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A Sad Episode

A photo of Helen Keller as a young woman. She is reclining on a chair.

In August of 2023, the AFB Helen Keller Archive received an extraordinary message; the grandchildren of someone who seemed to have disappeared from the history of Helen Keller were interested in donating artifacts that had belonged to their grandfather.

Peter Fagan worked as a secretary for John Macy, who was the husband of Helen’s teacher, Anne Sullivan. Upon returning from a tour of Chautauqua in 1916, Anne became ill and left to recover at Lake Placid. It was then that Peter stepped in to serve as Helen’s secretary.  He learned the manual alphabet and became so close to Helen that the two fell in love and decided to marry.

On the day that they planned to elope, Peter did not pick Helen up. The story of their love became public in the press and infuriated Helen’s mother, who brought Helen back to Alabama from Massachusetts. The couple continued to communicate in secret about their plans, but due to continued familial pressure, it was not to be. Keller described the affair in an essay called “A Sad Episode” which later became a chapter in her book Midstream. She refers to Peter only as “X,” and talks about their long walks in the woods. The episode, though sad, was also referred to by Helen as “a little island of joy surrounded by dark waters.”

To many, Peter’s story ended there. But Fagan and his family lived anything but private lives.  Peter returned to his home in Michigan and eventually married. Peter and his wife Sara published a Marxist newspaper in Lansing, Michigan until his death in 1946. His daughter Jean Fagan Yellin became a widely published historian. His daughter Ruth Fagan Bodenheim was a journalist and wife of poet Maxwell Bodenheim. Ann Fagan Ginger, another daughter, is a prominent civil rights lawyer and activist with many publications of her own.

The Peter Fagan collection contains artifacts from Peter’s life before and after his relationship with Helen. Only one item relates to Keller directly – a photograph dated Nov. 6, 1916 – less than two weeks before newspapers reported their engagement. The inscription reads “In appreciation of many happy hours spent in woods and in books,” directly referencing those long walks that Helen wrote about. This seems to be much more than a note from an employer to her secretary and could possibly be a memento of their engagement.

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