From DAUGHTERS OF THE PURITANS By SETH CURTIS BEACH
DOROTHEA LYNDE DIX
The career of Dorothy Dix is a romance of philanthropy which the world can ill afford to forget. It has been said of her, and it is still said, that she was “the most useful and distinguished woman America has yet produced.” It is the opinion of Mr. Tiffany, her biographer, that as the founder of institutions of mercy, she “has simply no peer in the annals of Protestantism.” To find her parallel one must go to the calendar of the Catholic saints,–St. Theresa, of Spain, or Santa Chiara, of Assisi. “Why then,” he asks, do the “majority of the present generation know little or nothing of so remarkable a story!” Till his biography appeared, it might have been answered that the story had never been told; now, we should have to say that, with a thousand demands upon our time, it has not been read.
Dorothea Lynde Dix–born February 11, 1802–was the daughter of Joseph Dix and granddaughter of the more eminent Dr. Elijah Dix, of Worcester, later of Boston, Mass. Dr. Dix was born in Watertown, Mass., in 1747. At the age of seventeen, he became the office boy of Dr. John Green, an eminent physician in Worcester, Mass., and later, a student of medicine. After five years, in 1770, he began to practice as physician and surgeon in Worcester where he formed a partnership with Dr. Sylvester Gardner. It must have been a favorable time for young doctors since in 1771, a year after he began to practice, he married Dorothy Lynde, of Charlestown, Mass., for whom her little granddaughter was named. Mrs. Dix seems to have been a woman of great decision of character, and no less precision of thought and action, two traits which reappeared conspicuously in our great philanthropist.
Certain qualities of Dr. Dix are also said to have reappeared in his granddaughter. He was self-reliant, aggressive, uncompromising, public-spirited, and sturdily honest. To his enterprise, Worcester owed its first shade trees, planted by him, when shade trees were considered great folly, and also the Boston and Worcester turnpike, when mud roads were thought to be divinely appointed thoroughfares. His integrity is shown by an incident which also throws light upon the conditions of a troubled period. His partner, Dr. Gardner, made the grave mistake of taking the royal side in the controversies that preceded the Revolution, and Worcester became as hot for him as Richmond or Charleston was for a Union man in 1861. Dr. Gardner disappeared, leaving his effects behind him. After the war, Dr. Dix made a voyage to England and honorably settled accounts with his former partner.
It was like the enterprising Dr. Dix that he turned this creditable act to his financial advantage. On his return to America he brought with him a stock of medical books, surgical instruments, and chemical apparatus, and became a dealer in physician’s supplies, while continuing the practice of his profession. His business prospering, in 1795 he removed to Boston for a larger field, where he opened a drug store near Faneuil Hall and established chemical works in South Boston. Successful as physician, druggist and manufacturer, he soon had money to invest. Maine, with its timber lands, was the Eldorado of that era, and Dr. Dix bought thousands of acres in its wilderness, where Dixfield in the west, and Dixmont in the east, townships once owned by him, preserve his name and memory.
The house of Dr. Dix in Boston, called the “Dix Mansion,” was on Washington St., corner of Dix Place, then Orange Court. It had a large garden behind it, where originated the Dix pear, once a favorite. Dr. Dix died in 1809, when Dorothea was seven years old. Young as she was, he was among the most vivid of her childhood memories and by far the pleasantest. She seems to have been a favorite with him and it was his delight to take her in his chaise on his rounds, talking playfully with her and listening to her childish prattle.
Joseph Dix, the father of Dorothea, is a vague and shadowy memory. He seems to have had little of his father’s energy or good sense. Unstable in many of his ways, he lived a migratory life, “at various spots in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, as well as in Worcester and Boston, Mass.” When Dorothea was born, he was living at Hampden, Maine, adjoining his father’s Dixmont properties, presumably as his father’s land agent. He probably tired of this occupation because it interfered with his business. His business seems to have been religion. He was a prolific author of religious literature. He was a philanthropist after his kind, giving his time without stint to the writing of religious tracts, and spending his money in publishing them, with little benefit to the world and much detriment to his family. In the stitching and pasting of these tracts, the whole household were required to assist and it was against this irksome taskwork that Dorothea, at the age of twelve, rebelled, running away from Worcester, where the family then lived, and finding a refuge with her grandmother in Boston. Dorothea afterwards educated her two brothers, one of whom became a sea captain and the other a Boston merchant.
