American Book of Golden Deeds - James Baldwin

"An Angel of Mercy"


One afternoon, many years ago, there was a timid knock at the door of an old-fashioned house in Boston. The knock was answered by the mistress herself, a gray-haired, stern-faced woman of sixty, who lived there all alone. She opened the door softly, her lips ready to say "No" to any expected beggar or other person who might ask her for help.

But when she saw who was there, she started with surprise, and her face for a moment forgot to wear its accustomed look of severity.

"Why, Dorothy Dix!" she cried. "Where in the world did you come from?" Her tones, in spite of herself, were more kind than harsh.

The child who stood on the doorstep was scarcely twelve years of age—a mere slip of a girl, slender and pale. She was very poorly dressed. On her head was a little calico sun-bonnet, faded and worn. On her feet were shoes so poor and ragged that they seemed really worse than none. She was covered with dust; she looked very tired and hot.

"Where in the world did you come from?" repeated the old lady, as she drew the child into the house and shut the door.

"Please, grandmother," was the answer, "I have run away from home, and I have come to tell you about it."

"Ran away from home, eh?" said the grandmother, taking off the child's bonnet. "Well, I declare, that is a pretty tale to bring me. Come, sit down and tell me about it."

[Illustration] from American Book of Golden Deeds by James Baldwin


"Yes," answered Dorothy. "Things were so bad at our house that I couldn't stand it any longer. Father has not earned anything for months. He does nothing but write tracts and talk, talk, talk about the wickedness of the world. Mother is very feeble, and yet she works hard and tries to keep everything going. Oh, I cannot tell you of all our misery."

"I should think a girl of your age might help her mother," said the grandmother, severely.

"I have helped her all I could," said Dorothy.

"But father will not allow it. He insists that I shall help him; and so I am kept busy all day long, folding tracts and sewing the leaves and tying them up in bundles. He says that he is going to save the world with those tracts."

"I see," said the grandmother; "and while he is saving the world, he allows his wife and children to suffer for food."

"That's just it, grandmother, and it's all a mistake. I couldn't stand it any longer, a nd I made up my mind to come and tell you about it. I didn't ask anybody's leave. I just kissed mother and the boys, and told them to be brave, and then I started."

"And did you walk all the way from Worcester?"

"Not all the way, grandmother. The farmers who were driving toward Boston asked me to ride with them, and once a stage driver took me up and carries me a long way. The people along the road were very kind."

"And now you are in Boston, what do you expect to do?"

"If you will let me stay with you, grandmother, I will do everything I can. I will work every hour to earn something to help poor mother and the boys. I will study, too, so that I may help them more as I grow older. And I will help you, also, grandmother."

"You are a plucky girl," said the grandmother, "and I will see what can be done. Since you are here, I cannot turn you away. You shall begin your work and your studies to-morrow."

Thus, Dorothea Dix was received into her grandmother's home. Life had been so hard with her that she had never known what it was to play. Her first remembrance was of work and worry, and of a cheerless home in which hunger and cold were frequent visitors. But she wad the pluck which aroused her grandmother's admiration. She worked at whatever came to hand, and sent her earnings home to relieve the loved ones there. She spent her evenings at hard study, and soon knew more than many children of her age who had attended school all their lives.

When she was fourteen, she said to her grandmother, "I am going back to Worcester to-morrow. I am going to teach a school of little children."

"You are too young for that," said the grandmother. "I know you are old enough in your thinking and acting, but people won't send their children to a school kept by one who looks so girlish as you."

"We shall see," said Dorothea.

Two days later she was at her mother's house in Worcester. She put on long dresses, she lengthened her sleeves, she tied her hair in a knot at the back of her head. Then she went out to solicit pupils for her school. She was so dignified and womanish that people did not think of her as merely a young girl.

The school was opened. The children loved their teacher, and they learned rapidly. At the end of the term the patrons were so well pleased that they asked Dorothea to continue her work.

But she said, "I need to learn more so that I can teach better," and she went back to Boston to study and to work.

At nineteen she felt that she was well prepared for teaching. Her grandmother owned a little house in what is called Orange Court, and there Dorothea opened a boarding and day school. The school was so well kept that its fame soon spread to other towns in Massachusetts. Pupils came even from New Hampshire. The young teacher and her assistants had so much to do, that any one but Dorothea Dix would have shrunk from undertaking more.

There were no great public schools in Boston at that time. Only a few pupils attended the free schools, and these were not well taught. The children of the poor were neglected, and many were allowed to run the streets and grow up in ignorance and vice. The heart of Dorothea Dix was touched, and she resolved to do what she could to help these unfortunates. She opened a free school in a barn belonging to her grandmother, and gathered as many of the street boys into it as she could.

She was now twenty years old, and there was not a busier person in Boston. She arose before daylight. She taught her two schools. She cared for her grandmother, who was now growing feeble. She cared for her two young brothers whom she had brought to Boston to support and educate. She studied, studied until the late hours of night.

