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The Frost King incident

The story of accusations of plagiarism and fraud surrounding a short story written by Helen Keller.

Helen Keller and Michael Anagnos in 1891

In the fall of 1891, eleven-year-old Helen Keller wrote a short story called “The Frost King” as a birthday present for Michael Anagnos, the Director of Perkins at the time. In a letter from Keller dated November 4, 1891, she introduced the gift to Anagnos with wishes for a Happy Birthday from herself, “mother and father,” and “teacher” (Anne Sullivan) (Keller, “Letter to Mr. Anagnos”). In the story, King Frost and his fairies provide an origin story for the changing colors of fall leaves. Anagnos was so impressed by the story that he had it published in the Perkins alumni newsletter. This set off a series of events that led to Helen Keller being accused of plagiarism, Anne Sullivan accused of being a fraud, and a controversy and “trial” that would make national headlines, end the relationship Keller and Sullivan had with Anagnos, and end Keller’s time at the school as a student. Keller’s relationship with the school did not end permanently, however.

Michael Anagnos included Keller’s story in the January 1892 issue of the Perkins alumni journal, The Mentor, and it was later published in The Goodson Gazette, a weekly newspaper published by the West Virginia Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb and Blind. A Gazette reader recognized the story as being similar to Margaret T. Canby’s “Birdie and his Fairy Friends” (“King Frost Again,” 14). After becoming aware of the accusation, the Gazette published both stories for side-by-side comparison (“King Frost Again,” 14). Suggesting that the blame for the fraud rests not on “little Helen Keller,” “but upon whoever knowingly attempted to palm off the frost king as her composition” (“To the Kentucky Deaf-mute,” 13).

Keller, however, insisted that she had no memory of either having read the book or having the story read to her. She was devastated and upset that people she deeply cared about would accuse her of lying. Sullivan, too, denied knowing the story or having read it to Keller. Anagnos interviewed both Keller and Sullivan. In the meantime, Sullivan completed her own investigation (with the help of John Hitz, who was Alexander Graham Bell’s aide) and found that Sophia Hopkins, a teacher at Perkins, had read Keller the story while she was on vacation in Cape Cod,  (Sullivan, 144-145).

Alexander Graham Bell, Mark Twain, Edward Everett Hale, and even the author Canby herself all sent expressions of support for Keller and Sullivan. Bell “denounced” the school. Hale, a Boston reformer and minister, wrote that “under the circumstance, I do not see how any one could be so unkind as to call it a plagiarism” (Hale, “Lend a Hand,” 1892, available on the Internet Archive). Canby “forgave her the plagiarism” (Herrmann, 84; a copy of the letter is available on the Internet Archive).

Pressure on Anagnos and Perkins to respond was mounting. Anagnos had familial ties to Perkins founding Director Samuel Gridley Howe, whose prior achievements educating another deafblind student 50 years before, were being obscured by Anagnos and Sullivan. Later, in 1980, Perkins’ director Edward J. Waterhouse reflected that Sullivan, Anagnos, and Perkins had all become internationally known thanks to their education of Helen Keller, and the threat to their reputations made such an investigation “probably unavoidable” (Waterhouse, 20). Waterhouse also suggested that perhaps Keller was likely not the target, but rather Sullivan (Herrmann, 83).

When the similarities between Helen’s “Frost King,” and Margaret T. Canby’s “The Frost Fairies” came to the attention of Anagnos, Keller remembered him to be “deeply troubled” but she felt that he believed her “at first” (Keller, “The Story,” 64). He addressed the controversy in the Perkins Annual Report for the year 1891, by including a full-page note. It stated that “the story by Helen Keller, entitled ‘King Frost,’ is an adaptation, if not a reproduction of, ‘Frost Fairies,’ which occur in a little volume, ‘Birdie and his Fairy Friends,’ by Margaret T. Canby published in 1873” (Anagnos, 94). In this note, he reiterates the explanation that Hopkins must have read it to Keller. (This note is available online in the digitized copy of the Annual Report available on the Internet Archive.) This same “Note” was published in the “Editorial Notes” of the March 1892 issue of the Mentor (also available on the Internet Archive) (“Editorial Notes,” 117-118). The Mentor’s “Editorial Notes” also include a summary of the controversy and the findings from an investigation. A statement from the school was also included in the April 1892 issue of Annals of the Deaf (available on the Internet Archive).