Dorothea Dix was created by her Maker, but she was given in a plastic state, first into the hands of inexorable Madam Dix, and next into those of the all-pitying Dr. Channing. Madam Dix is described as a fine specimen of the dignified, precise, conscientious New England gentlewoman of her generation. Industry, economy, and above all thoroughness were the chief articles of her religion, and she instilled these virtues into the mind of her granddaughter by the most vigorous discipline. A week of solitary confinement was among the penalties inflicted upon the hapless child who had failed to reach the standard of duty prescribed for her. The standard, with Madam Dix, did not differ from perfection discernibly. Mr. Tiffany quotes a lady who in her girlhood, as a special reward of merit, was allowed to make an entire shirt under the supervision of Madam Dix. It was an experience never forgotten. No stitch in the entire garment could be allowed to differ perceptibly from every other, but the lady spoke of the ordeal with enthusiastic gratitude, declaring that it had been a life-long benefit to her to have been compelled to do one piece of work thoroughly well.
“I never knew childhood,” Miss Dix said pitifully in after life. Certainly with this exacting grandmother, there can be no childhood as it is understood to-day; but if Dorothea submits to the rigorous discipline enforced upon her, she will make a woman of iron fibre who will flinch from no hardship and will leave no task undone. Happily she did submit to it. The alternative would have been to return to her half-vagabond father. Too much discipline or too little was her destiny. She preferred to take the medicine in excess, and in the end was grateful for it.
Dorothea was so apt a pupil and so ambitious that, at the age of fourteen, she returned to Worcester and opened a school for small children, prudently lengthening the skirts and sleeves of her dress to give dignity and impressiveness to her appearance. Half a century later one of these pupils vividly recalled the child-teacher, tall of her age, easily blushing, at once beautiful and imposing in manner, but inexorably strict in discipline.
Dorothea spent the next four years in Boston in preparation for a more ambitious undertaking and, in 1821 at the age of nineteen, she opened a day school in Boston in a small house belonging to Madam Dix. The school prospered and gradually expanded into a day and boarding school, for which the Dix mansion, whither the school was removed, furnished convenient space. Madam Dix, enfeebled by age and infirmities, laid down the scepter she had wielded, and the premises passed virtually into the hands of Dorothea. Thither came pupils from “the most prominent families in Boston” and other Massachusetts towns, and even from beyond the limits of the State. There also she brought her brothers to be educated under her care and started upon a business career.
Hardly had she started her school for the rich and fortunate before, anticipating her vocation as a philanthropist, she opened another for the poor and destitute. A letter is preserved in which she pleadingly asks the conscientious but perhaps stony Madam Dix for the loft over the stable for this purpose. “My dear grandmother,” she begins, “Had I the saint-like eloquence of our minister, I would employ it in explaining all the motives, and dwelling on the good, the good to the poor, the miserable, the idle, the ignorant, which would follow your giving me permission to use the barn chamber for a school-room for charitable and religious purposes.”
The minister with saint-like eloquence was Dr. Channing. The letter is valuable as showing the source of the flame that had fired her philanthropic soul. For the finer culture of the heart she had passed from the hands of Madam Dix to those of Dr. Channing. The request for the room was granted and Mr. Tiffany tells us that “The little barn-school proved the nucleus out of which years later was developed the beneficent work of the Warren Street Chapel, from which as a centre spread far and wide a new ideal of dealing with childhood. There first was interest excited in the mind of Rev. Charles Barnard, a man of positive spiritual genius in charming and uplifting the children of the poor and debased.”
Letters from Miss Dix at this period show that she had a sensitive nature, easily wrought upon, now inflamed to action and now melted to tears. “You say that I weep easily. I was early taught to sorrow, to shed tears, and now, when sudden joy lights up or unexpected sorrow strikes my heart, I find it difficult to repress the full and swelling tide of feeling.” She is reading a book of poems and weeping over it,–“paying my watery tribute to the genius” of the poet. She longs for similar talents that she “might revel in the luxury of those mental visions that must hourly entrance a spirit that partakes less of earth than heaven.” It will be remembered that her father was religious even to folly. Here was his child, only by judicious training, the stream was turned into channels of wise beneficence.
With the management of two schools, the supervision of the household, the care of two younger brothers, and ministries to her grandmother already advanced in years, Miss Dix was sufficiently occupied, but she found time to prepare a text-book upon “Common Things,” gathering the material as she wrote. This, her first attempt at book-making, issued in 1824, was kept in print forty-five years, and went to its sixtieth edition in 1869. It was followed the next year by “Hymns for Children” selected and altered, and by a book of devotions entitled, “Evening Hours.” Lengthening the day at both ends, “rising before the sun and going to bed after midnight,” working while others slept, gave time for these extra tasks. Nature exacted her usual penalties. In the third year of this arduous labor, threatenings of lung troubles appeared which, however, she defied even when “in conducting her classes she had to stand with one hand on a desk for support, and the other pressed hard to her side as though to repress a hard pain.” Meanwhile she wrote a bosom friend: “There is in our nature a disposition to indulgence, a secret desire to escape from labor, which unless hourly combated will overcome the best faculties of our minds and paralyse our most useful powers…. I have often entertained a dread lest I should fall a victim to my besieger, and that fear has saved me thus far.”
