It wasn't a good idea to be insane in New Jersey 150 years ago. The state had no mental hospitals. People who went mad were just locked up in poor houses and jails, or farmed out to who ever would care for them cheapest.
But in 1844 the Yankee reformer Dorothea Dix came to New Jersey to agitate for the construction of a modern state asylum. To prove her point, she traveled around the state to document the horrible conditions facing the mentally ill.
She found people living in filth, chained up, and beaten. At the Morris County Poor House she found that the violently insane were kept in the cellar, where, said Dix, one would not want to keep a dog.
In Essex County, men, women, children, sane, and insane were thrown together in the jail.
In Shrewsbury, an inmate had wandered off into the woods and no body much cared about it.
At the Salem County Poor House, the keeper told the story how one madman jumped at him: I knew I must master him now or never: I ...caught a stick of wood...and laid upon him until he cried for quarters: I beat him long enough to make him know I was his master, and now he is too much afraid of a thrashing to attack me; but you had better stand off ma'am, for he won't fear you.
Dix sent her report to the State Legislature where it touched off a hot debate. Some lawmakers thought an asylum would be too expensive; it would be cheaper, they said to transport Dorothea Dix across the state line. One assemblyman said the proposed asylum was too extravagant an an Egyptian Coliseum.
But in the end, Dix won, and the New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum was built in Ewing Township. It still stands there, a monument to what one courageous woman could do.
It happened in New Jersey.
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