Digital History

Pre-Civil War Reform

Assisting the Disabled Previous Next
Digital History ID 3536



A number of reformers devoted their attention to the problems of the mentally ill, the deaf, and the blind. In 1841, Dorothea Dix (1802–1887), a 39-year-old former schoolteacher, volunteered to give religious instruction to women incarcerated in the East Cambridge, Massachusetts, House of Correction. Inside the House of Correction, she was horrified to find mentally ill inmates dressed in rags and confined to a single dreary, unheated room. Shocked by what she saw, she embarked on a lifelong crusade to reform the treatment of the mentally ill.

After a two-year secret investigation of every jail and almshouse in Massachusetts, Dix issued a report to the state legislature. The mentally ill, she found, were mixed indiscriminately with paupers and hardened criminals. Many were confined “in cages, closets, cellars, stalls, pens! Chained, naked, beaten with rods and lashed into obedience.” Dix then carried her campaign for state-supported asylums nationwide, persuading more than a dozen state legislatures to improve institutional care for the insane.

Through the efforts of reformers such as Thomas Gallaudet and Samuel Gridley Howe, institutions to care for the deaf and blind began to appear. In 1817, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (1787–1851) established the nation’s first school in Hartford, Connecticut, to teach deaf-mutes to read and write, read lips, and communicate through hand signals.

Samuel Gridley Howe (1801–1876), the husband of Julia Ward Howe, composer of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” accomplished for the blind what Gallaudet achieved for the deaf. He founded the country’s first school for the blind in Boston and produced printed materials with raised type.

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