Besides the terror of lapsing into self-indulgence, she was stimulated to activity by the care of her brothers, for one of whom she seems to have felt special anxiety: “Oh, Annie,” she writes, “if that child is good, I care not how humble his pathway in life. It is for him my soul is filled with bitterness when sickness wastes me; it is because of him I dread to die.” Was there no one to advise her that the best care of her brother would be to care for herself, and that if she would do more, she must first do less! Where was Dr. Channing who, more than any other, was responsible for her intemperate zeal! It appears that Dr. Channing, “not without solicitude,” as he writes her, was watching over his eager disciple. “Your infirm health,” he says, “seems to darken your prospect of usefulness. But I believe your constitution will yet be built up, if you will give it a fair chance. You must learn to give up your plans of usefulness as much as those of gratification, to the will of God.”
Miss Dix abandoned her school apparently in 1827, after six years of service and at the age of twenty-five. The following spring and summer she spent as a governess in the family of Dr. Channing at his summer home in Rhode Island. Her duties were light and she lived much in the open air, devoting her leisure to botany in which she was already “no mean proficient,” and to “the marine life of the beautiful region.” Very pretty letters were exchanged between her and Dr. Channing at the termination of the engagement. “We will hear no more of thanks,” he wrote her, “but your affection for us and our little ones we will treasure among our most precious blessings.” He invites her to renew the relations another year, and so she did.
To avoid the rigors of a New England climate, Miss Dix, for some years, spent her winters, now in Philadelphia, now in Alexandria, Va., keeping herself busy with reading “of a very multifarious kind,–poetry, science, biography, and travels,–besides eking out the scanty means she had laid by from her teaching by writing stories and compiling floral albums and books of devotion.” In 1827, she published a volume of “Ten Short Stories for Children” which went to a second edition in 1832; in 1828, “Meditations for Private Hours,” which went through several editions; in 1829, two little books, “The Garland of Flora,” and “The Pearl, a Christmas Gift.” Occasional brief engagements in teaching are also recorded in this period.
The winter of 1830, she spent with the Channings on the Island of St. Croix, in the West Indies, in her old capacity as governess. A daughter of Dr. Channing gives an interesting account of the preceptress of whom, first and last, she had seen so much. She describes Miss Dix as tall and dignified, very shy in manner, strict and inflexible in discipline. “From her iron will, it was hopeless to appeal. I think she was a very accomplished teacher, active and diligent herself, very fond of natural history and botany. She enjoyed long rambles, always calling our attention to what was interesting in the world around us. I hear that some of her pupils speak of her as irascible. I have no such remembrance. Fixed as fate we considered her.”
Miss Dix returned from the West Indies in the spring, very much improved in health, and in the autumn, she reopened her school in the Dix Mansion, with the same high ideals as before and with such improved methods as experience had suggested. Pupils came to her again as of old and she soon had as many attendants as her space permitted. A feature of the school was a letter-box through which passed a daily mail between teacher and pupils and “large bundles of child-letters of this period” are still extant, preserved by Miss Dix with scrupulous care to the end of life. It was a bright child who wrote as follows: “I thought I was doing well until I read your letter, but when you said that you were rousing to greater energy, all my satisfaction vanished. For if you are not satisfied in some measure with yourself and are going to do more than you have done, I don’t know what I shall do. You do not go to rest until midnight and then you rise very early.” The physician had administered too strong a tonic for the little patient’s health.
A lady who, at the age of sixteen, attended this school in 1833, writes of her eminent teacher as follows: “She fascinated me from the first, as she had done many of my class before me. Next to my mother, I thought her the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She was in the prime of her years, tall and of dignified carriage, head finely shaped and set, with an abundance of soft, wavy, brown hair.” The school continued in the full tide of success for five years, during which time, by hard labor and close economies, Miss Dix had saved enough to secure her “the independence of a modest competence.” This seems a great achievement, but if one spends nothing for superfluities and does most of his labor himself, he can lay by his income, much or little. The appointments of the school are said to have been very simple, a long table serving as a desk for study, when it was not in use for dinner. Only one assistant is mentioned, who gave instruction in French and, perhaps, elementary Latin. Surely Miss Dix could handle the rest herself. The merit of the school was not in its elaborate appointments, but in the personal supervision of its accomplished mistress. So the miracle was wrought and at the age of thirty-three, Miss Dix had achieved a modest competence.
