A History of the Canadian Coast Guard and Marine Services
by Thomas E. Appleton

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Dorothea Dix

About mid century, rumours began to circulate of yet another strange tale linked with Sable Island. In those days the world had little sympathy and understanding for mental illness which, in the main, was treated by segregation. Sufferers from many troubles which might nowadays be alleviated by psychiatric help were simply cut off from all contact with their fellows, often under conditions of unbelievable cruelty and oppression, a situation which was considered perfectly normal when most communities had their "idiot" and illness of the mind was looked upon as moral weakness. Remote settlements, such as Sable Island, were therefore ideal places where families might place their more unfortunate, and sometimes

Photo: Dorothea Lynde Dix 1802-1887

Dorothea Lynde Dix 1802-1887

This portrait is in the office of the Director of Nursing, Nova Scotia Hospital.

(Murray MacKay, M.D.)

Merely unwanted, members as uncontrollable lunatics. Enquiries were made by the Nova Scotia Government and instances came to light where people suffering from some form of insanity had been sent to the Island against their will, one such being detained for many years. In this particular instance it appeared that relatives of the unfortunate person had persuaded someone in authority to send the sufferer, ostensibly in the office of schoolmaster, to experience misery and degradation until, in the words of one report, he was:

". . . . left unvisited and uncared for seventeen years, the drudge and butt of the establishment, squalid and half clad, beaten and taunted till every attribute of manhood was crushed."

Into this unusual scene, contrasting enlightened help for the shipwrecked on the one hand, with utter incapacity to deal with suffering mankind on the other, fate was to introduce a remarkable woman. Her name was Dorothea Dix.

Born at Hampden, Maine, in 1802, Dorothea Lynde Dix was brought up in Boston, after an unhappy childhood, by her grandmother, a puritan lady at once dignified, inflexible, conscientious and utterly without loving tenderness. Dorothea was a frail little girl but, forced to rely on her inner resources, by the time she was 33 she had achieved an ambition to become a teacher and to run her own school; in this she drove herself to the limits of her physical and mental strength, but the training of mind and will stood her in good stead when, in 1841, she decided to devote her life to the reform of prisons and asylums. With small private financial means, but with connection through family influence with governing circles in the United States and Britain, she was to beat an astonishing path of social reform comparable only to that of Florence Nightingale or Elizabeth Fry. It was an age of pioneering in human affairs when a woman with intense religious convictions, boundless energy and innate common sense could sublimate for life to the service of others. Both men and women were proud to serve the cause of Dorothea Dix.

By the time that she died, in 1887, Miss Dix had held the position of Chief of Nursing in the Armies of the United States during the Civil War, had reformed prisons and asylums in twenty different States of the Union, to say nothing of Scotland and British North America, and had published works on related themes. In 1903, the United States Congress appropriated $20,000 for a monument to her at her birthplace, accompanying the citation with this phrase:

"Certainly no other woman in modern times has done more to earn the gratitude of the people of this country than this self sacrificing and devoted woman."

As a relief from the hot summers of the southern states, Miss Dix had been in the habit of combining the reform of public health with necessary periods of recuperation for her own, and the bracing climate of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia was greatly to her liking. While at St. Johns in June of 1853 Miss Dix saw a heavy gale which caused numerous shipwrecks and loss of life. The resulting distress was much on her mind on return to Halifax.

At the time, Miss Dix was working towards the foundation of the Nova Scotia Hospital and, by a happy coincidence, her chief supporter in this effort, the Hon. Hugh Bell, Chairman of the Board of Works, was also responsible for the administration of Sable Island. In these circumstances, it is highly probable that Dorothea Dix had heard of the affair of the banished lunatics. At all events, moved by an insatiable desire to get to the bottom of things, and by a very genuine feeling for perils of the sea, with which she had been strongly impressed, she embarked in the government schooner Daring and sailed for Sable Island.

For once the weather was moderate and the little Daring, which in the year of Confederation would be wrecked in Herring Cove, made a good passage, landing Miss Dix by boat and standing off and on the coast for a day or two while she explored the resources of the Island. The superintendent at that time was M. D. McKenna, who was in charge from 1845-1855, an officer of great energy and imagination who made the most of the facilities at his disposal, and was just the man to appreciate the reforming ardour of his unusual visitor.

