"AN ANGEL OF MERCY"
I. A PLUCKY GIRL
 ONE afternoon, many years ago, there was a timid knock at
the door of an old-fashioned house in Boston. The
knock was answered by the mistress herself, a
gray-haired, stern-faced woman of sixty, who lived
there all alone. She opened the door softly, her lips
ready to say "No" to any expected beggar or other
person who might ask her for help.
But when she saw who was there, she started with
surprise, and her face for a moment forgot to wear its
accustomed look of severity.
"Why, Dorothy Dix!" she cried. "Where in the world did
you come from?" Her tones, in spite of herself, were
more kind than harsh.
The child who stood on the doorstep was scarcely twelve
years of age—a mere slip of a girl, slender and
pale. She was very poorly dressed. On her head was a
sun-  bonnet, faded and worn. On her feet were shoes so poor
and ragged that they seemed really worse than none.
She was covered with dust; she looked very tired and
"Where in the world did you come from?" repeated the
old lady, as she drew the child into the house and shut
"Please, grandmother," was the answer, "I have run away
from home, and I have come to tell you about it."
"Ran away from home, eh?" said the grandmother, taking
off the child's bonnet. "Well, I declare, that is a
pretty tale to bring me. Come, sit down and tell me
"I HAVE RUN AWAY FROM HOME."
"Yes," answered Dorothy. "Things were so bad at our
house that I couldn't stand it any longer. Father has
not earned anything for months. He does nothing but
write tracts and talk, talk, talk about the wickedness
of the world. Mother is very feeble, and yet she works
hard and tries to keep everything going. Oh, I cannot
tell you of all our misery."
"I should think a girl of your age might help her
mother," said the grandmother, severely.
 "I have helped her all I could," said Dorothy.
"But father will not allow it. He insists that I shall
help him; and so I am kept busy all day long, folding
tracts and sewing the leaves and tying them up in
bundles. He says that he is going to save the world
with those tracts."
"I see," said the grandmother; "and while he is saving
the world, he allows his wife and children to suffer
"That's just it, grandmother, and it's all a mistake.
I couldn't stand it any longer, a nd I made up my mind
to come and tell you about it. I didn't ask anybody's
leave. I just kissed mother and the boys, and told
them to be brave, and then I started."
"And did you walk all the way from Worcester?"
"Not all the way, grandmother. The farmers who were
driving toward Boston asked me to ride with them, and
once a stage driver took me up and carries me a long
way. The people along the road were very kind."
"And now you are in Boston, what do you expect to do?"
"If you will let me stay with you, grandmother,
 I will do everything I can. I will work every hour to
earn something to help poor mother and the boys. I
will study, too, so that I may help them more as I grow
older. And I will help you, also, grandmother."
"You are a plucky girl," said the grandmother, "and I
will see what can be done. Since you are here, I
cannot turn you away. You shall begin your work and
your studies to-morrow."
Thus, Dorothea Dix was received into her grandmother's
home. Life had been so hard with her that she had
never known what it was to play. Her first remembrance
was of work and worry, and of a cheerless home in which
hunger and cold were frequent visitors. But she wad
the pluck which aroused her grandmother's admiration.
She worked at whatever came to hand, and sent her
earnings home to relieve the loved ones there. She
spent her evenings at hard study, and soon knew more
than many children of her age who had attended school
all their lives.
When she was fourteen, she said to her grandmother, "I
am going back to Worcester to-morrow. I am going to
teach a school of little children."
 "You are too young for that," said the grandmother. "I
know you are old enough in your thinking and acting,
but people won't send their children to a school kept
by one who looks so girlish as you."
"We shall see," said Dorothea.
Two days later she was at her mother's house in
Worcester. She put on long dresses, she lengthened her
sleeves, she tied her hair in a knot at the back of her
head. Then she went out to solicit pupils for her
school. She was so dignified and womanish that people
did not think of her as merely a young girl.
The school was opened. The children loved their
teacher, and they learned rapidly. At the end of the
term the patrons were so well pleased that they asked
Dorothea to continue her work.
But she said, "I need to learn more so that I can teach
better," and she went back to Boston to study and to
At nineteen she felt that she was well prepared for
teaching. Her grandmother owned a little house in what
is called Orange Court, and there Dorothea opened a
boarding and day school. The
 school was so well kept that its fame soon spread to
other towns in Massachusetts. Pupils came even from
New Hampshire. The young teacher and her assistants
had so much to do, that any one but Dorothea Dix would
have shrunk from undertaking more.
There were no great public schools in Boston at that
time. Only a few pupils attended the free schools, and
these were not well taught. The children of the poor
were neglected, and many were allowed to run the
streets and grow up in ignorance and vice. The heart
of Dorothea Dix was touched, and she resolved to do
what she could to help these unfortunates. She opened
a free school in a barn belonging to her grandmother,
and gathered as many of the street boys into it as she
She was now twenty years old, and there was not a
busier person in Boston. She arose before daylight.
