Insane Asylums (1830s - 1850s)

    Those that were determined to be insane were still being treated with incredible cruelty. The medieval concept had been that the mentally deranged were cursed with unclean spirits. The nineteen century idea was that they were willfully perverse and depraved and were to be treated like beasts. Persistent prodding by different reformers resulted in improved conditions and the idea that the insane were not willfully perverse but mentally ill. Women had a large contribution to the reforms and therefore gained a greater respect from men as well as the country.


In presenting her case to the Massachusetts legislature for more humane treatment for the mentally ill, Dorothea Dix quoted from the notebook she carried with her asshe traveled  around the state

"Lincoln. A women in a cage. Medford. One idiotic subject chained, and one in a close stall for seventeen years. Pepperell. One often doubly chained, hand and foot; another violent; several peaceable now.... Dedham. The insane disadvantageous placed in jail. In the almshouse, two females in stalls.... ; lie in wooden bunks filled with straw; always shut up. One of these subjects is supposed curable. The overseers of the poor have declined giving her trial at the hospital, as I was informed, on account of expense. "


Causes and Effects: Reformers, influenced by the ideals of transcendentalism, believed there had to be a better way to rehabilitate criminals. Many early experiments in prison reforms failed, but some lasting reforms began in the 1830s, including literacy programs, prison libraries, and less physical punishment such as whipping. Dix and other reformers helped in the creation of public institutions dedicated to the treatment of mental illness.

Long Rane Significance: Though their methods might be considered downright scary by modern standards, these asylums were taking steps to understand mental illness and treat the insane with dignity.

Important people: Dorothea Dix was an American activist on behalf of the indigent insane who, through a vigorous program of lobbying state legislatures and the United States Congress, created the first generation of American mental asylums. During the Civil War, she served as Superintendent of Army Nurses.

Connection to earlier time period: Early America had very few prisons. If you were caught stealing in the early 1700s, you would have been publicly whipped and, if you kept up the habit, hanged. One hundred years later, you would have been thrown into a large common cell where your neck was your own problem.

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