to the Legislature of Massachusetts
Dorothea Dix, January, 1843
Perhaps the true beginning of Prison Reform.
March 1841, Dorothea Dix visited a jail in East Cambridge, Massachusetts, and
found insane persons kept in an unheated room.
The following two years she spent investigating the jails and almshouses
of Massachusetts, and in January 1843 her report that was presented to the
Legislature by some of her influential friends.
The Memorial produced a profound sensation:
it was referred to a committee of which Dr. Samuel G. Howe was chairman
and reported with recommendations for relief.
Within a short time Massachusetts made more adequate provision for her
insane, and Miss Dix entered upon a larger field of philanthropic work which
embraced most of the States of the American Union and several European
Gentlemen, -- I respectfully ask to present this Memorial, believing that the cause, which actuates to and sanctions so unusual a movement, presents no equivocal claim to public consideration and sympathy. . . .
come to present the strong claims of suffering humanity.
I come to place before the Legislature of Massachusetts the condition of
the miserable, the desolate, the outcast.
I come as the advocate of helpless, forgotten, insane, and idiotic men
and women; of
beings sunk to a condition from which the most unconcerned would start with real
beings wretched in our prisons, and more wretched in our almshouses.
must confine myself to few examples, but am ready to furnish other and more
complete details, if required.
my pictures are displeasing, coarse, and severe, my subjects, it must be
recollected, offer no tranquil, refined, or composing features.
The condition of human beings, reduced to the extremest states of
degradation and misery cannot be exhibited in softened language, or adorn a
proceed, gentlemen, briefly to 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.
It is the Commonwealth, not its integral parts, that is accountable for most of the abuses which have lately and do still exist. I repeat it, it is defective legislation which perpetuates and multiplies these abuses. In illustration of my subject, I offer the following extracts from my Note-book and Journal:--
In the jail, one lunatic woman, furiously mad, a State pauper, improperly
situated, both in regard to the prisoners, the keepers, and herself.
It is a case of extreme self-forgetfulness and oblivion to all the
decencies of life, to describe which would be to repeat only the grossest
scenes. She is
much worse since leaving Worcester.
In the almshouse of the same town is a woman apparently only needing
judicious care, and some well-chosen employment, to make it unnecessary to
confine her in solitude, in a dreary unfurnished room.
Her appeals for employment and companionship are most touching, but the
mistress replied "she had no time to attend to her.".
A woman in a cage.
One idiotic subject chained, and one in a close stall for seventeen
One often doubly chained, hand and foot;
several peaceable now.
One man caged, comfortable.
One often closely confined;
now losing the use of his limbs from want of exercise.
One man caged. Savoy.
One man caged.
in the jail, against whose unfit condition there the jailer protests.
The insane disadvantageously placed in the jail.
In the almshouse, two females in stalls, situated in the main building;
lie in wooden bunks filled with straw;
always shut up.
One of these subjects is spposed to be curable.
The overseers of the poor have declined giving her a trail at the
hospital, as I was informed, on accoun of expense.
Besides the above, I have seen many who, part of the year, are chained or caged. The use of cages all but universal. Hardly a town but can refer to some not distant period of using them; chains are less common; negligences frequent; wilful abuse less frequent than sufferings proceeding from ignorance, or want of consideration. I encountered during the last three months many poor creatures wandering reckless and unprotected through the country. . . . But I cannot particularize. In traversing the State, I have found hundreds of insane persons in every variety of circumstance and condition, many whose situation could not and need not be improved; a less number, but that very large, whose lives are the saddest pictures of human suffering and degradation.
give a few illustrations;
but description fades before reality.
the almshouse. A
large building, much out of repair.
Understand a new one is in contemplation.
Here are from fifty-six to sixty inmates, one idiotic, three insane;
one of the latter in close confinement at all times.
before reaching the house, wild shouts, snatches of rude songs, imprecations and
obscene language, fell upon the ear, proceeding from the occupant of a low
building, rather remote from the principal building to which my course was
the mistress, and was conducted to the place which was called “the home” of
the forlorn maniac, a young woman, exhibiting a condition of neglect and misery
blotting out the faintest idea of comfort, and outraging every sentiment of
had been, I learnt, “a respectable person, industrious and worthy.
Disappointments and trials shook her mind, and, finally, laid prostrate
reason and self-control.
She became a maniac for life.
She had been at Worcester Hospital for a considerable time, and had been
returned as incurable.”
The mistress told me she understood that, “while there, she was
comfortable and decent.” Alas, what a change was here exhibited!
She had passed from one degree of violence to another, in swift progress.
There she stood, clinging to or beating upon the
of her caged apartment, the contracted size of which afforded space only
for increasing accumulations of filth, a foul spectacle.
There she stood with naked arms and disheveled hair, the unwashed frame
invested with fragments of unclean garments, the air so extremely offensive,
though ventilation was afforded on all sides save one, that it was not possible
to remain beyond a few moments without retreating for recovery to the outward
of body, produced by utter filth and exposure, incited her to the horrid process
of tearing off her skin by inches.
Her face, neck, and person were thus disfigured to hideousness.
She held up a fragment just rent off.
To my exclamation of horror, the mistress replied:
“Oh, we can't help it.
Half the skin is off sometimes.
We can do nothing with her;
and it makes no difference what she eats, for she consumes her own filth
as readily as the food which is brought her.”
of Massachusetts, I beg, I implore, I demand pity and protection for these of my
suffering, outraged sex.
Fathers, husbands, brothers, I would supplicate you for this boon;
but what do I say?
I dishonor you, divest you at once of Christianity and humanity, does
this appeal imply distrust.
If it comes burdened with a doubt of your righteousness in this
legislation, then blot it out;
while I declare confidence in your honor, not less than your humanity.
Here you will put away the cold, calculating spirit of selfishness and
off the armor of local strife and political opposition;
here and now, for once, forgetful of the earthly and perishable, come up
to these halls and consecrate them with one heart and one mind to works of
righteousness and just judgment.
the benefactors of your race, the just guardians of the solemn rights you hold
in trust. Raise
up the fallen, succor the desolate, restore the outcast, defend the helpless,
and for your eternal and great reward receive the benediction, “Well done,
good and faithful servants, become rulers over many things!”
is also done to the convicts:
it is certainly very wrong that they should be doomed day after day and
night after night to listen to the ravings of madmen and madwomen. This is a
kind of punishment that is not recognized by our statutes, and is what the
criminal ought not to be called upon to undergo. The confinement of the criminal
and of the insane in the same building is subversive of that good order and
discipline which should be observed in every well-regulated prison. I do most
sincerely hope that more permanent provision will be made for the pauper insane
by the State, either to restore Worcester Insane Asylum to what it was
originally designed to or else make some just appropriation for the benefit of
this very unfortunate class of “fellow-being.”
I commit you the sacred cause.
Your action upon this subject will affect the present and future
condition of hundreds and of thousands.
In this legislation, as in all things, may you exercise that “wisdom
which is the breath of the power of God.”
Old South Leaflets, No.
Tiffany, Life of Dorothea Lynde Dix;
A. S. Roe, Dorothea Dix.