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Dorothea Dix, Memorial to the Legislation of Massachusetts, 1843

Use this primary source text to explore key historical events.

Suggested Sequencing

  • This Primary Source can be used to discuss Dix’s push to reform the way the mentally ill were treated during the 1800s.


In the first half of the nineteenth century, those who suffered from mental illness were often housed in jails or almshouses in deplorable conditions with harsh treatment. Dorothea Dix sought to bring attention to the poor treatment of the mentally ill and demand reform. As a young woman, Dix spent time in Europe, where she encountered individuals working to change the way the mentally ill were cared for. After returning home to the United States, Dix traveled through multiple states to document the abysmal state in which the mentally ill were frequently housed and treated. In 1840–1841, she visited several such places in the commonwealth of Massachusetts and later presented this petition, or memorial, to the state legislature to request legislation regulating standards of care. Dix continued to work for reforms for the rest of her life, visiting other countries to document the conditions of hospitals and serving as the superintendent of Army Nurses for the Union Army during the Civil War.

Sourcing Questions

  1. Who wrote this document?
  2. Why was it written?

Vocabulary Text
memorial (n): a statement of facts as a basis of a petition

unsolicited (adj): not asked for

memorialist (n): a person who writes a memorial
I respectfully ask to present this Memorial, believing that the cause, which . . . sanctions so unusual a movement, presents no equivocal claim to public consideration and sympathy. Surrendering to calm and deep convictions of duty my habitual views of what is womanly and becoming, I proceed briefly to explain what has conducted me before you unsolicited . . . trusting, while I do so, that the memorialist will be speedily forgotten in the memorial.
almshouse (n): charitable home built for the poor to live in

pauper (n): very poor person

idiot (n): archaic term for an intellectually disabled person

surmount (v): to overcome

imperative (adj): of vital importance
About two years since leisure afforded opportunity, and duty prompted me to visit several prisons and almshouses in the vicinity of this metropolis. I found, near Boston, in the Jails and Asylums for the poor, a numerous class brought into unsuitable [connection] with criminals and the general mass of Paupers. I refer to Idiots and Insane persons, dwelling in circumstances not only adverse to their own physical and moral improvement, but productive of extreme disadvantages to all other persons brought into association with them. I applied myself diligently to trace the causes of these evils, and sought to supply remedies. As one obstacle was surmounted, fresh difficulties appeared. Every new investigation has been depth to the conviction that it is only by decided, prompt, and vigorous legislation the evils to which I refer, and which I shall proceed more fully to illustrate, can be remedied. I shall be obliged 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. But truth is the highest consideration. I tell what I have seen—painful and as shocking as the details often are—that from them you may feel more deeply the imperative obligation which lies upon you to prevent the possibility of a repetition or continuance of such outrages upon humanity. If I inflict pain upon you, and move you to horror, it is to acquaint you with suffering which you have the power to alleviate, and make you hasten to the relief of the victims of legalized barbarity.
I 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 horror; of beings wretched in our Prisons, and more wretched in our almshouses. And I cannot suppose it needful to employ earnest persuasion, or stubborn argument, in order to arrest and fix attention upon a subject, only the more strongly pressing in its claims, because it is revolting and disgusting in its details.
I must confine myself to few examples, but am ready to furnish other and more complete details, if required. If 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 polished page.
I 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!
As I state cold, severe facts, I feel obliged to refer to persons, and definitely to indicate localities. But it is upon my subject, not upon localities or individuals, I desire to fix attention; and I would speak as kindly as possible of all Wardens, Keepers, and other responsible officers, believing that most of these have erred not through hardness of heart and willful cruelty, so much as want of skill and knowledge, and want of consideration. Familiarity with suffering, it is said, blunts the sensibilities, and where neglect once finds a footing other injuries are multiplied. This is not all, for it may be justly and strongly be added that, from the deficiency of adequate means to meet the wants of these cases, it has been an absolute impossibility to do justice in this matter. Prisons are not constructed in view of being converted into County Hospitals, and almshouses are not founded as receptacles for the Insane. And yet, in the face of justice and common sense, Wardens are by law compelled to receive, and Masters of almshouses not to refuse, Insane and Idiotic subjects in all stages of mental disease and privation.
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. . . . 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.”
In the jail, quite lately, was a young man violently mad, who had not, as I was informed at the prison, come under medical care, and not been returned from any hospital. In the almshouse, the cases of insanity are now unmarked by abuse, and afford evidence of judicious care by the keepers. . . .
A woman in a cage.
One idiotic subject chained, and one in a close stall for 17 years.
One often doubly chained, hand and foot; another violent; several peaceable now.
One man caged, comfortable. . . .
One often closely confined; now losing the use of his limbs from want of exercise. . . .
I may here remark that severe measures, in enforcing rule, have in many places been openly revealed. I have not seen chastisement administered by stripes, and in but few instances have I seen the rods and whips, but I have seen blows inflicted, both passionately and repeatedly. . . .
bereft (adj): deprived of Could we in fancy place ourselves in the situation of some of these poor wretches, bereft of reason, deserted of friends, hopeless; troubles without, and more dreary troubles within, overwhelming the wreck of the mind as “a wide breaking in of the waters,”—how should we, as the terrible illusion was cast off, not only offer the thank-offering of prayer, that so mighty a destruction had not overwhelmed our mental nature, but as an offering more acceptable devote ourselves to alleviate that state from which we are so mercifully spared. . . .
succor (n): assistance in times of hardship

desolate (adj): grim, devastated

benediction (n): a blessing

Well done, good and faithful servants, become rulers over many things!: a phrase from Matthew 25:21. In this parable from the New Testament, Jesus encourages his listeners to use their talents for the greater good, as opposed to not using them at all.
Here you will put away the cold, calculating spirit of selfishness and self-seeking; lay 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 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!

Comprehension Questions

  1. What places did Dix visit to record the treatment of the mentally ill?
  2. According to Dix, what is the solution to the issues she listed in her memorial?
  3. Why does Dix believe she is “inflicting pain” on the legislators? Why does she do it anyway?
  4. What did Dix routinely witness in her travels throughout Massachusetts?
  5. According to Dix, why are wardens and keepers generally not to blame for officers treating their mentally ill wards poorly?
  6. Why did the mistress of the jail reject this mentally ill woman’s requests for employment and companionship?
  7. What did Dix routinely witness in many of the places she visited?
  8. According to Dix, how should the legislators react after imagining themselves in the situation of a mentally ill person?
  9. Why did Dix end her Memorial with this reference to the Bible?

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. Consider the following passage from Memorial to the Legislature of Massachusetts: “But it is upon my subject, not upon localities or individuals, I desire to fix attention; and I would speak as kindly as possible of all Wardens, Keepers, and other responsible officers, believing that most of these have erred not through hardness of heart and willful cruelty, so much as want of skill and knowledge, and want of consideration.” In what ways is this statement a reflection of the general reform spirit of this time?
  2. How did women’s activity in promoting morality change from the Founding Era to the Jacksonian/Antebellum Era? In what ways does Memorial to the Legislature of Massachusetts reflect this change?

Memorial to the Legislature of Massachusetts