Education: Lesson Details

Study Guide: Activities and Procedures



Students read the brief biography of Dix and the Memorial to the Legislature of Massachusetts. They write a list of terms used by Dix to describe people with mental disabilities.

Background Essay: Miss Dorothea Dix
Annotated & Abridged Document:
Memorial To The Legislature of Massachusetts



Students read the examples of writing by patients and superintendents at insane asylums. Groups will read all the documents, or will read only assigned selections and report their findings to the class. Reading the selections aloud may foster better understanding. Students answer the following questions:

Annotated & Abridged Document:
Astounding Disclosures! Three Years In A Mad House

1.) Summarize Hunt's report. What is his condition when he arrives at the asylum? How is he treated? What are his complaints? How self-aware is he of his psychiatric condition when he entered the asylum?

2.) What does he believe happened to his son?

3.) What do the attendants say about food at the asylum? about abuse? Does their testimony back up Hunt's account of life at the Maine Insane Hospital?

4.) Why do you think so many people died in the fire that destroyed the asylum?

Annotated & Abridged Document:
Life In The Asylum, Part 1

1.) How does the author describe her surroundings? From this document, can we know the psychiatric condition of the author?

2.) Is this what you would expect in an insane asylum?

3.) In paragraph 9, how does the tone shift?

4.) Who or what controls this woman’s life? Is she protesting her lack of freedom? Might expressions of protest be limited in a forum like The Opal?

Annotated & Abridged Document:
Asylum Life; Or, The Advantages Of A Disadvantage

1.) How does the author of this poem describe life at the asylum?

2.) Who is in charge of her life? How does she describe them?

3.) What does the title mean?

Annotated & Abridged Document:
The Moral Treatment Of Insanity

1.) What does Amariah Brigham mean by “moral treatment?”

2.) What kind of environment does he want an asylum to provide its inmates?

3.) What problems could stand in the way of making moral treatment effective?

4.) According to Brigham, is coercion and/or surveillance part of asylum life and moral treatment?

Annotated & Abridged Document:
Popular Feeling Towards Hospitals For The Insane

1.) According to Dr. Ray, what problems do asylums face?

2.) What does he think about politicians? about opening asylums to the public? about the people under his care? How might Isaac Hunt's exposé have influenced Dr. Ray's complaints?

3.) Upon what, according to Dr. Ray, does an effective asylum depend?

Background Essay: Moral Treatment
Background Essay: Listening to Patients: The Opal as a Source



Compose a letter to a local newspaper as either a former inmate or a superintendent at an Dix-sponsored asylum. How has your life changed because of the reforms advocated by Dix? Do you have a positive or negative view of Dix? What did you think of life at the asylum? What is your opinion of the superintendent or the patients? Use evidence from the readings and be historically plausible.



Broadly address the question of what it meant to have a mental disability in antebellum America. Compare and contrast the ways in which students wrote their letters about life in asylums.


Dain, Norman, Concepts of Insanity in the United States, 1789-1865 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1964).

Gollaher, David, Voice for the Mad: The Life of Dorothea Dix (New York: The Free Press, 1995).

Grob, Gerald N., The Mad Among Us: A History of the Care of America’s Mentally Ill (New York: The Free Press, 1994).

Katz, Michael B., In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America (New York: BasicBooks, 1986).

Reiss, Benjamin, "Letters from Asylumia: The Opal and the cultural Work of the Lunatic Asylum," American Literary History 16:1 (2004).

Rothman, David, The Discovery of the Asylum (Boston: Little Brown, 1971).

Tomes, Nancy, The Art of Asylum-Keeping: Thomas Story Kirkbride and the Origins of American Psychiatry (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984).