Memorial of D. L. Dix, Praying a grant of land for the relief and support of the indigent curable and incurable insane in the United States [caption title].

A humanitarian crusader for the mentally ill

Famed humanitarian crusader for the mentally ill Dorothea Dix’s 1848 petition to Congress suggesting they use the taxes of specific land parcels to care for the mentally ill in mid-19th century America.

In 1843, Dix had presented a gripping report and petition with irrefutable facts to the Massachusetts legislature that disclosed the wretched state of affairs for the mentally disabled in the state’s jails, almshouses and correctional facilities. Dix had spent 18 months surveying these facilities and her facts made a compelling case that led to legislative change. With this success hard-fought and won, Dix campaigned in other states for similar improvements.

Between 1846 and 1848, despite being ill for much of this time, Dix traveled 30,000 miles in “...Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Illinois, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina, and other states, painstakingly conducting her investigations and preparing for the state legislatures her now-famous ‘memorials.’ ...Though less extensive than her earlier reports and eventually somewhat routinized, these memorials marshaled sufficient evidence of neglect and abuse to shame most legislatures into action.” (NAW)

Dix began to focus her efforts not upon individual states but upon Congress:

Gradually her attention turned to the national legislature. She conceived the idea of setting aside some of the land of the public domain as a perpetual trust, the income to be used for the care of the insane. In 1848 Senator John A. Dix of New York presented her memorial, persuasive as always, asking Congress to set aside five million acres (the figure was later increased to twelve million) for this purpose. But although she moved to Washington and lobbied vigorously for the proposal, it was set aside. For six years, be tween her visits to various states, she worked in Washington for this measure. Each session saw it introduced, only to fail. Her hopes soared when it was at last approved by both houses of Congress in 1854, but they were dashed when President Pierce vetoed the bill, on the grounds that the subject more properly fell to the states (NAW)

Like her state petitions, the present Memorial of D. L. Dix is likely stark and unflinching:

In Texas it is said insanity is increasing. I have seen several patients brought hence for hospital treatment, bound with cords and sorely bruised. In Arkansas the insane and idiots are scattered in remote districts. I found it often exceedingly difficult to ascertain precisely their circumstances: these were no better—and worse they could not be—than were the indigent, and not seldom the affluent, in other States. In Tennessee the insane and idiotic population, as in Kentucky, is numerous and increasing. The same methods of confinement to cabins, pens, cells, dungeons, and the same abandonment to filth, to cold, and exposure, as in other States.

In Kentucky I found one epileptic girl subject to the most brutal treatment, and many insane in perpetual confinement. Of the idiots alone, supported by the State at a cost of $17,500,  62, in indigent private families, and of which class there were in 1845 four hundred and fifty, many were exposed to severest treatment and heavy blows from day to day, and from year to year. In a dreary block-house was confined for many years a man whose insanity took the form of mania. Often the most furious paroxysms prevented rest for several days and nights in succession. No alleviation reached this unhappy being; without clothes, without fire, withont care or kindness, his existence was protracted amidst every horror incident to such circumstances. Chains in common use.

In Ohio, the insane population, including idiots, has been greatly underrated, as I am fully satisfied by repeated but interrupted inquiries in different sections of the State. The sufferings of a great number here are very distressing, corresponding with those referred to in New York and in Kentucky. Cells and dungeons, unventilated and uncleansed apartments, severe restraints, and multiplied neglects, abound. Michigan, it was stated, had sixty three insane in 1840. I think it a moderate estimate, judging from my investigations, reaching no further north than Jackson and Detroit, that the number in 1847 exceeded two hundred and fifty. I saw some truly afflicted and lamentable cases.

Indiana, traversed through its whole length and breadth in 1846, exhibits the usual forms of misery wherever the insane are found; and of this class there cannot be, including idiots and epileptics, less than nine hundred. I found one poor woman in a smoke-house in which she had been confined more than twenty years. In several poorhouses the insane, both men and women, were chained to the floors, sometimes all in the same apartment. Several were confined in mere pens, without clothing or shelter; some furious—others for a time comparatively tranquil. The hospital now about to be opened, when finished, will not receive to its care one patient in ten of existing cases…. (Memorial of D. L. Dix… p23)

Dix concludes her 32-page report by emphasizing that the mentally ill in America, in 1848, are of national concern. They are indeed “...wards of the nation, claimants on the sympathy and care of the public, through the miseries and disqualifications brought upon them by the sorest afflictions with which humanity can be visited.”

Description: Memorial of D. L. Dix, Praying a grant of land for the relief and support of the indigent curable and incurable insane in the United States [caption title].

30th Congress, 1st Session. Senate. Misc. Doc. No. 150. [Washington]: Tippin & Streeter, 1848. [1]-32pp. Removed from bound volume; tanning to leaves; corners of some pages ruffled; very good.


OCLC lists no separate entries for physical copies of this report. NAW II: 486–489.

Price: $75.00

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