Though in the midst of reading a book about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, I went to the online offerings of my local library to see if there was anything that could interest me. I discovered “The Woman They Could Not Silence” by Kate Moore and became sucked in immediately.
The book is the story of housewife, Elizabeth Packard. She was the wife of minister Theophilus Packard, who was a bit more of a free spirit compared to his more conservative religious views. Elizabeth, having been a teacher before marrying Theophilus, felt that women were equal to men. Trouble was this was 1860 and not too many others felt this way.
So Theophilus did what many men were doing in 1860, he began making a case that Elizabeth was insane. Soon he had a majority of the town stating the same, and on 18 June 1860 Elizabeth was carried from her home to the train station where her husband then accompanied her to Jacksonville, Illinois where the Illinois State Hospital was, leaving her six children behind (Theophilus III, aka Toffey, Isaac, Samuel, Libby, George, and Arthur).
What Elizabeth discovered once she was settled in the asylum were many women who had been admitted by their husbands who were perfectly sane. Dr. McFarland, the superintendent of the Jacksonville asylum initially thought her sane, but as Elizabeth began to despise her husband for locking her up, this is when McFarland began to view her has mad, how could she be angry at her husband? I’ve scratched my head many times as this was referenced repeatedly in the book, trying to figure out how obtuse a person could be to not see why she would hate her husband for locking her up.
Life in the asylum goes from bad to worse as she is moved to a harsher Ward. One of the ways that Elizabeth kept her sanity in the asylum was by writing. And it was also the way McFarland found to punish her, he’d take her paper away. She still found ways to write, often hiding her pages within her linings of her clothes, trunks, and even in the back of her mirror. She recorded the things she had seen and heard.
Life After the Asylum
Elizabeth is finally released by the trustees 18 June 1863, being considered “incurable”. Her husband didn’t allow her to return home, taking her to her cousin’s home to live. Theophilus told her she was not to return to her family. Initially she listens and stays with her cousin Angeline, but then after four months opts to defy her husband.
On 20 October 1863 Elizabeth returns home to Manteno, to be with her children. As I read this I remember becoming full of dread, the only way I can describe it is like when you’re reading a Nicholas Spark’s novel and you just sit there waiting for the bad things to happen. This is the same way I felt when I read Elizabeth was returning to her home. You see, before she left the asylum there were rumors that Theophilus was going to send her to a far worse hospital located in Massachusetts, so why would she risk it? Well, easy, a woman loves her babies.
And though it took a while, eventually Theophilus locked her in her room again, without heat, hoping to once again commit her. But Elizabeth outsmarted him with her “four meddlesome friends” as he called them, by obtaining a “writ of habeas corpus” where a person being held prisoner was to be brought before a judge and have a reason to be held hostage in her own home. Theophilus tried to once again convince the judge that Elizabeth was insane. But there was one huge difference this time, the judge made him prove it.
Elizabeth Packard was an eloquent woman who made it her life’s mission to prevent women from being incarcerated in insane asylums for no reason. She made it so each woman would have a trial before being committed and truly made a difference. Though her name is not as common as Susan B. Anthony or Elizabeth Cady Stanton, she did create legislation that helped women all across the United States.
If you are looking for a book that will have you rooting for the underdog and wanting a positive ending, look no further. I’ve tried to highlight Elizabeth’s story but didn’t want to go into details and give it away. The book was nicely done using quotes from many of Elizabeth’s books that she wrote that she initially used “crowdfunding” to produce. Drawings within the book showed you what Elizabeth looked like, her husband and children, along with their house in Manteno.
In the future I plan on reading Kate Moore’s other popular book, “Radium Girls”.