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Marcus Hill Kerr – a Deaf American Artist & … Animal Trainer (1845-1903)

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 17 May 2019

An American Deaf man of the late 19th century, Marcus Hill Kerr was born in Liberty Township, Jackson, Michigan, in 1845.  His father Robert was a farmer with at least eight children, and as the town was settled in 1835, the Kerr family must have been one of the first in the district.  When he was three he suffered from ‘brain fever’ and lost his hearing as a result.   When he was twelve he was sent to Flint, to the Michigan School for the Deaf, and he graduated from there in 1865 (Gallaher, p.142, from which much of what follows comes, and Obituary).  Kerr went on to study at Gallaudet, to what level I cannot say – Gallaher says merely he ‘spent some time’ there.

His artistic talent was evident as a child – for example, he drew ‘an Indian shooting an elephant on a small wooden box’!  The article in Representative Deaf Persons of the United States of America seems to have been from interview with Kerr, and we have a few particular details of his early life, such as that he would read newspapers at the local ‘news depot’ but as he could not afford to buy them, he would draw pictures from memory afterwards.

Marcus’s first oil painting was painted when he was thirteen and was of his old shepherd dog.  He also made landscapes and portraits, ‘for a living’ before going to Rochester, New York, to study under a ‘celebrated artist’ Professor Adam Springfield.*  Before that he had been entirely self-taught.  Kerr went on to the artists’ colony in New York we are told, and then travelled to Europe in 1871, including visits to London, Düsseldorf  and Paris.  The article says he ‘studied’ in these places.  Probably that means he was studying under his own steam, and we may wonder how long he was studying with the celebrated Professor.  Springfield was a witness to Kerr’s passport application, in September 1872 – was he going abroad then, after getting married, rather than in 1871?  That would be an area for further research.

In September 1871, he married a Deaf lady from Jackson, called Adele George (1834-1921), nine years his senior, but who had also been at the Michigan School.  His obituary does not mention her, but does say he lived at the corner of Elm street and Main.  Adele is herself really interesting, and if you can you should read the article on her by Seitz and Laffrado cited below.  She was a poor Deaf woman who found her voice, writing and publishing her life story, A brief narrative of the life of Miss Adele M. George: (being deaf and dumb) in a number of different editions over many years, from 1859, then selling sufficient copies to rescue herself and her mother from homelessness.

Adele married a cousin, Harrison Jewell, and they had three children including a Deaf son who went to the Michigan School but died aged sixteen.  They were divorced, and then Adele married Marcus Kerr.  The marriage was not successful in the long run, and they had to endure the loss of three children in infancy.  Their divorce in 1890 was reported in the newspapers, as Kerr was well known, though Adele (Adell) is described in the city directory for Jackson in 1899 and also in 1902, as ‘Kerr, Adelle (wid Marcus H) bds 736 S Milwaukee’ – in other words she was calling herself a widow before Marcus died (Seitz and Lallrado p.174).  Kerr had accused Adele of “extravagance and desertion” (ibid.).   we might wonder what blame he carried – he did not wait about, marrying another deaf lady, Mamie E. Nettleton of Indiana, in January 1891.**

Kerr spent his later years in St. Louis, moving there in 1885, painting the ex-mayor Walbridge, as well as a pastel of the Rev. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, which was exhibited at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, and was presented to the college.  He also painted Helen Keller and Alexander Graham Bell.  Do these portraits survive?

The most bizarre thing about Marcus Kerr, is his entry in Peeps into the Deaf World, where we discover that he trained a pug to perform various tricks.  It was this picture that got me looking into his life.  Whether this was a pastime or perhaps an additional source of income I do not know.  I am sure there is more to discover.  His end was sad, and a fate shared by many deaf people over the years.  He was knocked over when crossing a road on the 10th of April, 1903, by a car he did not of course hear.

Mamie is pretty opaque in the records – at least after a brief search I have not been able to pin her down, neither have I found Kerr on the 1900 census, but I have little time to look.  Did their marriage last, or did she die?  In his obituary she is not named.  That obituary, in the Jackson Citizen, quoting the St. Louis Post and Dispatch, says he had a studio at 3837 Delmar Avenue (see article on Find a Grave in the link below).

*Someone I have not been able to track down in the brief time available to research this blog in any detail, but have found this romantic Victorian historical painting by him.

