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Voice for the Mad: The Life of Dorothea Dix


A Review by Dave Bradley


To me, the civil war had always been about more than just battles and soldiers and there are just so many interesting and significant figures who never fired a gun. One of these is Dorothea Dix. She gets the odd brief mention but only in passing. This book puts that right.


Dix was born in very humble circumstances in Maine in 1802. Her parents were fanatical Methodists and her childhood was so harsh she was almost certainly beaten by her parents that at age 13, she ran away and sought refuge in Boston with her grandmother, hoping granny would take her in. She did but Dix soon found that her life was nearly as harsh as it had been with her parents. She became a teacher at a very early age and recollections from some of her ex pupils show her to have been very severe. They absolutely did not love her but they did learn from her.


In the 1840's Dix started on the crusade that became her life's work, and for what she should mostly be remembered for trying to greatly im prove the treatment of the mad hence the title of the book. Not only did she travel around in her native New England and New York, but she also visited the south, especially Kentucky and South Carolina.


Initially the Southerners were wary of her, thinking she was another abolitionist, but on realising she wasn't, they warmly accepted her. In fact, during a stay on Danish owned St. Croix in the Caribbean, she showed a distinct lack of concern for the slaves she encountered every day whilst there. Dix also spent a lot of time in Europe, especially England.


Despite a woman's place in Victorian times, not being deemed to be in the public domain, let alone in the corridors of power, she had great influence both in England and in Washington where she had her own office. She travelled to Italy where she was able to influence the treatment of the insane in the Rome area. She also spent some time in Ireland where she developed a strong prejudice against Catholics. She was a supporter of the Nativist or Know Nothing Party which had more prejudices than policies.


When the Civil War came she immediately set about helping the sick and injured soldiers and set up the Western Sanitary Commission in the Missouri area.


Dix was a very formidable character but a very blunt and autocratic one: very hard to work for or with. She expected her orders to be obeyed but found it extremely difficult to accept that anyone else could have authority over her. Not long after Gettysburg, the government removed her authority and thereby effe ctively sacked her. Dorothea Dix was very conscious of conforming to the Victorian image of femininity, she was also dictatorial and

could not accept anyone who did not agree with her views.


Voice For The Mad is a very well researched and written book . I also feel that the author has gone out of his way to portray his subject as she really was, a remarkable person, but David Gollahar has painted her with warts and all.


A book very well worth reading on my opinion.