For someone playing as significant a role in blind and deaf student Samuel Bean’s life as did his teacher, Mary White Eastman, there is not much else that can be found about her online. She evidently remained single and focused her entire life on education and advocacy for the blind.
In 1940, just a few days before Christmas, Mary suffered a cerebral hemorrhage—not at her home, but somewhere in the Mission District of San Francisco. A brief mention of her passing was included the next summer among the committee reports of the Proceedings of the Nineteenth Biennial Convention of the American Association of Workers for the Blind.
While it was not surprising to see the committee’s characterization of Mary White Eastman as a “conspicuous figure,” there were a couple other notes that piqued my curiosity. Even then, a sense of the woman’s generosity made the comments about working “at her own expense” and doing “many acts of kindness in assisting the needy” seem quite in character. After all, among other philanthropic acts, Miss Eastman was noted in the Annual Report of the Woman’s Presbyterian Board of Missions of the Northwest to have been a Life Member since 1882 (at which point she was barely twelve years of age).MARY WHITE EASTMAN, for more than thirty years pupil-teacher and teacher of blind "problem" children, recently passed away. A graduate of the California School for the Blind in 1892, she taught the ungraded class in the school until forced by ill health to retire in 1927. She worked as home teacher at her own expense. Miss Eastman attended our conventions for a long period of years and was a conspicuous figure. Financial independence enabled her to do many acts of kindness in assisting the needy.
However, how did a woman—a single woman, incidentally—in that time period manage to achieve financial independence?
A couple of Salt Lake City area newspapers help reveal the answer to that question.
In an article stretching below the fold line in the September 10, 1908, Salt Lake Tribune, headlines claimed:
The front page of the Deseret Evening News the night before explained, “Michigan Heirs of the late William M. Ferry file suit for a fortune.” Halfway down the page, the article named the heirs. Among those names was that of Mary White Eastman.Suit Filed for Nearly a MillionEdward P. Ferry of This City is Defendant in Two Actions.Former Litigation is Basis of ProceedingsFederal Court Is Arena Chosen for Contest Over Immense Fortune
Miss Eastman, you may remember, was the daughter of one Galen Eastman and his Michigan-born wife, the former Mary Ferry. Evidently, it was that Ferry family from which Mary White Eastman descended.
By the time any inheritance remaining from the estate of her Ferry progenitor was settled and distributed among those of her remaining twelve siblings—not to mention any other relatives also named in the proceedings—the “fortune” had probably dwindled to a much more modest amount.
Still, given the economy of the time—and the comparatively frugal habits of the public in general during that era—whatever portion of the inheritance Mary White Eastman received would have enabled her to live with a modicum of comfort—and blessed freedom from worry about having to make her way in a world not yet accustomed to conceding that some women just might need to work to earn their way in life.