The undertaking had cost her her health once before, and now it cost her her health again. The old symptoms, a troublesome cough, pain in the side, and slight hemorrhages, returned and, having dragged her frail body through the winter of 1836, Miss Dix reluctantly closed her school in the spring and, in obedience to her physician, went to Europe for rest, with the intention of spending the summer in England, the autumn in France, and the winter in Italy. Prostrated by the voyage, she was carried to a hotel in Liverpool where she was put to bed with the forlorn prospect of being confined to her solitary room for an indefinite period of convalescence. But again Dr. Channing befriended her. From him she had received letters of introduction, one of which brought to her side Mr. William Rathbone, a wealthy merchant of Liverpool and a prominent English Unitarian. Mr. and Mrs. Rathbone insisted upon taking her to their home, a charming residence a few miles out of the city. Thither she consented to go for a visit of a few weeks, and there she remained, as an honored guest tenderly cared for, for eighteen months. “To the end of her days,” says her biographer, “this period of eighteen months stood out in her memory as the jubilee of her life, the sunniest, the most restful, and the tenderest to her affections of her whole earthly experience.” She wrote a Boston friend, “You must imagine me surrounded by every comfort, sustained by every tenderness that can cheer, blest in the continual kindness of the family in which Providence has placed me,–I with no claim but those of a common nature.” And again, “So completely am I adopted into the circle of loving spirits that I sometimes forget I really am not to consider the bonds transient in their binding.”
She very much needed these friends and their tender care. Nine months after her arrival, we hear of occasional hemorrhages from which she has been exempt for ten days, the pain in her side less acute, and her physician has given her permission to walk about her room. One would think that her career was practically ended, but, strange to say, the career which was to make her famous had not yet begun. From this date, her convalescence proceeded steadily, and she was able to enjoy much in the delightful home and refined social circle in which she found herself. “Your remark,” she writes a friend, “that I probably enjoy more now in social intercourse than I have ever before done is quite true. Certainly if I do not improve, it will be through wilful self-neglect.” Apparently, she was having a glimpse of a less prosaic existence than the grinding routine of a boarding school. Madam Dix died at the age of ninety-one, leaving her granddaughter, still in Europe, a substantial legacy, which sensibly increased her limited resources and, when the time came for action, left her free to carry out her great schemes of benevolence without hampering personal anxieties. It ought to preserve the memory of Madam Dix that she endowed a great philanthropist.
In the autumn of 1837, Miss Dix returned to America, and avoiding the New England climate, spent the winter in Washington, D. C., and its neighborhood. Apparently, it was not a wholly happy winter, chiefly because of her vain and tender longings for the paradise she had left across the sea. The Washington of 1837 seemed raw to her after the cultivated English home she had discovered. “I was not conscious,” she writes a friend, “that so great a trial was to meet my return from England till the whole force of the contrast was laid before me…. I may be too craving of that rich gift, the power of sharing with other minds. I have drunk deeply, long, and Oh, how blissfully, at this fountain in a foreign clime. Hearts met hearts, minds joined with minds, and what were the secondary trials of pain to the enfeebled body when daily was administered the soul’s medicine and food.” Surely, that English experience was one upon which not every invalid from these shores could count, but when, a few years later, Miss Dix returned to England as a kind of angel of mercy, giving back much more than she had ever received, the Rathbone family must have been glad that they had befriended her in her obscurity and her need.
It was in 1841 at the age of thirty-nine that the second chapter in the life of Miss Dix began. Note that she had as little thought that she was beginning a great career as any one of us that he will date all his future from something he has done or experienced to-day. It happened that Dr. J. T. G. Nichols, so long the beloved pastor of the Unitarian parish in Saco, Maine, was then a student of Divinity at Cambridge. He had engaged to assist in a Sunday School in the East Cambridge jail, and all the women, twenty in number, had been assigned to him. The experience of one session with his class was enough to convince him that a young man was very much out of place in that position and that a woman, sensible if possible, but a woman certainly, was necessary. His mother advised him to consult Miss Dix. Not that her health would permit her to take the class, but she could advise. On hearing Mr. Nichols’ statement, Miss Dix deliberated a moment and then said, “I will take the class myself.” Mr. Nichols protested that this was not to be thought of, in the condition of her health, but we have heard of her iron will: “Fixed as fate we considered her,” said one of her pupils; and she answered Mr. Nichols, “I shall be there next Sunday.”
