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Found Her Purpose in Life

On March 28, 1841, Dorothea Dix found her purpose in life.

It was a cold, blustery day when she arrived at the East Cambridge jail in Boston, Massachusetts, to teach Sunday school to the prisoners. But, first, with her characteristic curiosity, she insisted on having a tour of the jail. To her horror she discovered two indigent mentally ill women confined in cages made of rough boards – disheveled, shivering people whose only crime was their illness. No stove heated their bare, filthy pens. Why was there no heat, she asked the jailer. Because “lunatics” don’t feel the cold, he replied. Appalled and outraged, Dorothea Dix launched a campaign to get stoves installed. When the jailer refused her repeated requests, she filed a legal case before the court.  Finally, her friend John Nichols recalled, “Her request was granted. The cold rooms were warmed.”  Were conditions as bad in other jails, she wondered. Where else were indigent, mentally ill people confined? How were they treated? Determined to know, Dorothea Dix set out to conduct an extensive, systematic, and controversial investigation. Outraged by what she found – people “confined in cages, closets, cellars, stalls, pens . . . chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience” – Dix lead a forty-year crusade for the humane treatment of people with mental illness. Year after year, she traveled thousands of miles by stagecoach, boat, horseback, and railroad to investigate and expose the horrendous conditions. She lobbied legislators, governors, and presidents to change attitudes and provide treatment and facilities.  She took her crusade to Scotland, Italy, and Russia. When she died in 1887, people around the world honored her. “Thus had died and been laid to rest,” one mourner wrote, “the most useful and distinguished woman America has yet produced.”

Dorothea Dix was the subject of my first biography. Given that I had grown up on the grounds of two state mental hospitals, where my father was a psychiatrist, I was deeply motivated to tell the true story of Dorothea Dix’s passionate and profound crusade with contemporary relevance. But then I discovered that she had vehemently refused to allow anyone to write about her. Unable to transgress her dictate but strongly drawn to write

about her, I finally drove to Boston and found her grave in Mount Auburn Cemetery. There, quietly standing, looking at her simple gravestone, the answer came to me – I could write about her crusade. That is why the title of my book is Breaking the Chains: The Crusade of Dorothea Lynde Dix “All alike may suffer,” she once wrote, “the rich and the poor, the young, the mature, and the aged.” Knowing that “all alike may suffer” didn’t make Dorothea Dix give up hope. It didn’t make her quit. Instead it inspired her to alleviate suffering, to overcome it, and to prove that one

person can make a difference.’

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