Anagnos changed his mind however when an unnamed Perkins teacher told him about a conversation she had with Keller, which she transcribed. In that conversation, she stated that Keller had admitted that Sullivan had read her the story (“Miss Sullivans Methods,” 293). In her autobiography, The Story of My Life, Keller stated that this conversation had taken place but, “something I said made her think she detected in my words a confession” and that this would turn Anagnos against her and Sullivan (Keller, “The Story,” 64). This letter from the teacher was included in Miss Sullivan’s Methods: A Comparison between her reports to the Perkins Institution and the Statements made in the Volume entitled “The Story of my Life” by Helen Keller. Joseph Lash, the author of Helen and Teacher, proposes that the manuscript, typewritten around 1900, was an attempt to prove Sullivan was the one who had read Canby’s book to Keller (Lash, 142-143). (The manuscript is digitized and available on the Internet Archive.)

While Anagnos initially believed that Keller had adapted the story from memories, he now interviewed teachers at Perkins and some of their accounts said that Sullivan had read the story to Keller. Facing pressure from the public, Anagnos arranged for a committee of eight people from the school (4 of whom were sighted and 4 of whom were not) to determine whether Keller had committed plagiarism.

After bringing Keller into the room with the school officers, Sullivan was asked to leave while they questioned her student. The questioning lasted two hours and ultimately ended up deadlocked, leaving Anagnos with the deciding vote. Keller later wrote that she was questioned “with what seemed to me a determination on the part of my judges to force me to acknowledge that I remembered having had ‘The Frost Fairies’ read to me. I felt in every question the doubt and suspicion that was in their minds, and I felt, too, that a loved friend [Anagnos] was looking at me reproachfully, although I could not have put all this in to words.” (Keller, The Story, Chapter XIV).

Keller continued, “When I went into the room where Mr. Anagnos had so often held me on his knee, and, forgetting his many cares, had shared in my frolics, and found there persons who seemed to doubt me, I felt there was something hostile and menacing in the very atmosphere, and subsequent events have bourne out this impression.” (Keller, 71)

Keller included a telling of the incident in her biography of Anne Sullivan, Teacher. She wrote that Sullivan was “wounded by the impeachment” of Keller’s “honesty by those who would not recognize that all children, blind or seeing, learn to put their ideas into words by imitation and assimilation” (75). Sullivan was also embarrassed, Keller wrote, because the incident recalled memories of her own “imperfect education” (75). In Story of My Life,  Keller said that she had “disgraced” herself, and that “no child drank deeper from the cup of bitterness than I did” (64-65).

Some viewed the plagiarism claims as an indictment of Sullivan’s teaching methods — implying that Keller was simply mimicking Sullivan rather than forming her own ideas or unique experiences (Herrmann, 137).

Following the “trial” in 1892, Keller and Sullivan left the school permanently as the Frost King Incident effectively ended their relationship with Perkins. The duo spent that summer in Alabama with Keller’s family where, “‘The Frost King’ was forgotten” (Keller, 73).

It would not, however, be entirely forgotten. While in conversation or writing a letter, Keller would occasionally spell to Sullivan that she was not sure the comments were her own thoughts (Herrmann, 89). Sullivan, always supportive of her student, encouraged Keller to write a “brief account of her life to boost her self confidence” (Herrmann, 89). A year after leaving Perkins, Keller started writing an autobiography noting that, “the thought that what I wrote might not be absolutely my own tormented me” (Keller, 73). Years later, Keller revealed that these fears remained and that they are why she never wrote fiction again.

In 1903, Keller’s autobiography was published providing her account of the controversy surrounding the Frost King. After reading Keller’s account, Mark Twain, a friend to both Keller and Sullivan at this time, wrote Keller a letter in 1903 declaring the “Plagiarism Court,” “a collection of decayed human turnips” (Twain, “Letter to Helen”). He also wrote the following observation:

“Oh dear me, how unspeakably funny and owlishly idiotic and grotesque that ‘plagiarism’ farce! As if there was much substantially all ideas are secondhand, consciously and unconsciously draw from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnered with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them” (Twain, “Letter to Helen”)

(A digitized this copy of Twain’s letter to Keller which is available online on the Internet Archive.)

Although Keller’s studies at Perkins ended under these stressful circumstances, her relationship with Perkins did not end completely. In the 1891 Annual Report, before Keller left, Director Anagnos noted that much of the time she spent while at the school was in the Library (Anagnos, 193). In 1909, 1910, and 1915, Keller donated 61 embossed books – 105 volumes total – to the school from her personal collection. Notably these donations started 3 years after the death of Anagnos. The Helen Keller embossed book collection, is now part of the Perkins Archives and includes novels, poetry, and non-fiction in French and English and printed in braille and American Braille.

