Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

Dorothea Dix,
the Savior of the Insane

The treatment of the insane in the past centuries was a frightful example of "man's inhumanity to man." Their condition was pitiable in the extreme. No one had a conception of the proper way of dealing with these unfortunates, and they were treated more like wild beasts in a menagerie than human beings; iron cages, chains, clubs, and starvation being used as methods of restraint, while their medical care was crude and barbarous, purging, bleeding, and emetics being usually employed. It was ignorance rather than malice that led to this merciless treatment. When in 1792 Pinel in France declared that such methods were barbarous and fit only to make bad worse, no one was ready to believe him. And when he proved that mercy was tenfold better than severity, it came as a new revelation. About the same time a similar system began to make its way in England. The system of restraint by straitjackets, etc., was continued till later, and in the United States the old methods held their own until well into the nineteenth century. The change to a more merciful treatment of these unfortunates was largely brought about by the efforts of one woman, a philanthropist of the highest type.

This woman, Dorothea Lynde Dix, was born April 4, 1802, in Hampden, Maine, the daughter of an itinerant physician, who died while she was quite young. She had her own way to make, and at fourteen years of age was teaching a child-school. In 1821 she taught an older school, and in 1831 opened a select school for young ladies in Boston. Frail and delicate, she broke down completely in 1836. Fortunately, she had inherited an estate which made her independent. She now went to Europe for her health, spending a year or two there.

During her period of teaching she had given much time to the care and instruction of the neglected inmates of the State's prison at Charlestown, and on her return from Europe became deeply interested in the condition of the paupers, prisoners, and lunatics, especially the latter, of Massachusetts. She was not alone in this. Others were awakening to the sorry condition of these unfortunates, and the benevolent Dr. Channing gave her much aid and encouragement in the investigation which she undertook.

Her inquiry into the condition of the insane in the State roused at once her pity and indignation; her deepest sympathies were awakened, and she began an investigation of the subject which had the merit of being thorough and untiring. Practical in character, she made a complete study of the question as it existed in other lands, and in 1841 began her earnest investigation of the methods of dealing with the insane in America. What she discovered was heart-breaking to one of her sympathetic nature.

At that time there were very few insane asylums in the country. Lunatics were placed with the paupers in almshouses and the prisoners in jail, all being herded indiscriminately together, and treated with brutal inhumanity. Filth prevailed, fires were lacking in bitter weather, there was no separation of the innocent, the guilty, and the insane, and fetters were used for the restraint of those who might easily have been managed by kindness.

Miss Dix's investigation led to a memorial to the legislature of Massachusetts, in which she vividly depicted the state of affairs and earnestly called for an amelioration of the horrors she had found. Her memorial revealed a shocking condition of things, the result of neglect and indifference. The methods of medieval times had by no means died out even in intellectual Massachusetts, ignorance of the true condition of the almshouses and prisons having much to do with it. Miss Dix was determined that the plea of ignorance should no longer prevail. Her memorial was full of disquieting facts and earnest appeals. We can here quote only one of its most startling passages: "I proceed, gentlemen, to call your attention to the present state of insane persons confined within the commonwealth; in cages, closets, cellars, stalls, pens; chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience."

This general statement was borne out by detailed accounts of the horrible things she had seen in many instances. As a mild example may be mentioned the recital of one almshouse keeper, who said that one of his insane inmates had been troublesome and disposed to run away, but was now satisfied and docile. His docility proved to be due to an iron ring round his neck and a chain fastening him to the wall.

The memorial was a revelation to the legislature. A bill for measures of relief was quickly introduced and carried by a large majority, and with that memorial began the era of wise and merciful treatment of the insane in Massachusetts. By two years of hard work Miss Dix had set in train a regeneration of the condition of paupers and lunatics in that old common-wealth.

Her researches in Massachusetts carried her over the borders of other States, in which she found like conditions prevailing, and her inquiry was gradually extended until it covered the whole United States. She traversed the entire country east of the Rocky Mountains, made investigations everywhere, and found the same sickening conditions which Massachusetts had revealed. At that time very few States had any public asylum for the insane, and an important field of her labors was to have these established. Her first success in this was in New Jersey, an asylum being founded in Trenton in 1845 as a result of her earnest representations. This was but the beginning; many other States followed, and the herding of the indigent and the insane together in almshouses began to be a thing of the past.

Miss Dix spared no efforts in her indefatigable labors. She went from legislature to legislature, interviewing members, pleading, demanding, repeating the results of her inquiries, winning votes, everywhere commanding respect and attention, everywhere gaining favorable legislation. And this was not alone in the United States, for more than once she crossed the ocean and found conditions still existing in Europe that badly needed improvement. In Italy she appealed to the Pope in aid of the ill-treated insane.

The plea of State poverty was one of the difficulties she met at home, and this she sought to overcome by an appeal to Congress. Large grants of the public lands were being made for the endowment of schools and she begged for a similar grant in aid of her life-work. Her first application was made in 1848, when she asked for 5,000,000 acres. She later on increased this demand to 12,250,000 acres, io,000,000 being for the benefit of the insane and the remainder for the deaf and dumb.

It was a difficult task she had undertaken. Congress was then occupied with exciting questions that threatened to lead to civil war, and it was hard to enlist its attention to an act of pure beneficence. Year after year Miss Dix kept up the struggle, only to meet defeat and disappointment. More than once her bill was passed by the Senate but killed in the House. Again, the House supported it and the Senate defeated it. Not until 1854 did she succeed in getting a favorable vote from both houses.

It was with the highest gratification that she heard of her success, her triumph. The unfortunates for whom she had so long worked and pleaded would now be amply cared for, and the disgrace on the nation, which had so long existed, come to an end. Her heart was filled with joy, and congratulations poured in upon her. Alas! the bill had the President still to pass, and her heart sank into the depths when President Pierce, moved by a spasm of constitutionalism, vetoed the bill, on the ground of its being alien to the Constitution.

Miss Dix was defeated. It was hopeless to seek to revive the measure during the years of excitement that followed, but she continued her work with success among the States until the outbreak of the Civil War rendered useless all labors in this direction.

She now sought Washington and offered her services in a new role of benevolence, as a nurse for wounded soldiers. In this the zeal and ability in management she displayed were such that on the loth of July, 186z, Secretary Cameron appointed her Superintendent of Women Nurses. As such she established excellent regulations, which were strictly carried out, but not without controversies with others in authority. Miss Dix had a somewhat autocratic manner, which was likely to cause offence and lead to opposition, but her instincts were all for good. She continued her service till the end of the war, carefully inspecting the hospitals, overseeing the work of the nurses, and maintaining a high state of discipline among them. For this she accepted no salary, and provided amply for the health of those working under her.

The war ended, Miss Dix returned to her labors in behalf of the insane and kept them up until advancing age reduced her powers. She resided at Trenton, N. J., the seat of the first asylum instituted through her efforts, and died there July 18, 1887.