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The Deaf Mute Howls – Albert Ballin

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 19 February 2016

Ballin 2“It will soon be obvious to all rational minds that the deaf have been woefully miseducated, and their characters warped and stunted at their schools – terribly enough to justify the HOWL they emit.” (Ballin, 1930, p.12)

Albert Victor Ballin was born in New York in 1861, son of a German immigrant who worked as a lithographer.  He lost his hearing through scarlet fever aged three.  “Since then I have never heard voices, music or any sound – not even the firing of big guns.  […] If the vibrations hang in the air, there remains in the atmosphere the silence of King Tut’s tomb for me.” (p.27)  Being unaware of the manual alphabet, they used crude ‘home signs’.  Ballin was convinced that through their ignorance “a blunder worse than a crime”, it atrophied his capability of learning to read and write (p.28).   This anecdote he recalls deserves repeating in full.

When I was five or six, my brother, a hearing lad two years my senior, was accustomed to taking me with him to a baker’s shop, a block away.  After many trips to the shop I was trusted to go alone to buy and bring home a loaf of bread.  My mother wrote some words on a slip of paper, wrapped it over a nickel, andut both in my little fist. She admonished me in signs to be very careful to hold fast and not to lose the coin and to bring home a loaf.  I carried out the errand so satisfactorily that she patted me on the head and commissioned me to repeat a like errand a few days later.  This time she wrapped the written slip over five red pennies. I always had a sweet tooth for taffy, so I stopped on the way at my favorite candy store, filched one penny, and bought a wee handful of the confection.
Then I went into the bake-shop, chewing happily.  I handed the slip and the remaining four pennies to the baker.  He was aware of my deafuess, and he wasted no time to argue with me.  He quietly scribbled something on another slip of paper and wrapped it with the bread.  On my return home my mother asked me what I had done with the missing penny.  I confessed my sin, and I was rewarded with a pretty stiff spanking, plus threats of a more severe punishment.  I was profoundly astonished at her weird clairvoyance.  How did she find me out?  That set me to thinking deeply.  I began dimly to suspect some connection between the baker’s slip and my spanking.  On my next errand I tried an experiment: I filched a penny, bought the taffy and the bread, but this time I tore and threw away the baker’s nasty lime slip.  When I arrived home with the loaf, I watched, with a throbbing heart, to see what mama would do. She only smiled kindly and patted my head.  My ruse was a grand success-my guess was right.  Thereafter I stole a penny on every like errand.  How delicious was that taffy! (p.29-30)

The book begins,

Long  loud  and  cantankerous is the howl raised by the deaf mute.  It has to be if he wishes to be heard and listened to. He ought to keep it up incessantly until the wrongs inflicted on him will have been righted and done away with forever. (p. 17)

It is fascinating to read his description of his education.  He faced great difficulties, and he points out that the 20% of pupils who were ‘semi-mute’ were the ‘show-pupils’ (p.41).  He was angered by the failure to acknowledge the significance of sign language, and the prejudices of pure oralists (p.51).  He deserves to be better known, if only for his book which was ahead of its time.

Ballin studioBallin trained as an artist under Mr. H. Humphry Moore and attempted to make a living at that (BDT p.1, 1907).  He went to Paris and Rome, studying under the Spanish painter Jose Villegas and in 1882 won a silver medal in Rome for a Venetian scene (ibid, p.1-2). He became friends with the Phillipino artist Juan Luna, sharing a studio with him (ibid).  Back in America again, he painted portraits of the Rev. Thomas Gallaudet and Dr. Isaac Peet.  He got involved in politics in support of the Democratic campaign in the 180s, which is how he met his wife (ibid p.3).  He began then to specialise in miniatures.Ballin Dreaming

He later attempted to make it in films, having moved to California, appearing as an extra in many films , but “easily recognized in Silk Stockings [Silk Legs (?)] (Fox, 1927),  The Man Who Laughs (Universal Artists, 1928)” etc. (Schuchman, p.27).   He was a lead in His Busy Hour, (Heustis, 1926), a film with an all-deaf cast.

He died in California on November 2nd, 1932, not long after his book was published.

Below we see him with the silent film star, Laura La Plante.  He was acquainted with a number of other ‘stars’, including Chaplin, Lon Chaney and Betty Compson, and he interviewed the oralist Alexander Graham Bell (Schuchman p.28).

Students whose colleges subscribe to Project Muse may be able to access the full text, which has also been reprinted by Gallaudet.  Our copy of the book is signed, “Compliments of Howard L. Terry” (1877-1964), a Gallaudet alumnus who was a writer and became a Deaf activist when he moved to California (Clark, p.90-1).
Ballin 1Ballin 3Ballin, Albert, The Deaf Mute Howls, Grafton Publishing Company, Los Angeles, (1930)

Clark, John Lee (ed), Deaf American Poetry : an anthology, Gallaudet University Press, Washington (2009)

Notable Deaf of Today: Albert Victor Ballin, Artist. British Deaf Times, Vol. 4 no. 37 January 1907, p.1-4

Schuchman, John S., Hollywood Speaks : deafness and the film entertainment industry, University of Illinois Press, Chicago (1988)



Silent Era : Progressive Silent Film List


His Busy Hour (1926) American B&W : Two reels Directed by [?] Albert Ballin? Cast: Albert Ballin [the hermit] Produced by James Spearing and Bertha Lincoln Heustis.

Post updated 15/12/16 with BDT article & picture.

2 Responses to “The Deaf Mute Howls – Albert Ballin”

  • 1
    Linda Levitan wrote on 24 February 2016:

    I’m working on a biographical sketch of Albert Ballin for DEAF LIFE, and have been trying to track down his descendants. (He had two daughters: Marion (Saerchinger) and Viola (Selson). I’m also trying to locate surviving paintings (aside from those included in Deborah Meranski Sonnenstrahl’s book). He may have experienced tremendous disappointments, but we consider him a man ahead of his time.

  • 2
    Linda Levitan wrote on 24 February 2016:

    Howard L. Terry was Ballin’s friend who helped arrange the funeral when Ballin died at Los Angeles County Poor Farm. Terry also wrote an obituary for the “Deaf-Mutes’ Journal,” a popular Deaf Community newspaper that Ballin had contributed to.