Young Helen Keller Discovers the Truth About a Gravestone in Brewster

Jul 24, 2017

Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan in Brewster, summer, 1888.
Credit Brewster Historical Society

Hellen Keller spent time in Brewster during several summers as a child. She was born in Alabama, and became deaf and blind at 19 months old. Keller’s connection to Brewster was through a local woman named Sophia Crocker-Hopkins, who ran a boarding house for summer visitors. 

After the sudden death of her 16-year old daughter Florence, Sophia made her way to Boston and found a job at the Perkins School for the Blind. Sophia quickly became good friends with Annie Sullivan, a young blind woman roughly the same age as her daughter.

“Sophia Hopkins, her house mother, had a hand in the school when a family from Alabama contacted them and said they had a blind and deaf child, and needed someone to come to Alabama to live with them to help raise this child,” said Ellen St. Sure, Brewster Town Archivist.

Annie Sullivan was selected to go to Alabama and become Helen’s teacher. Annie kept in close touch with Sophia, and they arranged for Annie and Helen Keller to visit Sophia in Brewster during the summer of 1888, when Helen was eight years old.

Brewster Town Archivist Ellen St. Sure
Credit Brian Morris/WCAI

“All her eight years of life, she had never smelled seawater or sea air,” said Ellen St. Sure. “I’m sure all of her senses were heightened by the loss of the two.”

When Helen arrived for her first visit, Sophia gave her some dolls, a doll bed and a carriage, and said they were gifts. Annie Sullivan never told Helen that Sophia Hopkins had a daughter who died at the age of 16. Nor did she explain to Helen that the gifts that had been given to her had once belonged to Sophia's daughter.

One day, Helen, Annie and Sophia walked a short distance from Sophia’s house to Brewster Cemetery. Annie Sullivan had this recollection of that visit:

“She examined one stone after another and seemed pleased when she could decipher a name. Her attention was drawn to a marble slab with the name ‘Florence’ in relief. She dropped upon the ground as though looking for something, then turned to me with a face full of trouble and asked, ‘Where is poor little Florence?’ I evaded the question but she persisted, turning to my friend and asked, ‘Did you cry loud for poor little Florence?’ Then she added, ‘I think she is very dead. Who put her in big hole?’ As she continued to ask these distressing questions, we left the cemetery.”

8-year old Helen Keller was able to figure out that this was the grave of her hostess Sophia Hopkins' daughter.
Credit Brian Morris/WCAI

When they got back to the house, Helen gathered up her dolls, took them to Sophia Hopkins, and said she knew they belonged to her daughter Florence.

Annie Sullivan later wrote: “This was true, although we were at a loss to understand how she guessed it.”

Helen Keller returned to Brewster many times as an adult, and she went on to become a renowned author, political activist and lecturer.