A much stronger person would have broken down under all this labor. It was only her great will power that kept her up, and even that was not sufficient long. The strain was too heavy, and she was obliged to give up her schools before she had done a tenth part of what she had marked out to do.

After this we hear of her in various places, writing, serving as a governess in rich families, still studying, and doing all that her strength permitted. At length her mother died, and then her grandmother. Her brothers were grown up and doing well for themselves. There was no longer any one dependent upon her. She had sufficient means to support herself through life. Most persons would have been inclined to cease studying and working, but not so Dorothea Dix.


Dorothea Dix was thirty-five years old when the great work of her life first came into her thoughts. She was thirty-nine when she began it.

One day by accident she overheard some men talking about the manner in which insane people were treated in certain prisons and almshouses. Her interest was aroused, and she determined to learn more of the matter. At that time there were no great public asylums and hospitals where people with deranged minds could be kindly cared for and skillfully treated. There were private institutions where rich patients were received. But the insane poor were treated like beasts and criminals. They were shut up in filthy jails. They were chained and flogged. They were denied all the comforts of life.

Dorothea Dix determined to do something to lighten the sorrows of these most unfortunate people. She went to every important town in Massachusetts to see and learn for herself. What other woman with feelings so sensitive, so delicate, would have ventured to investigate conditions so touching and horrifying? Wherever she went, the prison doors were opened for her. The jailers seemed in some strange way to recognize her as an angel of mercy, having authority greater than their own.

When she had finished her investigations, she sent to the Massachusetts legislature an account of what she had seen and learned. "Gentlemen," she said, "I call your attention to the present state of insane persons confined within this Commonwealth in cages, closets, cellars, stalls, pens; chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience."

Very much of what she wrote is too horrible to be repeated here. She told of women who were kept in chains, of men with iron collars riveted around their necks, or a lunatic half frozen behind iron bars, of others who were fed like pigs in a filthy pen. People were shocked at the story. The almshouse keepers and the jailers said it was all a slanderous lie. But the best men and women in the state were convinced of its truth. The legislature passed laws to remedy some of the greatest of the evils and provided money for the building and maintenance of public asylums.

Dorothea Dix knew that in other states the condition of the insane was even worse than it had been in Massachusetts. She could not rest while such evils existed anywhere.

She went to Rhode Island. She found in Providence a small asylum, poorly managed. As had been the case in her own state, most of the insane people were confined in jails, and in almshouses which were but little better. She made up her mind that the asylum must be enlarged. But the legislature would not give the money, and where was it to come from?

She called upon a noted millionaire who had never been known to give any of his money away. She told him the condition of things. She described the misery, the wretchedness of the poor beings she had visited. He listened silently. When she had finished, he said, "Well, Miss Dix, what do you want me to do?"

"I want you to give fifty thousand dollars toward the enlargement of the asylum here in Providence."

"I will do it," was the answer.

The enlargement was made, and the asylum was named Butler Hospital, in honor of the giver.

Having thus started the good work in the New England states, Dorothea Dix went next to New Jersey. She visited the prisons. She wrote editorials for the leading newspapers. She sent letter after letter to the men of influence in the state. She petitioned the assembly to do something to allay the misery of the unfortunate insane.

Many people called her a meddler, and even worse than that. They wished she had stayed at home. They didn't propose to be taxed for crazy people, they said. But she went boldly before the lawmakers at Trenton and told them what they must do.

"Some evenings," she wrote to a friend, "I had at once twenty gentlemen for three hours' steady conversation. The last evening, a rough country member, who had announced in the House that ‘the wants of the insane in New Jersey were all humbug,' came to overwhelm me with his arguments. After listening an hour and a half, with wonderful patience, to my details, he suddenly moved into the middle of the parlor, and thus delivered himself: ‘Ma'am, I bid you good night! I do not want, for my part, to hear anything more; the others can stay if they want to. I am convinced.  You've conquered me out and out. I shall vote for the hospital. If you'll come into the House and talk there as you have here, no man that isn't a brute can stand you; and so, when a man's convinced, that's enough. The Lord bless you!'—and thereupon he departed."

The assembly voted for the hospital. The hospital was built—the largest and best in America. And when the people saw the noble work which was being done through the efforts of Dorothea Dix, they called her a heaven-sent Angel of Mercy, and the lawmakers at Trenton thanked her in behalf of the state.

The next state to be visited was Pennsylvania, and there the same distressing things were seen and told, and the same grand work was performed. Then a trip was made to the West and the Southwest, and the prisons and poorhouses in Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana were examined.

There were but few railroads at that time and most of the journey was made in coaches and wagons. The roads were muddy and rough, the accommodations were poor and rude. Yet, in the interests of the friendless and unfortunate who could not speak for themselves, Dorothea Dix traveled thus for more than ten thousand miles and visited scenes of misery and distress which strong men would have shuddered at and shunned.