This was the beginning. “After the school was over,” says Dr. Nichols, “Miss Dix went into the jail and found among the prisoners a few insane persons with whom she talked. She noticed that there was no stove in their rooms and no means of proper warmth.” The date was the twenty-eighth of March and the climate was New England, from which Miss Dix had so often had to flee. “The jailer said that a fire for them was not needed, and would be unsafe. Her repeated solicitations were without success.” The jailer must have thought he was dealing with a woman, not with destiny. “At that time the court was in session at East Cambridge, and she caused the case to be brought before it. Her request was granted. The cold rooms were warmed. Thus was her great work commenced.”
Such is Dr. Nichols’ brief statement, but the course of events did not run so smoothly as we are led to suppose. The case had to be fought through the newspapers as well as the court, and here Miss Dix showed the generalship which she exhibited on many another hard fought field. She never went into battle single-handed. She always managed to have at her side the best gunners when the real battle began. In the East Cambridge skirmish, she had Rev. Robert C. Waterston, Dr. Samuel G. Howe, and Charles Sumner. Dr. Howe visited the jail and wrote an account for the Boston _Advertiser_. When this statement was disputed, as it was, Mr. Sumner, who had accompanied Dr. Howe, confirmed his account and added details of his own. He said that the inmates “were cramped together in rooms poorly ventilated and noisome with filth;” that “in two cages or pens constructed of plank, within the four stone walls of the same room” were confined, and had been for months, a raving maniac and an interesting young woman whose mind was so slightly obscured that it seemed any moment as if the cloud would pass away; that “the whole prison echoed with the blasphemies of the poor old woman, while her young and gentle fellow in suffering seemed to shrink from her words as from blows;” that the situation was hardly less horrid than that of “tying the living to the dead.”
Where was Miss Dix during this controversy? Why, she was preparing to investigate every jail and almshouse in the State of Massachusetts. If this was the way the insane were treated in the city of Cambridge, in a community distinguished for enlightenment and humanity, what might not be going on in more backward and less favored localities? Note-book in hand, going from city to city and from town to town, Miss Dix devoted the two following years to answering this question exhaustively.
Having gathered her facts, she presented them to the Legislature in a Memorial of thirty-two octavo pages, the first of a series of seventeen statements and appeals presented to the legislatures of different states, as far west as Illinois and as far south as Louisiana. “I shall be obliged,” she said, “to speak with great plainness and to reveal many things revolting to the taste, and from which my woman’s nature shrinks with peculiar sensitiveness…. I proceed, gentlemen, briefly to call your attention to the present state of insane persons within this Commonwealth, in cages, closets, cellars, stalls, pens, chained, naked, beaten with rods and lashed into obedience…. I give a few illustrations but description fades before reality.” If we could dismiss the subject by saying she reports instance after instance where men and women were confined in the almshouses in Massachusetts in such conditions of inhumanity and neglect as no intelligent farmer would tolerate for his swine, we could avoid some unpleasant details; but the statement would be ineffective because it would seem incredible. At the almshouse in Danvers, confined in a remote, low, outbuilding, she found a young woman, once respectable, industrious and worthy, whose mind had been deranged by disappointments and trials. “There she stood,” says Miss Dix, “clinging to or beating upon the bars 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, dishevelled hair, the unwashed frame invested with fragments of unclean garments, the air so extremely offensive, though ventilation was afforded on all sides but one, that it was not possible to remain beyond a few moments without retreating for recovery to the outward air. Irritation of body, produced by utter filth and exposure, incited her to the horrid process of tearing off her skin by inches; her neck and person were thus disfigured to hideousness…. And who protects her,” Miss Dix suggestively asks, “who protects her,–that worse than Pariah outcast,–from other wrongs and blacker outrages!” This question had more meaning for Miss Dix than we might suppose, for at the almshouse in Worcester she had found an insane Madonna and her babe: father unknown.
Fair and beautiful Newton finds a place in this chapter of dishonor, with a woman chained, nearly nude, and filthy beyond measure: “Sick, horror-struck, and almost incapable of retreating, I gained the outward air.” A case in Groton attained infamous celebrity, not because the shame was without parallel but because the overseers of the poor tried to discredit the statements of Miss Dix. The fact was that she had understated the case. Dr. Bell of the McLean Asylum, confirmed her report and added details. In an outbuilding at the almshouse, a young man, slightly deranged but entirely inoffensive, was confined by a heavy iron collar to which was attached a chain six feet in length, the limit of his possible movements. His hands were fastened together by heavy clavises secured by iron bolts. There was no window in his dungeon, but for ventilation there was an opening, half the size of a sash, closed in cold weather by a board shutter. From this cell, he had been taken to the McLean Asylum, where his irons had been knocked off, his swollen limbs chafed gently, and finding himself comfortable, he exclaimed, “My good man, I must kiss you.” He showed no violence, ate at the common table, slept in the common bedroom, and seemed in a fair way to recovery when, to save the expense of three dollars a week for his board and care, the thrifty Groton officials took him away. He could be boarded at the almshouse for nothing, and, chained in an outbuilding, he would not require any care.
