Historic photo of Helen Keller donated to museum

(Courtesy of The Brewster Historical Society Archives)

A Braintree native recently donated the earliest known photograph of Helen Keller with her teacher, Anne Sullivan, to the Brewster Historical Society Museum.

The photo shows an 8-year-old Keller and Sullivan on vacation at the Freeman-Hopkins House at 1491 Main St. in Brewster in 1888, said Sally Gunning, vice president of the Brewster Historical Society.

It is the first picture anyone knows of with the two together, Gunning said. It is also the only known photograph to include Keller’s doll, given to her by Sullivan as a present upon their first meeting. Doll was the first word Keller learned to spell in her teacher’s hand, Gunning said.


“The photograph is unbelievably significant on so many levels,” Gunning said. “This is no small gift.”

Braintree native Alys Walker, who donated the photo, had no idea it was so important. She said her family had kept the photo in a trunk for years. It was taken by her great-great-uncle Cornelius Chenery.

It was not until 2008, when the New England Historic Genealogical Society published a print of the image donated by another family, that Walker recognized the historical value of the photo.

“I felt it needed to be somewhere where it could be seen and appreciated,” Walker, 70, said.

When Walker and her husband moved to Center Ossipee, N.H., in January, they decided to donate the photograph, along with a letter written by Keller to Chenery.

In the letter, Keller apologized to Chenery and said she could not sit for another portrait because she was helping her school, the Perkins School for the Blind, arrange a fund-raiser. The letter was valued at $2,000 by an appraiser, Walker said.

The photograph, which has a handwritten note on the back that reads “With much love, Helen Keller,” was valued at $10,000.

Walker said the appraisal was a complete shock and provided an impetus to donate. She said she hoped people who view the picture get a sense that Keller did not just lead a “very sheltered, institutionalized childhood, but she did travel and she did go places.”


The museum has not yet decided how the photo will be displayed, Gunning said. The museum is closed until June, and is planning to move to the Elijah Cobb House at 739 Lower Road in Brewster by 2016.

Gunning said Keller and Sullivan spent many vacations in Brewster between 1888 and 1892, and Keller wrote fondly of Brewster in several publications.

Aneri Pattani can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @apattani95.