She taught her two schools. She cared for her
grandmother, who was now growing feeble. She cared for
her two young brothers whom she had brought to Boston
to support and educate. She studied, studied until the
late hours of night.
 A much stronger person would have broken down under all
this labor. It was only her great will power that kept
her up, and even that was not sufficient long. The
strain was too heavy, and she was obliged to give up
her schools before she had done a tenth part of what
she had marked out to do.
After this we hear of her in various places, writing,
serving as a governess in rich families, still
studying, and doing all that her strength permitted.
At length her mother died, and then her grandmother.
Her brothers were grown up and doing well for
themselves. There was no longer any one dependent upon
her. She had sufficient means to support herself
through life. Most persons would have been inclined to
cease studying and working, but not so Dorothea Dix.
II. A COURAGEOUS WOMAN
Dorothea Dix was thirty-five years old when the great work of
her life first came into her thoughts. She was
thirty-nine when she began it.
One day by accident she overheard some men talking
about the manner in which insane people
 were treated in certain prisons and almshouses. Her
interest was aroused, and she determined to learn more
of the matter. At that time there were no great public
asylums and hospitals where people with deranged minds
could be kindly cared for and skillfully treated.
There were private institutions where rich patients
were received. But the insane poor were treated like
beasts and criminals. They were shut up in filthy
jails. They were chained and flogged. They were
denied all the comforts of life.
Dorothea Dix determined to do something to lighten the
sorrows of these most unfortunate people. She went to
every important town in Massachusetts to see and learn
for herself. What other woman with feelings so
sensitive, so delicate, would have ventured to
investigate conditions so touching and horrifying?
Wherever she went, the prison doors were opened for
her. The jailers seemed in some strange way to
recognize her as an angel of mercy, having authority
greater than their own.
When she had finished her investigations, she sent to
the Massachusetts legislature an account
 of what she had seen and learned. "Gentlemen," she
said, "I call your 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 obedience."
Very much of what she wrote is too horrible to be
repeated here. She told of women who were kept in
chains, of men with iron collars riveted around their
necks, or a lunatic half frozen behind iron bars, of
others who were fed like pigs in a filthy pen. People
were shocked at the story. The almshouse keepers and
the jailers said it was all a slanderous lie. But the
best men and women in the state were convinced of its
truth. The legislature passed laws to remedy some of
the greatest of the evils and provided money for the
building and maintenance of public asylums.
Dorothea Dix knew that in other states the condition of
the insane was even worse than it had been in
Massachusetts. She could not rest while such evils
She went to Rhode Island. She found in Providence a
small asylum, poorly managed. As had been the case in
her own state, most of the insane
 people were confined in jails, and in almshouses which
were but little better. She made up her mind that the
asylum must be enlarged. But the legislature would not
give the money, and where was it to come from?
She called upon a noted millionaire who had never been
known to give any of his money away. She told him the
condition of things. She described the misery, the
wretchedness of the poor beings she had visited. He
listened silently. When she had finished, he said,
"Well, Miss Dix, what do you want me to do?"
"I want you to give fifty thousand dollars toward the
enlargement of the asylum here in Providence."
"I will do it," was the answer.
The enlargement was made, and the asylum was named
Butler Hospital, in honor of the giver.
Having thus started the good work in the New England
states, Dorothea Dix went next to New Jersey. She
visited the prisons. She wrote editorials for the
leading newspapers. She sent letter after letter to
the men of influence in the state. She petitioned the
assembly to do something to allay the misery of the
 Many people called her a meddler, and even worse than
that. They wished she had stayed at home. They didn't
propose to be taxed for crazy people, they said. But
she went boldly before the lawmakers at Trenton and
told them what they must do.
"Some evenings," she wrote to a friend, "I had at once
twenty gentlemen for three hours' steady conversation.
The last evening, a rough country member, who had
announced in the House that ‘the wants of the insane in
New Jersey were all humbug,' came to overwhelm me with
his arguments. After listening an hour and a half,
with wonderful patience, to my details, he suddenly
moved into the middle of the parlor, and thus delivered
himself: ‘Ma'am, I bid you good night! I do not want,
for my part, to hear anything more; the others can stay
if they want to. I am convinced. You've
conquered me out and out. I shall vote for the
hospital. If you'll come into the House and talk there
as you have here, no man that isn't a brute can stand
you; and so, when a man's convinced, that's enough.
The Lord bless you!'—and thereupon he departed."
 The assembly voted for the hospital. The hospital was
built—the largest and best in America. And when
the people saw the noble work which was being done
through the efforts of Dorothea Dix, they called her a
heaven-sent Angel of Mercy, and the lawmakers at
Trenton thanked her in behalf of the state.
The next state to be visited was Pennsylvania, and
there the same distressing things were seen and told,
and the same grand work was performed. Then a trip was
made to the West and the Southwest, and the prisons and
poorhouses in Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, and
Louisiana were examined.
There were but few railroads at that time and most of
the journey was made in coaches and wagons. The roads
were muddy and rough, the accommodations were poor and
rude. Yet, in the interests of the friendless and
unfortunate who could not speak for themselves,
Dorothea Dix traveled thus for more than ten thousand
miles and visited scenes of misery and distress which
strong men would have shuddered at and shunned.
