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Mollie and Feemy--They Fought the Law and the Law Won


Even 20th Century women were at the mercy, not only of husbands, fathers and sons; but of just about anyone male.

In the early 20th century, United Atlas Portland Cement Co. was the nation's leading cement corporation. The mighty company which made the lion’s share of cement to build the Panama canal had to put one in the grave and one in an asylum, but Atlas finally managed to get the best of Mary Alice Heinbach and her sister Euphemia B. Koller.

In 1910 Atlas came across a snag in its bid to take over Ilasco, a tiny town located just outside Mark Twain’s Hannibal, Missouri. Atlas even named the place--Ilasco, an acronym that stands for Iron, Lead, Aluminum, Silicon, Calcium, and Oxygen—six ingredients needed to produce concrete.

But two fierce sisters defied the giant. Mollie refused to sell land she’d inherited from her husband. (OK. So maybe she was a golddigger. She married him just the year before he died. The man was a never-sober, incontinent lush--and abusive, to boot.)

Lawyers and politicians helped hubby’s relatives contest the will. In response, Mollie made her sister Feemy co-owner. Through four trips to the Missouri Supreme Court, the sisters fought to keep the land. Atlas wouldn’t give an inch either.

In 1921 Marion County Probate Court took Mollie into guardianship and ordered her property auctioned. Atlas was high bidder--surprise, surprise! Even after Mollie died, Feemy refused to give up. In 1928 Atlas and Ilasco institutionalized her in Missouri's Hospital for the Insane at Fulton where she remained until her death at age sixty-eight.

For more about the pair, read Gregg Andrews‘s book. Insane Sisters, Or, The Price Paid For Challenging A Company Town. University Of Missouri Press, Columbia, MO. c1999.

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It’s not by accident that hysteria and hysterectomy come from the same Greek root Hystera meaning “Womb.” You see, the enlightened folk of the 19th century believed only women suffered from violent outbursts. Naturally something had to be wrong with their internals. Apparently, if men had violent outbursts, that was to be expected and perfectly fine.

Hysteria was dubbed ”The Daughter’s Disease.” If girl’s spirit rebelled against her “proper role”--there had to be something wrong with her. It couldn’t be mere frustration because she wasn’t allowed to follow where her heart and brain led her. A woman's life was diminished in every direction--hemmed in by taboos of all sorts--how much to eat, how to walk, how to choose her companions, what to read, what to think, whether to think. Females were denied higher education until the 1880s because “scientific” doctors said university educated women risked “serious constitutional disturbance.”

In short, men wanted docile servants and didn’t care for strong women. Of course I write about the ideal or "true woman"--not slaves or servants or poor women who had to make a living as best they could--and couldn’t afford to be frail or eccentric. An1860 Saturday Review said it outright. Men have “a strong and ineradicable male instinct that a learned, or even an over-accomplished, young woman was one of the most intolerable monsters in creation.”  

Everywhere she turned, the 19th century woman found a prison wall. Long skirts kept women hobbled. Tight clothing might exert enough pressure on a lady's chest to fracture her ribs. What girl could maintain her dignity while climbing a tree in a crinoline (stiff and scratchy horsehair petticoat)? As for exercise through sports, The Ladies Home Journal endorsed none at all.  Tennis--too violent. Bicycling--gives women an awkward walk. Golfing--well, that just plain looks bad. 

Pregnant ladies faced even higher walls--and many were pregnant virtually all the time. Mrs. Virginia Campbell, wife of St. Louis fur and mercantile tycoon Robert Campbell, was pregnant for twenty-two years. Sadly, only three of her children survived to adulthood. Clothing may have had something to do with it. Special clothes for pregnant ladies were unheard of. When she became so large even her corset wouldn’t let her into her wardrobe (Yes, pregnant ladies wore corsets), she was expected to just stay home.



Rush Profile 2Doctor Benjamin Rush

Folks in the 1770s held the general belief that foul smelling water was good for one's health. Dr. Benjamin Rush had a well which produced water with such hideous odor, people flocked to drink themselves cured. The water smelled bad for good reason. The well was down hill from the good doctor's privy.


American Psychiatric Association

      I've always been amazed that the American Psychiatric Association chose Dr. Benjamin Rush as their founding father--their trailblazer. His face is on their seal. He's the man honored as the one who made study of the mind a science in the United States.
      I'll grant that Rush was important. He signed the Declaration of Independence and founded the College of Physicians in Philadelphia in 1787.Blind Box 3
      But he was also the man who believed in purging (laxatives) and bleeding to "allow poisons to drain."       Modern historians call him the man responsible for the loss of more American blood than any general in US history. Worse yet, he invented the "Tranquilizing Chair," a contraption which straps down the occupant's hands and feet and puts the head in a blind box for up to six months.

Fulton Insane Asylum

Central Building of Insane Asylum Number One as it looked C1950

Fulton, Missouri

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In 1864, when Elizabeth Packard contested her placement in a Jacksonville Illinois asylum, she won.  Before then husbands often shuffled off troublesome wives--legally--at their pleasure.
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Griffin, Lyne and Kelly McCann. The Book of Women: 300 Notable Women History Passed By. Bob Adams, Inc. c1992.
Hunter, Jane. How Young Ladies Became Girls: The Victorian Origins of American Girlhood. Yale University Press. New Haven.c2002

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Thought to be possessed by demons or in the process of being "corrected" by God, the insane were called incurable. Authorities confined them in asylums where they were beaten, ill-fed and neglected. In 1870 The North American Review wrote that Mad-Houses "would disgrace Turkey with their filth, vermin, contagious disease and food hardly less fatal than starvation."