By a further coincidence, just as Miss Dix was about to leave the Island, a schooner called the Guide, on passage from New York to Labrador, struck a sandbar on the south side while running with all sail before a fresh breeze and in dense fog. The name board of this schooner is preserved to this day in the Maritime Museum, Halifax. There was a heavy swell at the time and the schooner drove on hard, the crew being rescued by McKenna and his men in the Sable surfboat. To strain coincidence almost to the point of incredulity, it then transpired that the master of the Guide had been left on board because he was "a raving lunatic" and had refused, or was unable, to abandon his ship. At this point Dorothea Dix turned up on the beach, having come there on horseback, and harangued the men to make one more effort to get the reluctant captain, advising them to secure him if necessary for his safety. This they managed to do and, in a short while, the stricken man was ashore, bound hand and foot. No one was disposed to release a man who had been violent and it was Miss Dix herself who cut the bonds. Taking his arm and talking quietly, for she was a very gentle woman in dealing with illness, whatever she was to stubborn officials, Miss Dix was able to calm the master of the schooner; at her persuasion he finally thanked those who had risked their lives to get him ashore, and all were looked after by the superintendent.

Leaving the Island immediately afterwards, one can only imagine in an aura of admiration among this lonely community, Miss Dix returned to Halifax determined that Sable Island should be equipped with something better than a surfboat and that line throwing equipment should be installed. Presumably, in its technical aspects, her determination had benefited from the experienced outlook of McKenna.

The Nova Scotia Government had not been indifferent to the rescue station on Sable Island, but the fact was that their ideas were already out of date and, as was usual with public administration at the time, it was very slow to change; possibly also, sweeping recommendations on marine rescue, however to the admired in principle, were hardly likely to be welcomed in official circles from the person of a reforming woman; an American at that!

Be that as it may, Dorothea Dix hastened home in August and, calling on the generosity of friends in Boston, New York and Philadelphia, she set out to compare the merits of different types of lifeboats and to raise money for sending modern equipment to Sable Island. As nautical adviser, she enlisted the services of a prominent shipmaster, Captain Robert B. Forbes, who was chairman of the Boston Humane Society. Always a hurried and illegible water, Miss Dix lost no time in dashing off a note to her marine superintendent:

"Miss Dix's compliments to Mr. Forbes, and wishes to consult him on several questions relative to marine interests, wherein his superior judgement and assistance can assist her own aims. . ."

As for Captain Forbes, accustomed as he was to the ways of the Boston Brahmin, he must have found, in Dorothea Dix, a most refreshing specimen, unpredictable and, perhaps to his surprise, personally aloof. His diary records, in a piquant note:

"Trying experiments with life preservers and boat. I went into the river with a neighbour to show Miss Dix how to capsize and how to right a boat. We invited her to throw herself over, and permit us to save her, but as she had no change of clothes, she declined."

By November 1853, a remarkably short interval after her introduction to Sable Island, Miss Dix had assembled a most generous gift of four lifeboats, a life-car with mortar, and gear and equipment to match. The Boston contributors were the Hon. Abbot Lawrence, the Hon. Jonathan Philips, Col. T. H. Perkins, the Hon. William Appleton, R. C. Harper, G. N. Upton and Captain Forbes. In a subsequent letter to the Commander-in-chief at Halifax, Dorothea Dix wrote:

". . . I have named the Philadelphia boat, the Grace Darling, the New York boats, severally, the Reliance, and the Samaritan. . ."

Continuing, this wonderful woman concluded, and perhaps with a certain sense of fitness, that she had named for fourth, the Victoria of Boston, and that:

". . . I shall be gratified if you will do me the honour of inspecting them. I already have seen them conquer the breakers in a stormy sea. . ."

On November 27, the first shipment of boats and apparatus sailed from New York in the brig Eleanora. For long nothing was heard, until in January 1854, word was received that the brig herself had been driven ashore at Cranberry Head, near Yarmouth, N.S. with some loss and damage to the little fleet embarked as cargo. Nothing daunted, repairs and replacements were put in hand and, in the ensuing October, in two consignments, the entire outfit was eventually landed on Sable Island.

Reward was soon to come. The day after the arrival of the second consignment, an American full rigged ship, the Arcadia, drove ashore in terrible weather with upwards of 160 men, women and children on board. By dint of tremendous exertions, McKenna and his men, using the life-car to drag the boats and equipment some twenty miles, were enabled to use the metallic lifeboat Reliance and the two new surfboats Samaritan and Rescue, in a truly heroic rescue which saved the lives of all the passengers. It was a triumph for Superintendent McKenna who, in a letter to his Chief, the Hon. Hugh Bell, which was eventually communicated to Dorothea Dix, poured out his feelings when he wrote:

"We, with many others, have reason to thank God that her good works have been felt on Sable Island. For my own part, I shall think of her with feelings of gratitude while memory lasts."

But memory fades rapidly. An occasional reference to her part in mental health reform may be uncovered, and perhaps a growing awareness of her contribution. As for the Canadian Coast Guard, in common with Superintendent McKenna, it should recall, with gratitude, the pioneering work of Dorothea Dix.