We can follow Miss Dix in her career through a dozen states of this Union, into the British Provinces, to Scotland and England, thence across to the Continent, without repeating these details, if we bear in mind that such as we have seen was the condition of the pauper insane at that period. Her memorial was presented by Dr. S. G. Howe, then happily a member of the Legislature, and a bill was passed, not without opposition, but finally passed, enlarging the asylum at Worcester to accommodate two hundred additional patients. The provision was inadequate, but a reform of old abuses had begun. It was her first victory.
Grateful for what had been accomplished in Massachusetts, Miss Dix turned to Rhode Island, whose borders she had often approached and sometimes crossed in her investigations in the adjoining state. Rhode Island was perhaps not less civilized than her neighbor, but Rhode Island furnished the prize case of horrors in the mistreatment of insanity, a case which in a letter introducing the discoverer, Mr. Thomas G. Hazard said went beyond anything he supposed to exist in the civilized world. The case was this: Abraham Simmons, a man whose name ought to go on the roll of martyrdom, was confined in the town of Little Compton, in a cell seven feet square, stone-built, stone-roofed, and stone-floored, the entrance double-walled, double-doored and double-locked, “excluding both light and fresh air, and without accommodation of any description for warming and ventilation.” When this dungeon was discovered, the walls were covered by frost a half inch in thickness; the bed was provided with two comfortables, both wet and the outer one stiffly frozen, or, as Miss Dix puts it, “only wet straw to lie upon and a sheet of ice for his covering.” Lest two locks should not be enough to hold this dangerous man, his leg was tethered to the stone floor by an ox-chain. “My husband,” said the mistress, “in winter, sometimes of a morning rakes out half a bushel of frost, _and yet he never freezes_; sometimes he screams dreadfully and that is the reason we had the double wall and two doors in place of one; his cries disturb us in the house.” “How long has he been here?” “Oh, above three years.” Nothing in the traditions of the Bastile could exceed these horrors, and yet they were not the product of intentional cruelty, but of unfathomable stupidity.
Disregarding the well-meant warnings of her attendant that he would kill her, Miss Dix took his hands, tried to warm them in her own, spoke to him of liberty, care and kindness, and for answer “a tear stole over his hollow cheeks, but no words answered my importunities.” Her next step was to publish the terrible story in the Providence Journal, not with a shriek, as might have been expected and justified, but with the affected coolness of a naturalist. With grim humor, she headed her article, “Astonishing Tenacity of Life,” as if it had only a scientific interest for anybody. If you doubted the statements, you might go and see for yourself: “Should any persons in this philanthropic age be disposed from motives of curiosity to visit the place, they may rest assured that travelling is considered quite safe in that part of the country, however improbable it may seem. The people of that region profess the Christian religion, and it is even said that they have adopted some forms and ceremonies which they call worship. It is not probable, however, that they address themselves to poor Simmons’ God.” Their prayers and his shrieks would make a strange discord, she thinks, if they entered the ear of the same deity.
Having reported her discoveries to the men of science, she next appealed to the men of wealth. Providence had at that date a multi-millionaire, by the name of Butler; he left four millions to his heirs. He had never been known as a philanthropist; he did not himself suppose that his heart was susceptible. It is said that knowing persons smiled when they heard that Miss Dix intended to appeal to him. Further, it is said that Mr. Butler, at the interview, ingeniously diverted the conversation from topics that threatened to be serious. He apparently had no thought of giving Miss Dix a penny. At length she rose with the impressive dignity so often noted by her pupils and said: “Mr. Butler, I wish you to hear what I have to say. I want to bring before you certain facts involving terrible suffering to your fellow creatures all around you,–suffering you can relieve. My duty will end when I have done this, and with you will rest all further responsibility.” Mr. Butler heard her respectfully to the end, and then asked, “What do you want me to do?” “Sir,” she said, “I want you to give $50,000 toward the enlargement of the insane hospital in this city.” “Madam, I’ll do it,” he said, and much more of his estate afterward went the same way.
