Dorothea Dix

Who was Dorothea Dix and what is her connection with Portsmouth, Rhode Island?  Dix is one of those names that you may have heard but can’t quite place. She was a social reformer who was active nationally and internationally from the the 1840s to her death in 1887. She is most known for championing the cause of the mentally ill who at that time were usually locked away in prison like conditions. Dix was a frequent visitor to Portsmouth and her visits here were an important part of her development as a reformer.

Dorothea Dix first came to Portsmouth as part of the household of William Ellery Channing.  Channing was a noted early figure in the Unitarian Church.  He had deep roots in Aquidneck Island and would summer at Oakland Farm off of East Main Road.  Oakland Farm was close to the little Union Meeting House and Channing would meet with the farm families of the congregation weekly during the summers.  During the spring and summer of 1827, Dix came from Boston with the Channing family as the governess to the Channing daughters.  Dix was recovering from tuberculous and could no longer practice her occupation of teaching.

The Channing daughters described her as “strict and inflexible in her discipline,” but they appreciated this strictness later in life. They wrote “At the little Union Meetinghouse which adjoined Oakland, our place on Rhode Island, Miss Dix always had the class of troublesome men and boys, who succumbed to her charm of manner and firm will.”  Indeed Dorothea Dix started the Sunday School at the Union Meetinghouse and came back to visit whenever she stayed with the Channing family.  Her visits to the Sunday (Sabbath) School were recorded in newspaper articles and church reports.  One account shows Dix bringing two young men with her to Newport to bring back an organ she bought for the school.  With that organ, music became a more integral part of the services and school.  Concerts and singing of the psalms began.  Later one of the Channing daughters would also donate an organ in her father’s name.

The Channing daughters describe her as a “constant visitor” after the death of her grandmother. “She delighted to drop in unexpectedly, and then suddenly receiving a letter from a poor soldier at Fort Adams, would start off at a moment’s notice to right this wrong and persuade the government to improve the arrangements for the comfort of the men.”

On one visit to the area Miss Dix talked to someone who made her aware of the plight of Abram Simmons, who was confined to a dungeon in Little Compton.  An article in the April 10, 1844 Providence Journal attributed to Dix, illustrates the treatment of the insane in Rhode Island at that time. Here is how the situation of Abram was explained.

“His prison was from six to eight feet square, built entirely of stone–sides, roof and floor–and entered through two iron doors, excluding fresh air, and entirely without accommodation of any description for warming or ventilating.  At that time the internal surface of the walls was covered with a thick frost, adhering to the stone in some places to the thickness of the half of an inch, as ascertained by actual measurement. The only bed
was a small sacking stuffed with straw, lying on a narrow iron bedstead, with two comforters for a covering. The bed itself was wet,  and the outside  comforter was completely saturated with drippings from the walls and stiffly frozen. Thus, in utter darkness, encased on every side by walls of frost, his garments were constantly more or less wet….”

Dix persuaded Dr. Cyrus Butler to donate $40,000 toward the establishment of a facility for the poor insane as long as matching public funds were raised. Butler Hospital for the Insane was created from that gift.
Efforts to ensure humane treatment for the mentally ill in Rhode Island and even in Portsmouth were not always successful. Dorothea Dix joined Thomas Hazard of Portsmouth in trying to move a young carpenter named Dennis from the Portsmouth Asylum into a hospital for real care. Appeals to Asylum supervisors and even the town council were unsuccessful. Hazard writes that “It was some weeks or months after the failure of this effort to relieve poor Dennis, that I visited the Portsmouth Asylum in company with that inestimable friend of humanity, Dorothea L. Dix. “ They helplessly watched as poor Dennis died while they were there. Even in Portsmouth it was difficult to shake prejudice against the mentally ill.

Dorothea Dix came to Portsmouth to restore her health, but she left her mark on the community. She used her teaching talents to begin a Sunday School that continued for almost a hundred years. The gift of an organ enabled the church to emphasize music education for all. Some of her early work in social reform benefited mental health in Rhode Island. Dorothy Dix left her mark on our community.