Asylum Reform


In the antebellum period, the country was overtaken by a series of reforms. Many of these, such as educational reform, were the result of what became known as the Benevolent Empire. The idea was that all individuals mattered, and that even the most looked-down on members of society could learn to fit in. In education, this meant people like the blind. However, people soon realized it could be applied other places as well, namely the prisons of the time.

Prison reforms and subsequently the creation of insane asylums were based on the same ideals as the education reform, and tried to create a new system in which even those who were seen as unfit to interact with the rest of society would be redeemed.

Problems to be Addressed

Previously everyone—criminals, insane, debtors—was all thrown in fairly atrocious prisons. These varied from crowded buildings to abandoned mine shafts, and were really just places to stick people who didn't conform to society's expectations.

Not only were the prisons inhumane, they also didn't actually deal with a problem, but rather pushed it to the side and forgot about it.

"I proceed, Gentlemen, briefly to call you 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 obdience!"--Dorothea Dix, To the Legislature of Massachusetts

These are some examples of treatments within prisons


Most of the leaders were women, and their goals were initially to improve conditions for women who were put away or to help women who were wrongfully put away.

They wanted to provide a more suitable environment for the insane and the poor or mentally challenged.

They also wanted to make places where criminals or the insane could be rehabilitated rather than just put away. Because of this, they wanted to make prisons or asylums that would actively enforce rules on the inmates, to try and get them to adapt to a rule-based society. In a stricter environment, criminals or the insane would be able to find a structure to rebuild their life. In the picture below, some people at an insane asylum take part in a religious service.


They tried to convince the government leaders to create separate asylums, as opposed to one jail for the mentally insane, poor, and criminal together.

The also addressed state legislatures to try to convince them to reform. They didn't use coercion, as the people actually subject to the asylums weren't those who could make decisions about them.

“…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…” —Dorothea Dix, Memorial to the Legislature of Massachusetts

Leaders and Followers

Dorothea Dix was the biggest leader. She helped create new methods for dealing with the mentally ill and creating new asylums only for them so that they weren’t punished like wrongdoers anymore.

Elizabeth Packard was the wife of a preacher who didn’t believe in his sermons, so he had her declared insane and committed. After she was finally declared sane, she wrote about her horrible experiences and advocated for reform.

“…The great evil of our present Insane Asylum System lies in the fact, that insanity is there treated as a crime, instead of a misfortune, which is indeed a gross act of injustice…” —Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard, The Prisoner’s Hidden Life, p. iii.

The followers were, eventually, the state legislators who authorized the creation of asylums specifically for the mentally insane and the people who recognized that Dorothea Dix and the other reformers had good reason for their reformers.


While at first, the new asylums were humane and incredibly new places, over time they became harsher and worn out. They used to try to teach people how to act, but eventually they just became holding houses for the insane. However, they still weren’t held with the criminals and the paupers, so their conditions were better in that regard. This is an image of a new asylum in Jacksonville:

Asylum reform is a moderate reform, as it took basic ideas that aren't terribly controversial and implemented them. However, it was made much more radical by the fact that it was led by women. Women at the time didn't have much leeway or freedom to take action, yet Dorothea Dix and other women led the reforms.


Brinkley, Alan. American History: A Survey. New York: McGraw-Hill (2009).

"Making Their Voices Heard: Women and Mental Health Reform in the Nineteenth Century." History Scene. <>.

"Dorotea Dix: Revolutionizing Asylums." 04 January 2013. Online video clip. Youtube.<>

Dorotea Dix. "Memorial to the Legislature of Massachusetts." Disability History Museum. <>.

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