"She went all over the country," writes a friend, "with
a moderate valise in her hand, and wearing
 a plain gray traveling dress, with snow-white collar
and cuffs. Her trunk was sent a week ahead, with the
necessary changes of linen, and one plain black silk
dress for special occasions. Neatness in everything
indicated her well-directed mine."
After three years spent in the West, Dorothea Dix went
to North Carolina. All opposition faded before her,
and the good laws which she advocated were passed by a
vote of ten to one. In Alabama she met with the same
success. In Mississippi the lawmakers declared that
they would not give a dime for the relief of the
lunatics in the state; but after they had listened to
her appeals, they voted to give all the land that was
necessary, for the erection of a hospital, three
million bricks, and fifty thousand dollars.
"And we will name the asylum the Dix Hospital," they
said; but this she would not permit.
Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Maryland, were visited in
turn; and everywhere the good work went on. But it is
no easy task to persuade men to do justice and love
mercy. Dorothea Dix met narrow-minded people
everywhere who did all they
 could against her. They spoke of her unkindly, they
placed every sort of obstacle in her way. But nothing
"The tonic I need," she said, "is the tonic of
At last, after many years of toil and perplexity, the
one great work of her life seemed finished. In every
state of the Union, laws were passed providing for the
better care of the unfortunates within its limits.
Instead of being confined in jails and pens, these poor
people were now housed in large and comfortable
asylums. Instead of being chained and beaten and
tortured, they were surrounded with comforts and cared
for with kindness. Instead of being treated as
criminals and beasts, they were regarded as unfortunate
human beings, deserving of sympathy and help. And all
this had been brought about by the efforts of one
She was not satisfied with having accomplished so much
in her own country; there were foreign countries in
which the old barbarous conditions still prevailed.
She went to England. She visited the workhouses and
prisons where lunatics and
 idiots were kept. She made a report of what she saw
there—a report so full of distressing and
horrifying facts that the whole nation was astonished.
The British government took up the matter, and the
Lunacy Laws of 1857 were passed, providing for
hospitals and asylums and humane care.
Miss Dix then visited the other countries of Europe,
carrying on her good work everywhere. "I get into all
the hospitals and all the prisons I have time to see or
strength to explore," she wrote. The Pope was so much
interested in her work that he had a long talk with her
and visited the asylum in Rome in person. Even in
Turkey she was received with marked kindness, as one
whose life was devoted to the service of humanity. She
went to Russia, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany,
spending all her time for the helpless and the
She returned to America only a short time before the
beginning of the great Civil War.
Scarcely had the first gun of the war been fired when
Dorothea Dix with a company of nurses was at
Washington, offering free service in the hospitals and
on the field of battle. The Secretary of War
 appointed her Superintendent of Nurses in the military
hospitals, and she entered upon her work with all the
courage and pluck for which she had been noted through
She had thousands of helpers to superintend; she
distributed the gifts that came for the benefit of the
sick and wounded; she made long journeys by land and
water; she went from battlefield to battlefield, from
camp to camp, caring with her own hands for many a
dying soldier; she took no vacations; her whole soul
was in her work. Who can estimate the amount of misery
that was relieved, or the amount of happiness that was
conferred, by this one woman? And she did it all, not
for gain, but for the love of humanity. She took no
pay for her services; she defrayed her expenses from
her private purse.
At the end of the war it was suggested that congress
should give her a vote of thanks and a large sum of
"I will accept nothing," she said; "but I should like
the flag of my country."
A pair of beautiful flags were therefore made for her,
and to them was attached this inscription:—
 "In token and acknowledgement of the inestimable
services rendered by Miss Dorothea L. Dix for the Care,
Succor, and Relief of the Sick and Wounded Soldiers of
the United States on the Battlefield, in Camps and
Hospitals, during the recent war, and of her benevolent
and diligent labors and devoted efforts to whatever
might contribute to their comfort and welfare."
These flags now hand in the Memorial Hall at Harvard
After the war, Dorothea Dix went back to her old work
of looking after the unfortunate insane and befriending
the friendless. She had already been the means of
founding thirty-two asylums in this country and in
Europe. In her old age she founded two more, these
being in Japan. On a large map of the world it was her
pleasure to mark the location of each asylum by a red
Her sympathies went out to all suffering creatures.
Not only human beings but animals were the objects of
her love. In a crowded part of Boston she planned a
drinking fountain for horses and men; and for it the
poet Whittier wrote these lines:—
"Stranger and traveler,
Drink freely and bestow
A kindly thought on her
Who bade this fountain flow,
Yet hath for it no claim
Save as the minister
Of blessing in God's name.
Drink, and in His peace go!"
Such a life as that of Dorothea Dix is its own reward.
How supremely grand it is when compared with a life
that is given to selfishness and ease! Her work lives
after her. Its influence and blessing will be felt for
ages yet to come.
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