with his wife Alice, age 28, and children Anna (4), Nellie (3) and James (1). Somehow, seeing the hand-written census pages makes that moment when the family was enumerated in Feeding Hills more real to me.
The Agawam birth records list the other Sullivan children enumerated on the 1870 census, James and Ellen “Nellie” born to Thomas and Alice, indicating that “Anna” listed as Annie’s mother was likely an error in recording. Ellen Sullivan was born on July 6, 1867 and James, born June of 1869. In June of 1871 another daughter was born to Thomas and Alice: Mary.
Looking at the 1870 Beers Atlas on http://www.old-maps.com, I did not find the Sullivans, but did locate the names appearing before and after them on the census page: Moore and Taylor. Thomas Sullivan gave his assets as $100 on the census, and Mr. Moore at $12,000. Since a tenant farm-laborer would not likely be listed on the published map, the family may have lived in a building on Moore’s property, which places them south of the intersection of Pine and South Westfield Streets in Feeding Hills.
In 1873 Nellie Sullivan died in May at age 6 of “brain fever.” On the same page Thomas and Alice’s infant son John Sullivan’s death is registered in August, from “cholera infantium.” He was only two months old.
Alice Sullivan’s death in January of 1874 is also listed in the Agawam vital records. The cause of death listed is consumption. Her father’s name is listed as Owen Cloesey. Within the period of eight months, seven-year-old Annie lost her sister, infant brother, and her mother.
In February of 1876 Annie and her brother James were admitted to the State Almshouse in Tewksbury. An image of the admittance records are found at the web site for the American Foundation for the Blind (www.afb.org/anniesullivan .) It is stated that neither ever went to school. James was listed as five, although he was nearly seven. He had a hip ailment and died three months later on May 30, 1876. Their father was noted to be still in Agawam. Conditions at State institutions of that time were deplorable, and some of Annie’s memories from that period are in published accounts. Her “rescue” by the doctor who improved her vision and secured her a place at Perkins Institute in Boston was a quirk of fate that led her to the Keller family and a life she could never have imagined.
So the first ten years of the young woman who would go on to rise above poverty, abandonment by her father, near-blindness and lack of early education were spent in Western Massachusetts. It is written that she passed through Agawam once in her later years, but did not make contact with any family who might have remained there.
I was curious about her youngest remaining sister, whom I did not see further reference to in the literature. It seemed daunting to trace a Mary Sullivan during that time period, because the name was common and would likely change due to marriage around the time when the 1890 census is not preserved. The record from Tewkesbury yielded a clue: “Sister Mary, 3 years old, with Aunt Mary Clarey in Agawam.” I didn’t find Mary Clarey in the census, but coincidently, the page of births that contained Ellen Sullivan’s birth also listed William Sullivan, son of John Sullivan and Mary Clary. The 1880 census of Agawam includes this family, but just to make it difficult, they are at the bottom of the page, and Mary’s name is on the following page. And the images on Ancestry are out of sequence! From there I searched for a marriage of Mary Sullivan, daughter of John and Mary, and found a Springfield marriage in February of 1892 to Eugene Croherr or Crohen. I haven’t found this family in further records, but it may be a future trail to follow. Annie Sullivan was married later in life, but did not have children. Mary would be the only sibling who could have continued the family line.