Three years of devoted study of the problems of insanity, with limitless opportunities for personal observation, had given Miss Dix an expert knowledge of the subject. She had conceived what an insane asylum should be. Hitherto, she had been content to enlarge upon foundations already laid; now she would build an asylum herself. She saw, we are told, that such an institution as she conceived could not be built by private benevolence, but must have behind it a legislative appropriation. She chose New Jersey as the field of her experiment. Quietly, she entered the state and canvassed its jails and almshouses, as she had those of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Next she digested her facts in a Memorial to the Legislature. Then, with a political shrewdness for which she became celebrated, she selected the member, uniting a good heart with a clear head and persistent will, into whose hands it should be placed. Much of her success is said to have been due to her political sagacity. The superintendent of one of her asylums said, “She had an insight into character that was truly marvellous; and I have never known anyone, man or woman, who bore more distinctly the mark of intellectuality.” Having placed her Memorial in the hands of a skilful tactician, she retired to a room appropriated to her use by the courtesy of the House, where she spent her time writing editorials for newspapers, answering the questions of members, and holding receptions. “You cannot imagine,” she writes a friend, “the labor of conversing and convincing. Some evenings I had at once twenty gentlemen for three hours’ steady conversation.” After a campaign of two months the bill establishing the New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum was passed, and the necessary money appropriated for its erection. She was always partial to this first creation of her energy and genius. She called it ‘her first child,’ and there, forty-five years later, she returned to pass the last seven years of her life, as in a home, a room having been gratefully appropriated to her use by the trustees of the asylum.
At this date, Dr. S. G. Howe wrote her: “God grant me to look back upon some three years of my life with a part of the self-approval you must feel. I ask no higher fortune. No one need say to you, Go on! for you have heard a higher than any human voice, and you will follow whithersoever it calleth.” Indeed, she already had much of her future work prepared. While waiting for the Legislature in New Jersey to take up her bill, she had canvassed Pennsylvania and had the happiness to see a bill pass the Legislature of that State founding the Dixmont Hospital, her second child, soon after the birth of her first. The Dixmont Hospital is the only one of her many children that she would allow to be even indirectly named for her. Meanwhile, she had canvassed Kentucky, had been before the Legislature in Tennessee, and, seven days after the passage of her bill in New Jersey, she writes from a steamer near Charleston, S. C., as follows: “I designed using the spring and summer chiefly in examining the jails and poorhouses of Indiana and Illinois. Having successfully completed my mission in Kentucky, I learned that traveling in those States would be difficult, if not impossible, for some weeks to come, on account of mud and rains. This decided me to examine the prisons and hospitals of New Orleans, and, returning, to see the state prisons of Louisiana at Baton Rouge, of Mississippi at Jackson, of Arkansas at Little Rock, of Missouri at Jefferson City, and of Illinois at Alton…. I have seen incomparably more to approve than to censure in New Orleans. I took the resolution, being so far away, of seeing the state institutions of Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina. Though this has proved excessively fatiguing, I rejoice that I have carried out my purpose.”
Between June 1843 and August 1847, she states in a letter that she traveled 32,470 miles, her conveyance being by steamboat when possible; otherwise by stage-coach. It is suggestive of the wrecks and delays she had experienced with the shattered coaches and mud roads of the south and west that, as we are told, she “made a practice of carrying with her an outfit of hammer, wrench, nails, screws, a coil of rope, and straps of stout leather, which under many a mishap sufficed to put things to rights and enable her to pursue her journey.” “I have encountered nothing so dangerous as river fords,” she writes. “I crossed the Yadkin when it was three-quarters of a mile wide, rough bottom, often in places rapid currents; the water always up to the carriage bed, and sometimes flowing in. The horses rested twice on sand-bars. A few miles beyond the river having just crossed a deep branch two hundred yards wide, the axletree broke, and away rolled one of the back wheels.”
When she said that river fords were her greatest danger, she must have forgotten an encounter with a highwayman. She was making a stage journey in Michigan, and noticed with some consternation that the driver carried a brace of pistols. To her inquiries he explained that there had been robberies on the road. “Give me the pistols,” she said; “I will take care of them.” More in awe of her than of robbers, the driver reluctantly obeyed. Passing through a dismal forest the expected happened. A man seized the horses and demanded her purse. She made him a little speech, asked if he was not ashamed, told him her business, and concluded, “If you have been unfortunate, are in distress and in want of money, I will give you some.” Meanwhile the robber had turned “deathly pale,” and when she had finished, exclaimed, “My God, that voice.” He had once heard her address the prisoners in the Philadelphia penitentiary. He begged her to pass, and declined to take the money she offered. She insisted, lest he might be again tempted before he found employment. People obeyed when she insisted, and he took her gift and disappeared.
Think of the hotel accommodations,–the tables and beds,–she must have encountered in these wild journeys. This is the woman who, a few years ago, seemed to be dying with hemorrhages of the lungs. Did she have no more of them? Oh, yes; we are assured that “again and again she was attacked with hemorrhages and again and again prostrated by malarial fever.” A physician said, “Her system became actually saturated with malaria.” Invalid as she almost always was, she had left her foot-prints in most of the states of the Union and had carried the war into the British Provinces, where she had been the means of establishing three insane hospitals: one in Toronto, one in Halifax, one at St. John, Newfoundland, besides providing a fleet of life-boats at Sable Island, known as “The Graveyard of Ships,” off the coast of Nova Scotia.
