Insane treatment of women | Books
Readers of Kate Moore’s new book will not be silenced.
Anyone who immerses themselves in The woman they couldn’t silence will likely be appalled at the treatment of women, especially the subject of the book, Elizabeth Packard, at Jacksonville State Insane Asylum in the mid-1800s.
In an October Zoom discussion sponsored by the Illinois State Museum, Moore said several readers had already contacted her, saying the name of Asylum Superintendent Andrew McFarland should be cleared from Springfield’s own mental health center. Some of my book club friends jokingly threatened (hopefully) to use spray paint to wash away her legacy there.
These readers agree that McFarland’s treatment of Packard and other patients makes him unworthy of such an honor, despite his standing in the mental health field in his day. Instead, the center is expected to bear the Packard name for its efforts to change laws and patient treatments.
âIt’s so telling, isn’t it, that he has a building named after him and she hasn’t gotten anything,â Moore said.
The Illinois State Asylum and Hospital for the Insane, as it was originally called, was built in 1851 in Jacksonville at the behest of social reformer Dorothea Dix to help the mentally ill. But as Moore’s non-fiction book points out, it also became a storehouse for women who disagreed with their husbands, who had “ungovernable personalities” or who suffered from “moral insanity.” Moore’s search for asylum records revealed the case of a 15-year-old girl who was incarcerated because she had become “heavily addicted to reading novels.” The 1860 law allowed men to incarcerate their wives or other wives in their family without even a trial.
Packard was one of those women. Her husband feared her independence and her rejection of the strict religion he preached to his congregation in Manteno, Illinois. He made several members of the church accept that she needed to be institutionalized and had her interned, separating her from their six young children.
At the asylum, Packard quickly realized that she was not the only aggrieved woman and began to campaign with McFarland for her and her release. Although she had to search for writing materials when hers was taken away as punishment, she wrote vehemently about her stay, the asylum’s sometimes cruel practices and McFarland’s deceptive treatment of her.
The books she eventually published provided Moore with dialogue and detail that makes her work read like a novel. She also researched asylum records, McFarland’s writings, Packard’s husband’s words, trial transcripts and letters so that everything in the book is historically accurate. An abundant bibliography and pages of notes support the story.
Moore, British author of the bestselling novel Radium girls, said the #MeToo movement had prompted her to seek out a woman who had not been listened to in the past in order to shed light on the issue. She scoured history books and other documents until she found the Packard story. Moore said it was made for a storyteller because it contained forensic dramas, the emerging science of psychiatry, and undertones of Gothic asylum horror.
Moore traveled to Packard’s hometown in upstate New York, Manteno and Jacksonville. In Manteno, Moore worshiped at the church that Packard’s husband once led, and in Jacksonville, she surveyed the grounds of the old asylum. The imposing main building is long gone, replaced by the now abandoned low brick buildings of the old Jacksonville Developmental Center.
A city park takes up part of the land, and in a dark corner is a small monument to asylum patients buried in anonymous graves. The new downtown Jacksonville Area Museum has a stone asylum window sill inscribed with patient writings.
McFarland was instrumental in eventual mental health care reforms, despite his beliefs about women and what Moore says is his fatal flaw, his arrogance. But Moore’s book is a better legacy for asylum patients, especially Packard. Its subtitle, A woman, her incredible fight for freedom and the men who tried to make her disappear, is an apt description of what readers will find in its 449 pages.
âElizabeth is perhaps the most resilient and fearless woman I have ever met,â Moore said. “I hope (the book) inspires and infuriates you.”
Readers will agree that he does just that. It will also make them think twice about the McFarland Mental Health Center name.
Mary Bohlen is a former chair of the communications department at the University of Illinois at Springfield and a former reporter for United Press International.