Gallaher, James E., Representative Deaf Persons of the United States of America, 1898 (2nd ed.) p.142-3

Roe, W.R., Peeps into the Deaf World, 1917 p.290-1

The St. Louis Republic. (St. Louis, Mo.), 11 April 1903. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84020274/1903-04-11/ed-1/seq-3/>

Seitz, Rush, and Laffrado, Laura, Adele M. George Jewel Kerr (1834–?), Legacy Vol. 30, No. 1, Special Issue: Women Writing Disability (2013), pp. 172-183

US Census returns

Year: 1850; Census Place: Liberty, Jackson, Michigan; Roll: M432_352; Page: 402A; Image: 556

Year: 1880; Census Place: Jackson, Jackson, Michigan; Roll: 585; Page: 424D; Enumeration District: 123

U.S. Special Census on Deaf Family Marriages and Hearing Relatives, 1888-1895

Kerr’s Gallaudet page

Passport Record – National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington D.C.; Roll #: 187; Volume #: Roll 187 – 01 Aug 1872-30 Sep 1872

Ancestry.com. U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]

Adele M George Kerr

Marcus H Kerr


An American Periodical, The National Deaf Mute Gazette, 1867-8

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 9 September 2016

The National Deaf Mute Gazette was published in Boston, with the first volume in January, 1867.  We have two volumes in the library.  It was edited by William Martin Chamberlain, with offices in 221 Washington Street.  He was a remarkable Deaf man, who lost his hearing from measles, aged 5 or eight (Braddock, p.11 and for what follows).  Born on the 13th of July, 1832, in South Reading, Massachusetts, he spent some years as a fisherman in Marblehead, then tried various trades including that of a printer, which obviously stood him in good stead for producing newspapers.  His lipreading skills were such that he bluffed his way into the Union Army in the Civil War, but was dismissed when he failed to answer a sentry.  He was fortunate not to be shot as happened to other deaf people in the two world wars.  It shows us what a good deal of gumption he had!  He ran The Marblehead Messenger for a while, then a couple of issues of a comic magazine, before that failed (ibid).DMG 2

The National Deaf Mute Gazette is beautifully produced, on good quality paper.  It contains stories about deaf people, farming tips, foreign deaf news, and so on.  It followed on from Gallaudet Guide and Deaf-Mute’s Companion, but it folded in 1868, and was succeeded by The Deaf-Mute’s Friend.  He was nothing if not persistent and determined.  Chamberlain was not the owner however, and as early as October, 1867, “Packard & Holmes” are described as editors and proprietors, with Philo W. Packard as editor and proprietor by February 1868 (out copy lacks issue 13, January 1868). Guilbert Braddock says, “These three early ventures started the graveyard of silent periodicals, which has now attained a considerable acreage.”  The same could be said of newspapers on this side of the Atlantic.  DMG 1

After this venture he became an ‘instructor’ at the New York Institution for the Deaf in 1875, dying in 1895 (ibid, p.12).

It looks worth a little study, and I have found no article considering it other than in passing – though that was only after a brief search.  Articles and obituaries are always of great interest for genealogical research as well, and there are some here.


Click on images for a larger size.

Braddock, Guilbert, Notable Deaf Persons. 1975

Lane, H, Pillard, R.C., & French, Mary, Origins of the American Deaf-World: Assimilating and Differentiating Societies and Their Relation to Genetic patterning. In, Emmorey, K, & Lane, Harlan, eds.  The signs of language revisited : an anthology to honor Ursula Bellugi and Edward Klima, 2000  


“we were enabled to ward off the small-pox” – The Indiana Asylum

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 20 March 2015

To show that our collection is not merely parochial but of international interest, we have a visit to our American cousins today.

I discovered that we have two overlapping bound volumes of the Indiana Asylum for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb.  The paper is beautiful in quality, the annual reports were printed and bound together in 1855, ten years after they were produced.  The Asylum took young people between the ages of ten and thirty, which seems quite an interesting age bracket, but quite progressive when you consider how difficult the transition from youth and dependence to maturity and independence is for young people anyway, and perhaps more so for Deaf young people.Indiana 1

The building is impressive and substantial looking, and the state levied a property tax in order to build it.  Its founder, William Willard, was a pupil of Laurent Clerc.

There are lists of pupils, stating the (supposed) cause of their deafness.  These would be interesting to analyse as they present a substantial data set.

Indiana 2One of the charms of this type of publication, is the stories they published that were written by the pupils.  Here is one –

By a Boy Two Years Under Instruction
A boy was walking along the road and he met a drunkard. He laughed at the drunkard, and he threw his bottle at him and hurt him much. A man ran and carried him home. His mother was troubled and called the doctor. The doctor came and put some court-plaster on his head, and he got well again and he ran about the city. His mother told him he must not laugh at the drunkard, for if you will laugh at the drunkard he will kill you. The boy obeyed his mother. (1854 p.63)

Indiana alphabet 2The Institute’s physician, Livingston Dunlap, shows frustration in his November 1st 1854 report, when during a smallpox outbreak, he vaccinated the scholars, only to find that “a thoughtless woman came with a child while laboring under genuine varioloid to the asylum – and in a few days, the 23rd of March, five girls showed evidence of having varioloid; it spread immediately among the girls and boys until twenty-six were down with the disease, and continued until the 26th April, at which time they were all capable of attending to their duties in school.  By the timely application of the vaccination, we were enabled to ward off the small-pox and have the varioloid*, which has terminated so favorably, that no deformity was left upon the fac, nor any other undesirable result.” (p.43, 1854)

*Varioloid is a milder form of smallpox in those who have had it or been vaccinated.

Indiana Asylum for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb Annual Reports 1-15, and 11-24