Remarks on Prisons and Prison Discipline in the United States

By Dorothea Lynde Dix | Go to book overview
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It is a commentary of some importance on our times that the phrase "female social reformer" should automatically conjure up an image of an ancient dowager chaining herself to a lamppost, chopping saloon bars into small pieces or engaging in similar foolishness. It strains our sophisticated imagination that any woman, without major psychiatric disturbances, could devote her life to something which, by our standards, is as inconsequential as the reform of penal institutions and insane asylums. Given our present preoccupation with the problem of physical survival, our incredulity is perhaps understandable. Nevertheless, this constitutes one more indication of the enormous shift in our social ethos over the past century. A hundred years ago such ameliorative enterprises were praiseworthy and vigorously applauded, and for no one was the applause louder than for Dorothea L. Dix, who today is completely unknown to our mythical "intelligent layman." Even sadder perhaps is that she has been equally forgotten by the academic and professional criminologist who is notoriously indifferent to (ignorant of, more likely) the history of his chosen discipline, particularly in the area of penology, which is now regarded as of interest only to those with a bent towards the arcane and antiquarian. Dorothea Dix -- humanitarian, reformer, and philanthropist, described by her contemporaries as "the most useful and distinguished woman America has yet produced," judged by many as superior in dedication if not accomplishment to Florence Nightingale, closely associated with William Ellery Channing, Horace Mann, Charles Sumner, Francis Lieber, Franklin Pierce -- is truly, in the words of her definitive biographer, Helen Marshall, America's "forgotten Samaritan."

Born in Hampden, Maine, in 1802, Dorothea Dix was teaching school by the time she was fourteen years of age and publishing elementary text books by age twenty-two. (Some of her texts were phenomenally successful; Conversations on Common Things, for example, went through sixty editions.) She early became a disciple of Channing, whose simple doctrine, "Man must be sacred in man's sight," became the dominating force in her life. After a breakdown in 1834, probably caused by overwork, and the death of her grandmother, which left her financially secure for life, she became aware of and involved with the frightful conditions in the institutions for


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