Elizabeth Packard’s triumphant true story can be heard in “The Woman They Could Not Silence: One Woman, Her Incredible Fight for Freedom, and the Men Who Tried to Make Her Disappear” by Kate Moore. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling author will discuss her book at the McAninch Arts Center (MAC) on Oct. 24.
Published by Sourcebooks, LLC of Naperville, “The Woman They Could Not Silence” relays the stunning yet seldom told struggles of a social reformer and mother whose husband committed her to an “insane asylum” for speaking her mind.
In 1816, Elizabeth was born into a Calvinist family in Massachusetts. When she was diagnosed with “brain fever” at 19, her father institutionalized her. But after six weeks of torturous treatments, the ailment went away on its own — suggesting it was a virus rather than a mental affliction. The experience taught Elizabeth that unnecessary medical interventions often do more harm than good.
Although she worked as a teacher, Elizabeth’s parents convinced her to wed minister Theophilus Packard, a domineering man who was 14 years her senior, in 1839. The couple had six children and settled in Illinois. There, Elizabeth publicly asserted her opinions on religion and politics — both of which were at odds with her husband’s views. In response, Packard openly referred to his wife as “insane.”
Without a public hearing or Elizabeth’s consent, Packard committed his wife to the Illinois State Hospital for the Insane in 1860. And, after observing the courage of her convictions, Dr. Andrew McFarland transferred the healthy patient to the 8th Ward for the violent and hopelessly insane.
Despite being deemed incurable, Elizabeth maintained her mental faculties with physical exercise and good hygiene. She also took it upon herself to clean the unsanitary rooms in the asylum. The latter act helped her win over most of the staff. She was even trusted with a set of keys to fulfill the duties she took on.
While in confinement, Elizabeth journaled her experiences as well as documenting those of her fellow patients. This information would later be used in her books “Marital Power Exemplified, or Three Years Imprisonment for Religious Belief” (1864), “Great Disclosure of Spiritual Wickedness in High Places” (1865), “The Mystic Key or the Asylum Secret Unlocked” (1866) and “The Prisoners’ Hidden Life, Or Insane Asylums Unveiled” (1868).
When her eldest son turned 21, he gained the legal authority to free his mother in 1863. But instead of finding relief, Elizabeth returned to a filthy home where her husband locked her in a room. Once she was able to get a letter of help to a friend, a jury trial was ordered. Packard v. Packard declared Elizabeth legally sane and Judge Charles Starr issued an order that Mr. Packard could no longer confine his wife.
In retaliation, the spiteful spouse left Illinois with Elizabeth’s money, clothing and children. Packard also rented out their home so his wife had nowhere to live. Although appeals were made to the Supreme Courts in Illinois and Massachusetts, Elizabeth had no legal recourse at the time since married women didn’t have rights to their property and children.
Rather than give up, Elizabeth lectured and lobbied to pass a married women’s property law in Illinois; help form the Anti-Insane Asylum Society; and eventually win custody of her children. By 1869, she was finally able to care for her now-teenaged offspring in a Chicago home she purchased with money she earned from writing.
“I could not put this book down,” says MAC Director Diana Martinez of “The Women They Could Not Silence” (2021). “Parts are horrifying but Packard’s story is ultimately an inspirational one of strength and resilience and something everyone regardless of age or gender, will find fascinating.”
On Oct. 24., Moore will talk about Elizabeth Packard’s achievements at the MAC. Tickets to the 7 p.m. event are $20 and can be ordered at AtTheMAC.org.