This Week's Story

Dorothea Dix finished her jail visit, but the cages, screams, and faces of helpless outcasts did not leave her.

This Week’s Story relives American history and the Bible through brief inspiring stories presented on mp3 audio recordings and text for reading.

The Cuckoo’s Nest, vintage 1841, part one

Dorothea was lead into a jail cell. Twenty female prisoners watched her. She had heard about this place for lunatics and prisoners and was determined to check it out.

First, she was to provide Sunday-school instruction. She read Bible verses, prayed, sang a hymn, and began to ask the women questions about themselves. They answered, perhaps because Dorothea had presence and was interested in them.

“Why are you here?”

“I was drunk in public.”

“Why are you in jail?”

“I stole a dress from the general store.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Five years.”

“What crime did you commit?”

“I am not sure. I don’t have any place to go.”

“Why were you arrested?”

“My husband said I was too violent and hit him.”

As the jailer stood watching, Dorothea asked, “I would like a tour of the prison.”

“No, Miss Dix, this is no place for a woman to walk.”

“I have taught school for several years and am used to making such decisions for myself. Allow me to see where the prisoners are kept.”

In one section Dorothea saw women chained to walls in unheated cells. The women wore rags and were shivering. Cold wind shook the windows. It was March and winter temperatures often were zero or lower.

“Who are these women and why are they forced to live in these horrible conditions?”

“They are insane.”

A woman screamed. Dorothea went towards the sound and found an old woman in a small cage. In a second cage was a younger woman. She sat listening but seemed unable to answer any question.

Dorothea looked in to surrounding cells. None had any furniture—no beds or mattresses, no bucket for a toilet, no stove, just filthy straw on the floors. She tried to keep from vomiting as her throat gagged from the rotten smells filling the cells.

“Why are these women forced to live here?”

“Miss Dix, you do not understand. They have lost their minds. They need to be kept away from the public.”

“Right now, they need heat in their cells.”

“They are crazy and do not need heat. And, it is not safe to have a stove near them. They might start a fire!”

Dorothea finished her jail visit, but the cages, screams, and faces of helpless outcasts did not leave her.

That week in 1841 court was in session in East Cambridge, Massachusetts. Dorothea presented a case for jail reform. As soon as it was made public, local people were angry at her. Newspapers ridiculed her.

Fearlessly she began investigating living conditions of the mentally sick in the state of Massachusetts. For eighteen months, she travelled the state and took notes about every jail, farmhouse, poorhouse, hospital, asylum, or any place where an insane person was held. She wrote in her report to the state legislature, that throughout the state, mentally disturbed individuals, especially the poor, were “thrown into cages, closets, cellars, stalls, pens…chained, beaten with rods and lashed into obedience.” She pleaded that the state legislature provide care for the insane.

This is Barbara Steiner, with Dorothea Dix, the voice for mentally ill people in the United States in the 1800’s.

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