It’s that time of year again, when many of us donate to charitable organizations. What might surprise some readers is that during the nineteenth century some institutions “of a remedial and benevolent kind,” particularly asylums, orphanages, hospitals, poorhouses, and even prisons, were veritable tourist traps. To mention just one example: in the middle of the century the New York Lunatic Asylum at Utica had more visitors each year than Mammoth Cave in Kentucky—itself one of the most popular destinations for American vacationers. Encouraged by tourist guides and travel books, legions of gawkers got the kind of fix that certain reality TV programs provide many Americans today.
Although Margaret Fuller spent two years of her career as a New York Tribune journalist visiting such institutions, she disdained the crowds of ogling visitors and instead used her columns to advocate for improvements in treatment and rehabilitation, especially for women “from the lowest haunts of vice.” The essay “Our City Charities,” one of a series chronicling her many visits, describes her trips to the Bellevue Alms House, to a “farm school,” and to the new Blackwell’s Island asylum and penitentiary. In addition, our introduction to the selection details the tragic and horrifying circumstances surrounding Fuller’s death.