Locked up for insanity, Elizabeth Packard epitomised the prejudice of the 1860s

  • The Woman They Could Not Silence, by Kate Moore. Scribe, $35.

Kate Moore has written a biography of Elizabeth Packard, who spent three years in the Illinois State Hospital, declared insane, largely on the say of her husband.

The book recounts the appalling conditions suffered by inmates at the hospital in the 1860s, Packard's efforts to be released, her campaigning on behalf of those locked up in such asylums, and for women generally.

This work of non-fiction is based on scrupulous research - "Every line of dialogue comes from a memoir, letter, trial, transcript, or some other record..."

Moore presents the story in the manner of a novel, with direct dialogue and a building sense of dread as to whether the main character will ever be released, an approach that brings history to life.

Elizabeth is declared insane largely on the basis of asserting her rights to her own views on religion, enraging her preacher husband.

The law allows a married woman no respite once she's incarcerated, given that a doctor has signed off on her insanity.

The doctor involved in her ongoing confinement at the hospital, Andrew McFarland, treats patients cruelly.

Physical torture is inflicted by attendants, and he is aware of this. He moves Packard to a different ward of the hospital, with dangerous patients, because she questions his authority.

Elizabeth is as concerned by the treatment of women who do suffer from a mental illness as for those, like herself, who have been confined just because it suits their families.

She campaigns for independent inspections of asylums, upon her release, along with the repeal of laws by which women lost all property rights once married.

There is eventually a trial as to Elizabeth's sanity or insanity, a scene at once dramatic, and surprisingly, even humorous. Moore succeeds in making this event enthralling.

McFarland dismisses this trial and subsequent enquiries. His reputation largely remained unaffected, and he "was honoured with a mental health centre named after him in Springfield, Illinois".

Moore records how Packard was often remembered as a "nut", and it is only in recent times that her achievements have been given full credit.

Much of Packard's incarceration takes place during the Civil War, and this provides an interesting backdrop to the story of women locked in the asylum.

That Elizabeth did succeed in lobbying for change, and in publishing a number of books, is a credit to her strength. Kate Moore's book is an important one, that deserves to be widely read.

  • Penelope Cottier writes poetry as PS Cottier.
This story Dark but uplifting tale of injustice and insanity first appeared on The Canberra Times.