In 1952, Perkins’ fifth director, Edward Waterhouse’s daughter, told him that Helen Keller and Polly Thomson, who had been passing through Watertown, stopped to say hello, likely the first time she had been on Perkins grounds since 1892 (Waterhouse, 22). Waterhouse, who dedicated much of his tenure at Perkins to advocating on behalf of education and opportunities for the deaflbind community, invited Keller back to Perkins to officiate the dedication of the new home of the now well-established Deafblind Program, the Keller-Sullivan building. In November of 1956, Keller visited the Perkins campus for a day filled with activities that celebrated her achievements, the work of Anne Sullivan, and the work on behalf of students with deafblindness, that was currently being done at Perkins. A plaque was installed on the Keller-Sullivan Building where deafblind students, teachers training to work with deaflbind students, and research on deaflbind education would take place.  A detailed account of the day’s many activities can be found in the December 15, 1956 issue of the Lantern, which is available online on the Internet Archive.

To celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Anne Sullivan’s birth, a week-long event conceived and co-sponsored by Waterhouse and the executive director of the Industrial Home for the Blind, Peter Salmon, intended to raise awareness about educating and employing people who are deafblind. Keller, who was by then 86 years old, was kept informed about the Anne Sullivan Centennial Commemoration activities although she was unable to attend due to ill health. Provided with a braille copy of the Centennial proceedings, Keller’s nurse reported that, “when she first read her copy she raised her right arm and her face became radiant with that famous smile. I know she was filled with the joy of it all” (“Helen Keller and the Anne Sullivan Commemoration,” 21).

When Keller passed away in 1968, 59 members of the Perkins upper school choir sang at her funeral with twenty other members of the Perkins community (“Helen Keller,” 15). This included two current students who were deaflbind who knew Keller personally, Gayle Sabonaitis and Chan Poh Lin. The four members of faculty on the trip were all recipients of the Anne Sullivan Medal, which they received in 1966, the first year it was awarded. (You can learn more about the Anne Sullivan Medal on Perkins.org.)

The Frost King Incident, as it has become known, was a traumatic event in Keller’s life. It immediately ended Keller’s studies at Perkins, and her close relationship with Perkins Director, Micheal Anagnos. It did not, however, permanently sever her ties to the school. As evidenced by donations to the Perkins Library embossed book collection, and through later participation in school events and advocacy, the relationship between Keller and Perkins continued until her death, despite the Frost King Incident. Thanks to primary sources available at the Perkins Archives, the American Foundation for the Blind, and elsewhere, this part of Helen Keller’s and Perkins’ story can be researched with the aid of several first-hand accounts of those involved with, and affected by, the 1891 “Incident.”

Works cited: (with links to digitized resources)

Anagnos, Michael, “NOTE.” Sixtieth Annual Report of the Trustees of the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind, 1891, p. 94. Internet Archive.

“Editorial Notes.” The Mentor, March 1892, p 117-118. Internet Archive

“Helen Keller.” The Lantern, June 1968, p. 15. Internet Archive.

“Helen Keller and the Anne Sullivan Commemoration.” The Lantern, March 1966, p. 21. Internet Archive.

Herrmann, Dorothy. Helen Keller: A Life. The University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL). 1999.

Keller, Helen. Teacher: Anne Sullivan Macy. Praeger. 1985.

Keller, Helen. The Story of My Life, Garden City, New York, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1905. Internet Archive.

Keller, Helen. Letter to Mr. Anagnos. 4 November 1891. Box 1, Folder 9. AG29 Helen Keller and Arthur Gilman Collection. Perkins School for the Blind Archives, Watertown, MA. Perkins Archives Flickr.

“King Frost Again.” Scrapbook of Helen Keller and The Blind. Book VIII. Created by Rebecca Mack. 1888-1921. HK05_B269_BK04_001_014. Helen Keller Archive. American Foundation for the Blind, New York, NY. Helen Keller Archive digital collection.

Lash, Joseph. Helen and Teacher, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Perseus Publishing, 1980.

Miss Sullivan’s Methods, A Comparison between her reports to the Perkins Institution and the Statements made in the Volume entitled “The Story of my Life” by Helen Keller. Circa 1900. Internet Archive.

Sullivan, Anne. “How Helen Keller Acquired Language: Hon. John Hits” American Annals of the Deaf, April 1892, pp. 139-153. Internet Archive

“To the Kentucky Deaf-mute.” Scrapbook of Helen Keller and The Blind. Book VIII. Created by Rebecca Mack. 1888-1921. HK05_B269_BK04_001_013. Helen Keller Archive. American Foundation for the Blind, New York, NY. Helen Keller Archive digital collection.

Twain, Mark. Letter to Helen. 13 March 1903. Box 10, Folder 2. AG151 Nella Braddy Henney Collection. Perkins School for the Blind Archives, Watertown, MA. Internet Archive.

Waterhouse, “Helen Keller at Perkins: The Fall from Grace.” The Lantern, Spring 1980, pp. 17-21. Internet Archive.

Related Perkins collections:

AG39 Helen Keller clippings and poster collection finding aid

AG29 Helen Keller and Arthur Gillman collection

AG145 Helen Keller newspaper notices collection

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