Robert Merry’s Museum didn’t often highlight the sufferings of children, unlike Youth’s Companion, which for several years included obituaries of young role models. “The Patient Sufferer” was printed the first year John Newton Stearns edited the Museum; under his editorship, the emphasis of the magazine shifted from exploring the broad world into which readers would find a place to tightly focusing on the concerns of home and community. “The Patient Sufferer” emphasizes the comforts of religion to one with few other outlets.

It also presents a disabled person as a model of saintliness in a way that can make the modern reader uncomfortable. Abby is described as somehow super-human: paralyzed in one arm and unable to speak or hear, she develops a way of signing with one hand, which she teaches others, so they can communicate; blind, she can nevertheless read, write, and “readily distinguish different colors by the feeling”; paralyzed, she stitches a pin cushion displayed at the Bristol County Fair. She is patient in her agony and her progressing disability; she is grateful and lovely and insists on being “neat and clean” and is “very anxious to make as little trouble as possible.” Abby’s disabilities are, the author maintains, key to her unwavering religious faith: “Shut out, as she is, so to speak, from the world, she is free from the common temptations to which all are subject” and can commune with her god.

Abby was Abby Arnold Dillingham, born in Fall River, Massachusetts, on 13 September 1842 to Charles C. and Mary Ann Dillingham. [Massachusetts Vital Records, 1840-1911. New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston, Massachusetts. at] Charles is listed as a clerk in the 1855 Massachusetts state census and a bookkeeper in the 1860 U. S. census. [M432 #308; p. 18. Massachusetts State Census; Fall River, Massachusetts, Ward 6, household #68; reel 3; vol 5. both at] Abby had an older sister, Georgianna, born around 1834, who never married; she also had three brothers: Edmund, born around 1837; Charles, born about 1839; and Elmer—the younger brother mentioned in this piece—born about 1846. In 1850, Abby—age 8—had attended school within the year; in 1855, she is described as “Deaf, Dumb & Blind.” Abby died 26 February 1857, not long before the March issue of Merry’s Museum was probably printed; the magazine didn’t tell readers about her death.
“The Patient Sufferer,” by S. (from Robert Merry's Museum, March 1857, pp. 79-80)

Your readers, dear Mr. Merry, are always interested in stories of patient suffering and virtue. I have one to tell, of a little girl, residing in the city of Fall River. It is strictly true, as I well know, having spent many happy hours at her bedside.

This little girl, who has been called a second Laura Bridgman, is named Abby A. Dillingham. She was fourteen years old in September last. She was always remarkably thoughtful and gentle, and when a very little girl, if she or her younger brother had done any thing wrong, she would take him to her chamber, kneel down with him, and pray that God would forgive them.

When she was about eight years of age, while returning from school, she fell down, injuring herself, so as to produce partial paralysis of the system. For five years she has not left her bed, except when moved occasionally, and then the pain attending her removal is so great, that she does not recover her senses for twenty-four hours, and sometimes for a longer time. Nearly two years ago she became blind, resulting from disease of the spine, and in a few months after she lost her power of hearing and of speech, so that, at the present time, she is deaf, dumb, and blind. Besides that, her right arm is paralyzed, so that it might probably be amputated at the elbow, and she would not feel it. She is in pain continually, at some times more than at others.

After she lost the power of speech, she was for a few weeks incapable of communicating; but, having some idea of the mute alphabet, with additions and inventions of her own, she produced and alphabet (for one hand), by which she readily communicates, and she has taught it to many of her friends. When she was comparatively comfortable, a few months ago, she would write on a slate, or paper, with a pencil, and was accustomed to write letters to her friends, of whom she has a great number, signing them, “Your D. D. B. (deaf, dumb, blind) friend, Abby.” She could read common new print, and readily distinguish different colors by the feeling. She wrought a little pin-cushion of worsted, the colors and shades of which she selected with her own hand, and she was accustomed to work upon it by pinning it to the sheet, or to the sleeve on her right arm, and using her left hand. This cushion was exhibited at the County Fair, with a certificate of the facts, signed by her physician.

She would sometimes dress dolls for her young friends, and would “play checkers,” and games with letters. Her education has all been acquired on a

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sick bed, and certainly in grammar it is not defective. It is rare to see any error either in her construction or spelling of a sentence.

At the present time she is much bloated, which causes her breathing to be very difficult, and she is so weak that she converses but little, except when necessary. Every one on entering her room is struck with her beauty. She is not emaciated, but her face is quite full, very white, and her eyes, although sightless, are not at all affected in their looks. They are large and black, and her hair, which curls, is brushed back from a beautiful and intelligent-looking forehead. Every thing about her is neat and clean, as she is very particular on those points, and it is a pleasure to sit beside her and hold her hand. She has a strong regard for the feelings of others, and especially for her dear mother, and is very anxious to make as little trouble as possible. But her grateful look and hearty kiss well repay one for any kindness. I have never known her to shed a tear on account of her sufferings, and she will not suffer others to shed tears for her. She is always patient, and when recovering from severe paroxysms of pain, she will often look up and smile.

It is very sad to think of her afflictions, and would be more so, if we did not know that she can sometimes almost forget her afflictions, in the thought that they will not last forever, but that a home in heaven is waiting for her. When she was about ten years old, on the occasion of a visit of the minister, whose church the family attend, he offered to pray with Abby, and asked her what she should pray for. As she expresses herself, “It came into my mind all of a sudden, a new heart. When he rose from his knees, it seemed truly as if the prayer was answered. My mind was filled with peace.” These are her words, copied from a letter to the writer. Since then, we have no reason to doubt that she has possessed the religion of Jesus, and it is this that gives her so patient a spirit, and power to smile, amid severe pain. Shut out, as she is, so to speak, from the world, she is free from the common temptations to which all are subject, and although her faculties are almost gone, she can hold communion with her Saviour; and it seems sometimes, from her glowing countenance, as if she almost beheld his glory. And apparently it will not be long, ere she will see her Saviour face to face, and, free from all thoughts of pain, join the blessed spirit-throng.

I thus present this imperfect sketch to the Museum family, and if it serves to interest any of them, to excite sympathy for the subject, or, more to be desired, to awaken one serious thought on the subject of religion, my sincere wish will be granted.

Yours respectfully,

Copyright 1999-2019, Pat Pflieger
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