In the United States, during these twelve years, she “promoted and secured,” to use her own phrase, the enlargement of three asylums: at Worcester, Mass., at Providence, R. I., and at Utica, N. Y., and the establishment of thirteen, one in each of the following states: New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, North Carolina, and Maryland, with the Hospital for Insane Soldiers and Sailors, at Washington, D. C.
In 1850, Miss Dix proposed a larger scheme of philanthropy than was ever before projected by any mortal. What is more, but for one man, she would have carried it out. She petitioned Congress to appropriate 12,000,000 acres of public lands for the benefit of the indigent insane, deaf and dumb, and blind. A bill to that effect was introduced, watched by her through two sessions, and finally passed by both Houses. She was inundated with congratulations from far and near; but the bill was vetoed on constitutional grounds by President Pierce. The day for giving away the public lands in sheets had not come.
The blow seems to have been more than Miss Dix could endure. She went abroad for change and rest. What rest meant to her, she expresses in a letter to a friend at home:
“Rest is not quitting the active career: Rest is the fitting of self to its sphere.”
These lines, borrowed from John S. Dwight have been, not unnaturally, attributed to her. She wrote many things perhaps quite as poetical.
Not much of the verse, which came from her prolific pen, was considered even by herself to deserve publication, but verse-writing is said to had been the never-failing diversion of her leisure hours. Mrs. Caroline A. Kennard credits her with the following lines which, though very simple, are quite as good as much that has been immortalized in our hymn books:
“In the tender, peaceful moonlight, I am from the world apart, While a flood of golden glory Fills alike my room and heart.
As I gaze upon the radiance Shining on me from afar, I can almost see beyond it,–Almost see ‘the gates ajar.’
Tender thoughts arise within me Of the friends who’ve gone before, Absent long but not forgotten, Resting on the other shore.
And my soul is filled with longing That when done with earth and sin, I may find the gates wide open There for me to enter in.”
Apparently, she wrote her poetry for herself, as an unskilled musician might play for his own amusement.
The rest which Miss Dix allowed herself between September 1854 and September 1856, was to visit the chief hospitals and prisons in Europe. Edinburgh, the Channel Islands, Paris, Rome, Naples, Constantinople, Vienna, St. Petersburg, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Brussels, and again Paris and London: these places mark the course of her two years’ pilgrimage among the prisons and hospitals of Europe. She found much to admire in this journey, but sometimes abuses to correct. We must content ourselves with an incident from Edinburgh, perfectly in character. She found in that city private insane hospitals, if they could be dignified by the name, under such conditions of mismanagement as shocked even her experienced nerves. Having reported the facts to the Lord Provost of Edinburgh to no purpose, she was advised to lay the matter before the Home Secretary in London. The Provost knew of this intention and resolved to forestall her by taking the train for London the next morning; so little did he know Miss Dix. She boarded the night train, and was on the spot before him, had her interview, secured the appointment of a royal commission and, ultimately the correction of the abuses of which she had complained.
During the four years that intervened between her return and the outbreak of the Civil War, she seems to have travelled over most of her old ground in this country, and to have extended her journeys into the new states and territories. At the approach of hostilities, it fell to Miss Dix to give the President of the Philadelphia and Baltimore Railroad the first information of a plot to capture the city of Washington and to assassinate Mr. Lincoln. Acting upon this information, Gen. Butler’s Massachusetts troops were sent by boat instead of rail, and Mr. Lincoln was “secretly smuggled through to Washington.”
By natural selection, Miss Dix was appointed Superintendent of Women Nurses in the federal service, by order of the Secretary of War. In this capacity she served through the four years’ struggle. In a letter dated December 7, 1864, she writes: “I take no hour’s leisure. I think that since the war, I have taken no day’s furlough.” Her great services were officially recognized by Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War.
Having served the country as faithfully as any soldier, during its hour of need, she returned to her former work of promoting and securing the erection of hospitals and of visiting those before established. In 1877, when Miss Dix was seventy-five, Dr. Charles F. Folsom, of Boston, in a book entitled “Diseases of the Mind,” said of her: “Her frequent visits to our institutions of the insane now, and her searching criticisms, constitute of themselves a better lunacy commission than would be likely to be appointed in many of our states.”
She was at that date, however, near the end of her active labors. In 1881, at the age of seventy-nine, she retired to the hospital she had been the means of building in Trenton, N. J., and there she remained, tenderly, even reverently cared for, until her death in 1887. So passed to her rest and her reward one of the most remarkable women of her generation.