Ms. Dix is by no means a ‘pretty’ woman. Her nose is large and curved like a beck. Her eyes are dark, ever-searching. Her face is serious, stern with the discipline of a solider in battle. Looking at photos of her, you can sense her somber disposition. In real life, when sitting in front of a crackling hearth on a cold January day in Cambridge, you wouldn’t be wrong.
Unlike most women, Dix has not softened in her old age. Her dark hair is streaked with white and the jowls around her mouth are prominent. We sat there, listening to the hearth crinkle for a few minutes. A little Negro girl in tattered clothes rushes into the room and sets down an old colonial tea tray.
“Fascinating aren’t they?” Dorothea caught my glance, “Always wondered what went on in their heads…”
“Is she your slave?”
A hard look answered my question, “Tawny is my servant. I’ve never felt strongly for or against the Negros, though I never approved of Lincoln’s attitude. If you treat ‘em any different, they may start to think we owe them something.”
I pour a spoonful of sugar into my tea and take a sip. It’s still bitter.
“Dorothea, can I call you that?”
“Ms. Dix is fine.”
I wither a little and pretend to dust off my black skirts, “Ms. Dix, what an incredible woman you are. Bringing to light the injustices of the asylums, helping both sides during the Civil War…” I hover my fingers over my typewriter.
“I noticed when you walked in, Ms. Hall, that you were wearing black. What for?”
“I think I should ask the questions.”
“I think you should answer or you won’t get anything from me.”
I swallow hard, “My parents died recently.”
At this, her face softened a bit, “Oh, dearie, I’m so sorry.”
“Ms. Dix, tell me about your work.”
A much younger Ms. Dix waltzed through England’s asylums with the same look of determination as those part of the revolution.
“Are you sure about this, miss?”
Dix looked at the man in charge of the almshouse. His face was red as a tomato. Sweat beaded on his forehead and his suit was drenched beneath his arms.
She smiled, “I’ve seen enough to damn this entire façade. Sparing me one more horrific cage won’t save your reputation.”
He grimaced. He could push her down the concrete stairs. He could have her locked into a cell with the other idiots, where she’d see nothing but other’s torture till her brain was mush. No one would know then.
But instead, he unlocked the door that kept the stairwell hidden. He kept his homicidal wishes to himself.
No one would believe her. She’s a woman for crying out loud! Who would believe her word over his? He figured she’d be so frightened by the sights of the madmen and women that she’d turn on her heels and run off. But she’d remained straight-faced during the whole tour. She’d asked uncomfortable questions about meals, water, and sanitation. She’d asked about the bruises and scratches, and the mutilated mouths and genitals of numerous inmates.
When he’d explained that they’d done it themselves, the removing teeth and stripping them naked was for their own good, Dix gave him a look so cold, he’d begin to sweat. He followed her down the staircase to the Legislator.
“Be careful, Ms. Dix, he often forgets where he is and will attack if he is provoked.”
He struggled to keep up with her. She carried her simple skirt, showing off wool stockings and went down the stairs two at a time. It was though she waited her entire life to see this deranged pauper.
She found him on his cot, eyes staring into the empty void of dark ceiling. The air was thick was excrement, urine, and a musk that suggested there had been no windows to let in fresh air. His toilet was three buckets, one for urine, one for feces and the other held a translucent green liquid. This was to be his bathwater. A plate with mere scraps of moldy bread and rancid cheese was placed by his cot. The man was naked and if Dix had really wanted to, she could count his ribs and every knob on his spine. He turned his head to her.
He whispered lightly as the wind, “Maryann…Maryann is that you?”
“That’s how you made the state of New Jersey sit aside money for the insane.”
Dix nodded and sipped her tea as my fingers flew over the keys. She was silent as she watched me, like a hawk over an injured rabbit. She was intrigued. I was a woman, writing for a newspaper. This was not the sort of thing that happened, but there I was. In that frigid room with this frigid woman, writing about her devotion to the needy. I might’ve compared her to a nun if her hatred of Catholicism ever ebbed away. She knew I was done when I removed my fingers from the keys and into my lap. I was almost ashamed I’d let her see me print.
This was not a woman’s place.
“I suppose you’re leaving now? Very well, we’ll finish this tomorrow. Tawny, give Ms. Hall her coat.”
Tawny appeared and held my coat. I had to bend down to slip into it. As I walked to the door, Dorothea smiled.
“Remember this, well behaved women rarely make history.”