top of page

Can a Husband Commit His Wife? The Woman They Could Not Silence

An amazing, terrifying but true story

Photo of Elizabeth Packard, A Woman They Could Not Silence
Elizabeth Packard. Photo: Blazing Grace website

By the end of two chapters, of Kate Moore's book, The Woman They Could Not Silence, I was livid. Fuming. Fighting mad. My modern feminist sensibilities could not believe what I was reading. Could a husband commit his wife to an asylum with NO cause whatsoever? Is the fact that she disagrees with her husband a reason to institutionalize her? Could a man actually believe that if a woman has her own ideas, she is crazy?

Sadly, yes.

Unbelievable. But terrifyingly true.

The Woman They Could Not Silence

The Woman They Could Not Silence: The Shocking Story of a Woman Who Dared to Fight Back is the true story of Elizabeth Packard, a strong woman, whose husband didn't like that she was intelligent, personable, articulate, and capable of forming her own opinions. When Elizabeth Packard disagreed with the teachings of her minister husband, Theophilus Packard, she left his church and started attending another.

Her punishment was for Theophilus to declare that she was a lunatic. What wife, after all, could not agree with her husband's logic? He got two doctors to sign papers of committal, and Elizabeth Packard was carted off to the insane asylum in Jacksonville, Illinois.

Illinois law explicitly stated that married women could be admitted to any asylum without the evidence of insanity that was required in other cases.

The year was 1860.

Research. Reality. The rights of women.

Reading this meticulously researched story gave me the heebie-jeebies. An intelligent, educated young woman marries a pastor fifteen years her senior. He expects her to fulfill the traditional role of mother, housekeeper, wife, church member, and any other role of the subservient female, pre-Civil War.

Elizabeth Packard, however, does not submit. Instead, she begins writing her own series of religious lessons. When she believes that Theophilus has veered away from sound religious teaching, she begins her own Bible study for women. Eventually, she is punished by her husband for attending another church and having the audacity to form her own opinions. How embarrassing for Theophilus not to be able to control his wife! Elizabeth is hauled away to the madhouse with the approval of thirty-nine church members.

Life in an insane asylum

Because Elizabeth is an educated, well-bred woman, she is treated well when she first arrives. She's placed in a fancy ward where all the other women are like her: smart, well-dressed, thoughtful, polite. Not one of them is mentally ill. They've all been placed there by husbands who didn't want them around.

Women were admitted for causes like "religious excitement," "hard study," "causing domestic trouble," and "novel reading!" (Oh, my goodness. I could have been declared crazy by the age of twelve for "hard study" AND "novel reading"!)

Enter Dr. Andrew McFarland

The superintendent of the asylum, (the guy with all the power), is Dr. Andrew McFarland.

Dr. Andrew McFarland is a suave, confident, medical professional following the "best practices" of the day. He was sure that every patient had some mental anomaly, and he talked to them gently, winning their confidence, wooing their emotions, but NEVER releasing them from the asylum, no matter how rational they were.

Elizabeth, too, falls under Dr. McFarland's spell, but when she angers him, she finds herself spending time in solitary confinement in a dank, filthy cell in a ward where the less-affluent women are kept. They are filthy, hungry, and often beaten by their caretakers. Elizabeth, wanting to do good and prove her sensibility, spends her time bathing and helping the unfortunate, mentally ill, underprivileged women whose lives are utter misery in the asylum that is supposed to keep them safe. All the while, she is keeping tiny, hidden notes on scraps of smuggled paper.

McFarland does nothing to treat the truly ill, poor women, kept in the dirty wards, more like criminal prisoners than patients.

The scariest thing of all is that it's true

Kate Moore, the author, reminds us that everything she details in The Woman They Could Not Silence is absolutely true:

"It's a nonfiction book. Everything in it is based on careful historical research. Every line of dialogue comes from a memoir, letter, trial transcript, or some other record made by someone who was present at the time."

The story is more terrifying than a horror novel because it really happened.

Elizabeth Packard: A feminist, reformer, and champion for rights more than 170 years ago

I don't want to ruin a fascinating fighter story for you, but due to her experiences in a mental hospital, Elizabeth Packard spent her entire life working for the rights of wives, women, and the mentally ill.

Elizabeth Packard wasn't an official suffragette, and she lived a hundred and seventy years before the "Me, Too" movement, but she was a dynamic crusader.

By the end of her lifetime, she had presented bills to 44 legislatures in 24 states resulting in 34 bills for reform.

It is thanks to Elizabeth Packard that there is oversight of mental institutions,(something that Dr. Andrew McFarland opposed) that patients can receive mail, and that wives accused of being "crazy" must have a trial before being committed. She pleaded for those who had no one else to plead for them.

Sadly, until Kate Morton wrote The Woman They Could Not Silence, Elizabeth Packard and her achievements had been overlooked even though the Boston Transcript said this:

"It has been claimed that no woman of her day, except possibly Harriet Beecher Stowe, exerted a wider influence in the interest of humanity. - Epilogue of The Woman They Could Not Silence

The notorious Dr. Andrew McFarland

Dr. Andrew McFarland was respected by his peers. He attained wealth and prestige, regardless of his questionable and dishonest tactics to make himself look good.

Again, so as not to spoil the story, I won't tell you what happened to McFarland.

But know this:

A mental institution built in 1968, a century after McFarland's life, was named in honor of the "good" doctor McFarland.

Thanks to Moore's story of Elizabeth Packard, The Woman They Could Not Silence" the name of the facility was changed. On Aug. 9, 2023, Gov. J.B. Pritzker renamed the former Andrew McFarland Mental Health Center the Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard Mental Health Center.

More from Kate Moore: The Radium Girls

Kate Moore won acclaim with her 2017 bestselling nonfiction book, The Radium Girls: A Dark Story of America's Shining Women.

I read this book when it was released, before I started, so I didn't write about it then, but I can tell you this now. Like The Woman They Could Not Silence, I was mesmerized. angered, and horrified by what I discovered.

The Radium Girls is a story of young women who thought they had made it big by securing a job painting glowing dials on watches and clocks with the newly concocted radium-based paint. Day after day. they were exposed to dust. They licked the tips of their paintbrushes to get a sharper point so they could paint crisper numbers.

Then they started dying.

Again, like The Woman They Could Not Silence, Moore crafts a story that encompasses not just one incident, but hundreds. She goes beyond the story of a few and shows how it affected "the many." The Radium Girls delves into how the death of these young women workers engendered massive changes in the nation as a whole. Safety in the workplace, compensation for illnesses, the rights of workers, - and the brave women who fought for them - are dramatically presented.

Uplifting and inspiring

If you love American history...

If you are interested in Women's Rights...

If you want to learn more about the historical treatment of mental illness...

If you appreciate nonfiction told well...

Read The Woman They Could Not Silence.

If you buy a book or product in any format that you’ve discovered through Literature Lust, I earn a small commission on the sale. Thank you!

Buy The Woman They Could Not Silence from Better World Books (used books that donate a book from every sale to literacy efforts)

Buy The Radium Girls from (supports independent bookstores)

Buy The Radium Girls from Barnes & Noble (brick and mortar & online retailer)


bottom of page