Asylums and schools for idiots (1847)

Asylums and schools for idiots [note]

American Journal of Insanity

July 1847, pp. 76-79

Dr. Backus, of Rochester, Member of the Senate of the State of New York, continues to urge upon the Legislature the propriety of establishing an Asylum and School for the Idiots of this State. We hope his efforts will prove successful. Although the project may to many seem Utopian and useless, yet we are confident that if such an establishment is provided, that not one of the many charitable institutions of the State will be more firmly established in the public confidence than this will be in a few years.

Dr. B. presented to the Senate during the recent session, an able Report on this subject, embodying much interesting intelligence. In it he has inserted a letter from Mr. Sargent, of Prussia, Director of the Royal Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, of Berlin, and who has for several years been engaged in the instruction and care of Idiots. A part of this letter we subjoin.

“Hon. F.F. Backus:

Berlin, 14th December, 1846.

“Sir—Mr. George E. Day, acquaints me, Nov. 10, 1846, in a letter from Marlborough, (Mass.) that the efforts I have made for the instruction and cultivation of idiots, have awakened considerable interest in your country, and particularly, that it has been by your endeavoring, the State of New York took notice of those unfortunate creatures at the last session. Though the Legislature defeated your kind humane intentions in the first instance, I imagine that a noble and independent State like the State of New York, always will be ready to bestow the benefits of cultivation upon poor human creatures like idiots, who do not enjoy either the riches of the world nor the blessings of religion; and that you will find full hands and sufficient assistance, after having convinced your countrymen, the object in question is not a fancy, but a real truth, derived from experience and observation, and founded upon the natural development of mind.”

The attention of the Legislature of Massachusetts, has recently been called to the same subject. In 1846, Commissioners were appointed “to inquire into the condition of the Idiots of the Commonwealth, to ascertain their number, and whether anything can be done for their relief.”

Dr. S.G.Howe, of this Commission, reported in part, March 15th, 1847.

The Commission say, “We have obtained pretty satisfactory information from 171 towns, containing an aggregate population of 345, 285 inhabitants.

From these towns we have reports containing the names, age, sex, condition, &c., of 543 idiots, 204 of whom are males, and 339 are females.

Of these, 169 are less than 25 years of age, and, of course, are proper subjects for instruction. Of the whole number, 106 are supported entirely at public charge.

If the other towns should present the same number, it would show an aggregate of over 1000 idiots in this Commonwealth, of whom 300 are of proper age for instruction.

We have also obtained information, by personal inspection of the idiots, in about 30 towns, in various parts of the State, which shows that the condition of these unfortunate persons is very materially influenced by the character of those who have charge of them.

In some towns, we found the idiots, who were under the charge of kind-hearted, but ignorant persons, to be entirely idle, given over to disgusting and degrading habits, and presenting the sad and demoralizing spectacle of men, made in God’s image, whom neither their own reason, nor the reason of others, lifted up above the level of brutes.

In other towns, idiots, who, to all appearance, had no more capacity than those just mentioned, were under the charge of more intelligent persons, and they presented a different spectacle—they were healthy, cleanly and industrious.

We found some, of a very low grade of intellect, at work in the fields, under the direction of attendants; and they seemed not only to be free from depraving habits, but to be happy and useful.

The inference to be drawn from this is very important. If persons having only common sense and common humanity, but without the advantage of experience or study, can so improve the condition of idiots, how much could be done by those who should bring the light of science, and the experience of the wise and good men in other countries, and the facilities of an institution adapted to the training of idiots,—how much, we say, could be done by such persons, towards redeeming the minds of this unfortunate class from the waste and desolation in which they now lie!”

Dr. Howe has appended to this Report a very interesting letter addressed to him by George Sumner on this subject, dated Paris, Feb. 1, 1847. From this letter we make the following extract.

“During the past six months, I have watched, with eager interest, the progress which many young idiots have made in Paris, under the direction of Mr. Seguin, and, at Bicetre, under that of Messrs. Viosin and Vallee, and have seen, with no less gratification than astonishment, nearly one hundred fellow beings who, but a short time since, were shut out from all communion with mankind,—who were objects of loathing and disgust,—many of whom rejected every article of clothing,—others of whom, unable to stand erect, crouched themselves in corners and gave signs of life only by piteous howls,—others, in whom the faculty of speech had never been developed,—and many, whose voracious and indiscriminate gluttony satisfied itself with whatever the could lay hands upon—with the garbage thrown to swine, or with their own excrements:—these unfortunate beings—rejected of humanity—I have seen properly clad, standing erect, walking, speaking, eating in an orderly manner at a common table, working quietly as carpenters and farmers; gaining, by their own labor, the means of existence; storing their awakened intelligence by reading one to another; exercising, towards their teachers and among themselves, the generous feelings of man’s nature, and singing, in unison, songs of thanksgiving!”


Other than the quotations, which form the bulk of the work, the authorship is not clear and should be credited to the editor of the AJI. return.

Ed. – correction to original ‘wree’. return.

© Murray K. Simpson, 2001.

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