"She went all over the country," writes a friend, "with a moderate valise in her hand, and wearing a plain gray traveling dress, with snow-white collar and cuffs. Her trunk was sent a week ahead, with the necessary changes of linen, and one plain black silk dress for special occasions. Neatness in everything indicated her well-directed mine."

After three years spent in the West, Dorothea Dix went to North Carolina. All opposition faded before her, and the good laws which she advocated were passed by a vote of ten to one. In Alabama she met with the same success. In Mississippi the lawmakers declared that they would not give a dime for the relief of the lunatics in the state; but after they had listened to her appeals, they voted to give all the land that was necessary, for the erection of a hospital, three million bricks, and fifty thousand dollars.

"And we will name the asylum the Dix Hospital," they said; but this she would not permit.

Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Maryland, were visited in turn; and everywhere the good work went on. But it is no easy task to persuade men to do justice and love mercy. Dorothea Dix met narrow-minded people everywhere who did all they could against her. They spoke of her unkindly, they placed every sort of obstacle in her way. But nothing discouraged her.

"The tonic I need," she said, "is the tonic of opposition."

At last, after many years of toil and perplexity, the one great work of her life seemed finished. In every state of the Union, laws were passed providing for the better care of the unfortunates within its limits. Instead of being confined in jails and pens, these poor people were now housed in large and comfortable asylums. Instead of being chained and beaten and tortured, they were surrounded with comforts and cared for with kindness. Instead of being treated as criminals and beasts, they were regarded as unfortunate human beings, deserving of sympathy and help. And all this had been brought about by the efforts of one woman—Dorothea Dix.

She was not satisfied with having accomplished so much in her own country; there were foreign countries in which the old barbarous conditions still prevailed. She went to England. She visited the workhouses and prisons where lunatics and idiots were kept. She made a report of what she saw there—a report so full of distressing and horrifying facts that the whole nation was astonished. The British government took up the matter, and the Lunacy Laws of 1857 were passed, providing for hospitals and asylums and humane care.

Miss Dix then visited the other countries of Europe, carrying on her good work everywhere. "I get into all the hospitals and all the prisons I have time to see or strength to explore," she wrote. The Pope was so much interested in her work that he had a long talk with her and visited the asylum in Rome in person. Even in Turkey she was received with marked kindness, as one whose life was devoted to the service of humanity. She went to Russia, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany, spending all her time for the helpless and the suffering.

She returned to America only a short time before the beginning of the great Civil War.

Scarcely had the first gun of the war been fired when Dorothea Dix with a company of nurses was at Washington, offering free service in the hospitals and on the field of battle. The Secretary of War appointed her Superintendent of Nurses in the military hospitals, and she entered upon her work with all the courage and pluck for which she had been noted through life.

She had thousands of helpers to superintend; she distributed the gifts that came for the benefit of the sick and wounded; she made long journeys by land and water; she went from battlefield to battlefield, from camp to camp, caring with her own hands for many a dying soldier; she took no vacations; her whole soul was in her work. Who can estimate the amount of misery that was relieved, or the amount of happiness that was conferred, by this one woman? And she did it all, not for gain, but for the love of humanity. She took no pay for her services; she defrayed her expenses from her private purse.

At the end of the war it was suggested that congress should give her a vote of thanks and a large sum of money.

"I will accept nothing," she said; "but I should like the flag of my country."

A pair of beautiful flags were therefore made for her, and to them was attached this inscription:—

"In token and acknowledgement of the inestimable services rendered by Miss Dorothea L. Dix for the Care, Succor, and Relief of the Sick and Wounded Soldiers of the United States on the Battlefield, in Camps and Hospitals, during the recent war, and of her benevolent and diligent labors and devoted efforts to whatever might contribute to their comfort and welfare."

These flags now hand in the Memorial Hall at Harvard University.

After the war, Dorothea Dix went back to her old work of looking after the unfortunate insane and befriending the friendless. She had already been the means of founding thirty-two asylums in this country and in Europe. In her old age she founded two more, these being in Japan. On a large map of the world it was her pleasure to mark the location of each asylum by a red cross.

Her sympathies went out to all suffering creatures. Not only human beings but animals were the objects of her love. In a crowded part of Boston she planned a drinking fountain for horses and men; and for it the poet Whittier wrote these lines:—

"Stranger and traveler,

Drink freely and bestow

A kindly thought on her

Who bade this fountain flow,

Yet hath for it no claim

Save as the minister

Of blessing in God's name.

Drink, and in His peace go!"

Such a life as that of Dorothea Dix is its own reward. How supremely grand it is when compared with a life that is given to selfishness and ease! Her work lives after her. Its influence and blessing will be felt for ages yet to come.