Elizabeth Packard

Elizabeth Packard

Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard (28 December, 1816 – 25 July, 1897) was an advocate for the rights of women and people accused of insanity.


Elizabeth Parsons Ware married the Reverend Theophilus Packard on 21 May, 1839 and the couple had six children. The family resided in Kankakee County, Illinois. For many years, the Packards appeared to have had a peaceful marriage.

But Theophilus Packard held quite decisive religious beliefs. After years of marriage, Elizabeth Packard began to question her husband's beliefs and began expressing opinions that were contrary to his. While the main subject of dispute was religion, the couple also disagreed on how their children should be raised, family finances, and the issue of slavery.

The law at the time stated that no person could be committed to an insane asylum without a public hearing. But there was one exception; a husband could have his wife committed without a public hearing or her consent. In 1860, Theophilus Packard judged that his wife was "slightly insane" and considered having her committed. He had a doctor, J.W. Brown, speak with his wife (the doctor pretended to be a sewing machine salesman). During their conversation, Elizabeth complained about how her husband tried to dominate her and how he told other people she was insane. Dr Brown reported this conversations back to Theophilus (along with the observation that Mrs Packard "exhibited a great dislike to me"). Theophilus decided to have Elizabeth committed. She learned of this decision on June 18, 1860, when the county sheriff arrived at the Packard home to take her into custody.

Elizabeth Packard spent the next three years at the Illinois State Hospital at Jacksonville. She was regularly questioned by the doctors there but refused to agree that she was insane or to change her religious views. In 1863, in part due to pressure from her children who wished her released, the doctors declared that she was incurable and discharged her.

Theophilus still believed that his wife was insane. When she was returned to the family home, he took her clothes away and had her boarded up inside her room. However while the law allowed a husband to have his wife committed to an asylum, it was illegal for a husband to keep his wife locked up in her own home. Elizabeth was able to throw a letter to a friend out a window. A writ of "habeas corpus" was filed on her behalf.

At the subsequent trial of "Packard v. Packard", Theophilus' lawyers produced witnesses from his family who testified that Elizabeth had argued with her husband and tried to withdraw from his congregation. These witnesses concurred with the Reverend that this was a sign of insanity. The record from the Illinois State Hospital stating that Mrs Packard's condition was incurable was also entered into the record.

Elizabeth's lawyers, Stephen Moore and John W. Orr, responded by calling witnesses from the neighbourhood that knew the Packards but were not members of the Reverend's church. These witnesses testified that they never saw Elizabeth exhibit any signs of insanity, while discussing religion or otherwise. The last witness was a doctor named Duncanson, who was both a physician and a theologian. Dr Duncanson had interviewed Elizabeth Packard and testified that while he did not necessarily agree with all her religious beliefs "I do not call people insane because they differ with me...I pronounce her a sane woman and wish we had a nation of such women."

The jury took only seven minutes to find in Elizabeth Packard's favor. She was legally declared sane and Judge Charles Starr issued an order that she should not be confined.

Elizabeth did not return to her home. While the Packards never formally divorced, they remained separated for the rest of their lives. Elizabeth did stay close to her children and retained their support.

Elizabeth realized how narrow her legal victory had been. While she had escaped confinement, it was largely a measure of luck and the underlying principles which had led to her commitment still existed. She founded the Anti-Insane Asylum Society and published several books, including "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) [ [http://www.archive.org/details/prisonershidden00pack The prisoners' hidden life, or, Insane asylums unveiled : as demonstrated by the report of the Investigating committee of the legislature of Illinois, together with Mrs. Packard's coadjutors' testimony (1868), digitized copy on the Internet Archive site, contributed by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign] ] . In 1867, Illinois passed a "Bill for the Protection of Personal Liberty" which guaranteed all people accused of insanity, including wives, the right to a public hearing. She also saw similar laws passed in three other states.

Literary uses

Barbara Hambly refers to Mrs. Packard in some detail in her novel on the insanity of Mary Todd Lincoln. Emily Mann wrote a play on "Mrs Packard", which premiered in May 2007.


Further reading

first=Jennifer Rebecca
title=Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard: An Advocate for Cultural, Religious, and Legal Change
journal=Alabama Law Review

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