Insane Asylums

(1830s- 1850s)

By: Kelly Burch, Annika Mukherjee and Sophia Alami-Nassif

​Before the 1830s, the mentally ill were treated as animals, chained like beasts in cages, because they were so misunderstood by society. Dorothea Dix, a schoolteacher, witnessed this cruelty when visiting prisons, and she campaigned for publicly funded asylums to help. After founding the first asylum entirely for the mentally ill, large institutions sprouted everywhere, many filled with hundreds of patients. She taught society that the mentally ill now needed treatment and care, rather than punishment. Once this spread from the South across America, this became a revolutionary idea of the 19th century -- the motion that society held responsibility for criminal activity and that a prison stay could yield positive effects. Once this ideal had been adopted by the nation, reformers in Europe looked to America as a model for building, utilizing and improving their own systems.

 Dr.  Samuel White, a pioneer in the humane care of the mentally ill, operated the Hudson Lunatic Asylum in New York State.

Hudson Lunatic Asylum

Patient in restraint chair at the West Riding Lunatic Asylum, Wakefield, Yorkshire ca. 1869

"It was an intensely hot day last summer, when I visited

Fanning. He was confined in a roofed pen, which enclosed an

area of about eight feet by eight—probably a few inches over.

. . He was without bed and without clothing; his food, of the

coarsest kind, was passed through a space between the logs;

“no better,” said a neighbor, “than the hogs are fed”. . . His

feet had frozen, and had perished; upon the shapeless stumps,

he could, aided by some motion of his shoulders, raise his

body partially against the side of the pen. . . there [in the pen]

is to be found a pining, desolate, suffering maniac, whose

piteous groans, and frantic cries, would move to pity the

hardest heart."

SOURCE: Brown, Alison R. (2010) "Reform and Curability in American Insane Asylums of the 1840's: The Conflict of Motivation Between Humanitarian Efforts and the Efforts of the Superintendent "Brethren"," Constructing the Past: Vol. 11: Iss. 1, Article 4.

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This excerpt provides a first hand account of the maltreatment and harsh environments that patiences experienced before the asylum reforms.

Dorthea Dix

Dorothea Lynde 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, Dix was given the position of Superintendent of Army Nurses by the Union Army. Dix feuded with them over control of medical facilities and the hiring and firing of nurses. She also had to deal with doctors and surgeons and cared for Union and Confederate alike, regardless of her personal bias.

Dix's leadership inspired many women to take a stand in the medical community, in and outside of the Civil War. Over 20,000 women volunteered to work in hospitals, usually in nursing care. Then, many developed high standards for medical care and new medicines.

This could also be connected to women's roles in the Progressive Era. Strong leaders like Dix, Mary Edwards Walker (another nurse in the Civil War,) and Clara Barton (founder of the Red Cross,) began a chain reaction of woman empowerment throughout the nation, especially concerned with Prohibition, suffrage, school issues, and public health.

Work Cited (Photos)  

"31 Disturbing Asylum Pictures From The Past That Will Haunt Your Dreams." Atchuup Cool Stuff Pass It On. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Nov. 2014.

Digital image. The Gossips of Rivertown: SOLD: Our Most Significant Historic Buildings. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Nov. 2014.

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