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14 Surprising Facts About Helen Keller That They Don't Teach You In School

Updated February 10, 2021 252.5k views14 items

If you’ve been granted even the scantest American education, you’ve probably heard of Helen Keller, the incredible woman who fought her way to prominence after being left both deaf and blind at just 19 months old. 

Thanks to the help of her famed teacher Anne Sullivan, Keller was no longer isolated and able to communicate on behalf of the disenfranchised. She was a tireless advocate for education and women’s rights until her peaceful death in 1968. For decades, her perseverance and ingenuity have been righteously celebrated by legions of fans who stand in awe of her achievements. Seriously, without the benefit of sight or hearing, Keller managed to figure out a way to communicate with the world around her with unfailing accuracy. Imagine the kind of brilliance that takes.

The flip side of Keller’s intelligence was her increasingly radical social and political beliefs. In her zest to conquer life, Helen Keller was turned on to some revolutionary (and often eccentric) perspectives, and Keller herself was never one to shy away from new ways of thought. You’ve heard about Helen Keller’s relationship with Sullivan and her courageous quest experience the world even though she could neither see nor hear it, but there’s more to the icon than just the Hallmark Channel stuff.

  • Her Father And Grandfathers Were Big Shots In The Confederacy

    Photo: Family member of Thaxter P. Spencer / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Although she was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama, Helen Keller left the American South (never to really return) when she was eight years old. However, both her parents and grandparents had deep ties to the Antebellum South. In fact, her paternal grandfather was Robert E. Lee's second cousin and came down from Massachusetts prior to the war in order to fight for the Confederacy. In addition, her father was a Confederate captain, and her maternal grandfather was a Confederate general. Those are some deep Southern roots!

    However, regardless of his ideological dubiousness, Keller’s father was also a newspaper editor and, paradoxically perhaps, a big believer in education.

  • Alexander Graham Bell Referred Her Parents To Anne Sullivan’s School

    Photo: Popular Science Monthly / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Not a lot of people know that Alexander Graham Bell devoted a lot of time and energy to helping deaf people speak and hear. This urge most likely went back to his own mother’s hearing loss. Today, Bell’s work is considered somewhat controversial (he fought to ban sign language in the education of deaf people). At any rate, in 1886, at the height of his fame, he agreed to meet with Arthur and Kate Keller and discuss the hardships facing their daughter.

    On their first meeting, Helen said she, “loved him at once,” after he made his pocket watch chime so she could feel the vibration. It was Bell who referred the Kellers to the Perkins Institution in Boston. And, though Bell referred Keller to another doctor, he maintained an active interest in her education. The two maintained a lifelong friendship.

  • The Akita Dog Was First Brought To America Thanks To Keller

    In 1937, Helen Keller and her companion Polly Thomson went on a speaking tour of Japan, a country that often called Keller “Saint Keller” and “Saint of Three Burdens” among a litany of other reverent titles. It was on this trip that Keller visited Japan’s Akita district where she hoped to encounter the site of a legendary Akita named Hachi-Ko.

    Hachi-Ko achieved fame for his insane loyalty. The dog would follow his beloved master to the train every day and then greet him precisely at 3:00 pm. Then, one day, Hachi-Ko’s owner had a stroke and died in the city. Hachi-Ko dutifully met the 3:00 pm train, waiting long into the night for his owner to return. In spite of being given to friends of the family miles away, Hachi-Ko continued to return to the train station, sharply at 3:00, day after day. 

    Keller had become interested in the story and subsequently fell in love with the breed. When she expressed interest in meeting one, plans were made for her to meet Kamikaze, a puppy that Keller introduced to the United States.

  • To Make Ends Meet, Keller Went On The Vaudeville Circuit

    Video: YouTube

    Vaudeville promoters had wanted a piece of Helen Keller from the time she started to make a name for herself as a young woman. Anne Sullivan always discouraged these encounters, urging Keller to maintain a little bit of dignity. Keller, however, didn’t see the Vaudeville offers as an affront to her stature. She was intrigued.

    In 1919, coming off the dismal sales of her last two books, Helen Keller finally convinced Anne Sullivan to let her go on the Vaudeville circuit. During her time on the road, Keller was a hit with crowds, especially when she was able to take some time to answer questions from them. In fact, audiences across the country were blown away by Keller’s incredible wit.