Protest from Newburyport in response to Dix's Memorial

Newspaper Article

Transcription of Primary Source

Newburyport Herald, Feb. 9, 1843

Miss Dix’s Memorial and Our Alms-House --

In speaking the other day of Miss Dix’s Memorial, we intimated the intention of noticing, at some other time, her account of her visit to the Alms-House in this town. We did not wish, then, to say any thing about it, because our principal object was to second her appeal, which we believe to be founded in justice and humanity and sustained by facts sufficient in number and abundant in suffering, to demand for it an immediate and favorable consideration. But the statement concerning our alms-house ought not to go forth to the world, without a correction of the erroneous impression it is somewhat calculated to make. -- We do not, for a moment , suppose the authoress of the Memorial, meant to do injustice, or to call in question the motives or intentions of those who have the care of the insane poor in this place; and yet such, to those who do not know the parties and all the facts in the case, would very probably be the effect of her narrative. All she says may be true, and she may also say all that under the circumstances, it was easy for her to learn; and yet the whole truth is not told -- or at least not told in a way to give a perfectly correct view of the case. We have made a personal examination into the matter, and speak advisedly, when we say, that so far as we can learn, the treatment of the insane in our alms-house, under its present superintendence, has been and is, as humane as circumstances will allow; and that the master of the house and his wife deserve great credit for what they have endeavored to do for these poor sufferers, notwithstanding the great and serious difficulties with which they have been obligated to contend. Whatever blame is deserved ought to fall upon the town for not providing better accommodations for lunatics -- or upon that very system of laws which Miss Dix is most disinterestedly seeking to have altered. Let the blame be placed where it belongs, and we care not how strongly it is laid on. But we wish to relieve the innocent from even the appearance of censure.

The language used in the memorial conveys the idea, that unwillingness to have the insane woman seen, was manifested from fear that her condition and treatment would be known. This we are assured is not correct. No such unwillingness existed and no such unwillingness was expressed. Something might have been said implying that the appearance of the poor sufferer would be disagreeable to the visitor, whose errand, perhaps, was not understood; and this might have been mistaken for a reluctance of a less worthy character. All who are acquainted with our alms-house and its keepers, know there is no desire to conceal anything -- and for the simple reason that there is nothing to be ashamed of -- nothing that needs to be hidden. Any person visiting the institution with good intentions, will find no difficulty in obtaining a free admission and polite and frank testament.

The Memorial says the woman was confined in a cellar and under the stairs. Well; the place may be called a cellar -- but it is more properly a cellar-kitchen, not much if any worse than many kitchens of very genteel city mansions -- sufficiently light and dry. It is used as a room for oakum pickers and is not, by any means such a place as nine persons out of ten would suppose it to be, or as we ourselves supposed it to be until we used our own eyes, from the description in the memorial; and yet it is very probable we should in giving an account of it have used the same term Miss Dix employs. The cell, not a common closet, but an apartment, built for the purpose, was under the stairs, during the summer. The patient is confined now in another cell, precisely like the first one, only placed in that portion of the cellar which is kept warm in winter, night and day. She was sometimes naked, because she would tear her clothes off; and there was no way to prevent her from so doing, except by using the straight-jacket, which the keeper thought would be too cruel. The mistress of the house has been in the habit, under somewhat dangerous and often times most revolting circumstances of seeing in person that this wretched creature was properly washed, and properly cared for, in regard to food and other matters. The case is a very difficult one; and we regret the memorialist did not learn all the particulars in relation to it -- did not go beyond appearances and find how much there was for their apology. The woman was formerly in the alms-house, harmless and unconfined. She was sent by benevolent friends to Worcester, in the hope that she might be cured. There she rapidly grew worse, and last spring was returned as incurable and furiously mad -- making close confinement absolutely necessary. We learn that she was pronounced at the State asylum, to be one of the most unmanageable subjects, ever in her institution. On the whole she is, we are confident, treated as kindly and kept as comfortable as circumstances will allow. She is a great care, trial and trouble, and would we verily believe, utterly discourage any one less humane and patient than the mistress of the house, where the law says she must be kept.

We have seen this case repeatedly quoted in the paper as one of great cruelty, and for the sake of those whose humanity is thus called in question, we have felt bound to give publicity to the above facts. We repeat our conviction that the memorialist had not the least disposition to give other than a perfectly true picture; our only regret is that she did not know all the particulars, so as to be able to throw in the lights that belong to it and so correct in some measure its unrelieved gloom. Had this been done, a strong case for her purpose would still have remained. For, notwithstanding all we have said, we do not mean for a moment to imply that the condition of the insane in our alms-house, is what it ought to be. They are not properly -- although they are, as far as possible, kindly treated. It is no place for them. It is wrong to impose them upon such an establishment and mix them up with the other inmates. The slumbers of the aged poor should not be broken -- the ears of the young should not be permitted to hear the blasphemous ravings of the mad. We sympathise with Miss Dix, certainly, in her noble effort to bring about a reform -- to have the insane removed from jails and alms houses, to places where they can be treated as their malady requires. And we repeat the hope expressed the other day, that her memorial will receive immediate attention. Let the facts be ascertained and such laws passed as will relieve the commonwealth from the deserved charge of inhumanity which still stains its fair fame.

Curator Notes

Exact Title: 
Miss Dix's Memorial and Our Alms-House
Newburyport Herald
Probable Date: 
February 9
Place of Publication: 
Newburyport, Massachusetts