Packard v. Packard: 1864
Packard v. Packard: 1864
Plaintiff: Reverend Theophilus Packard, Jr.
Defendant: Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard
Plaintiff Claim: That his wife was insane and that he was therefore entitled to confine her at home
Chief Defense Lawyers: Stephen Moore and John W. Orr
Chief Lawyer for Plaintiff: No record
Judge: Charles R. Starr
Place: Kankakee, Illinois
Dates of Trial: January 13-18, 1864
Verdict: Elizabeth Packard declared sane and restored to liberty
SIGNIFICANCE: In 1864, Illinois law permitted a man to institutionalize his wife "without the evidence of insanity required in other cases." After her own courtordered release, Elizabeth Packard campaigned to change the law in Illinois and similar laws in 30 other states; during her lifetime, four states revised their laws.
Near the end of 1863, the Reverend Theophilus Packard locked his wife Elizabeth in the nursery and nailed the windows shut. Earlier, he had committed her for three years to the Illinois State Hospital for the Insane, based only on his own observation that she was "slightly insane," a condition he attributed to "excessive application of body and mind." In many states in the 19th century, it was a husband's legal prerogative to so institutionalize his wife, and Elizabeth Packard had no recourse against that earlier confinement. Now, however, she had a valid argument: the law did not permit a husband to "put away" a wife in her own home. Elizabeth Packard dropped a letter of complaint out her window, which was delivered to her friend, Sarah Haslett. Haslett immediately appealed to Judge Charles R. Starr.
Judge Starr issued a writ of habeas corpus and ordered Reverend Packard to bring Elizabeth to his chambers on January 12, 1864. Packard produced Elizabeth and a written statement explaining that she "was discharged from [the Illinois State] Asylum without being cured and is incurably insane … [and] the undersigned has allowed her all the liberty compatible with her welfare and safety." Unimpressed, the judge scheduled a jury trial to determine whether Elizabeth Packard was insane.
Reverend Packard Presents his Case
Reverend Packard was a Calvinist minister with an austere interpretation of his faith, and he claimed his wife's religious views had convinced him of her insanity. Dr. Christopher Knott, who had spoken with Elizabeth prior to her commitment to Illinois State, testified, "Her mind appeared to be excited on the subject of religion. On all other subjects she was perfectly rational.… I take her to be a lady of fine mental abilities… I would say she was insane," he concluded, "the same as I would say Henry Ward Beecher, Spurgeon, Horace Greeley, and like persons are insane."
Dr. J.W. Brown had been falsely introduced to Elizabeth as a sewing machine salesman several weeks before, and had surreptitiously interviewed her during what she thought was a sales pitch. She had described her husband, Dr. Brown testified, as wishing that "the despotism of man may prevail over the wife," but it was during their discussion of religion that he "had not the slightest difficulty in concluding that she was hopelessly insane." Elizabeth Packard, Dr. Brown said, had claimed to be "the personification of the Ghost." Moreover, "She found fault that Mr. Packard would not discuss their points of difference in religion in an open manly way instead of going around and denouncing her as crazy to her friends and to the church. She had a great aversion to being called insane. Before I got through the conversation she exhibited a great dislike to me."
Abijah Dole, the husband of Reverend Packard's sister Sybil, testified that he knew Elizabeth had become disoriented because she told him that she no longer wished to live with Reverend Packard. Dole also testified that Elizabeth had requested a letter terminating her membership in her husband's church. "Was that an indication of insanity?" Elizabeth's lawyer, John W. Orr, inquired. Dole replied: "She would not leave the church unless she was insane."
Sybil Dole also testified against Elizabeth, stating, "She accused Dr. Packard very strangely of depriving her of her rights of conscience—that he would not allow her to think for herself on religious questions because they differed on these topics."
Sarah Rumsey, a young woman who had briefly served as a mother's helper for the Packards, also gave evidence of what she considered Elizabeth Packard's insanity: "She wanted the flower beds in the front yard cleaned out and tried to get Mr. Packard to do it. He would not. She put on an old dress and went to work and cleaned out the weeds … until she was almost melted down with the heat.… Then she went to her room and took a bath and dressed herself and lay down exhausted.… She was angry and excited and showed ill-will."
Finally, a certificate concerning Elizabeth's discharge from the Illinois State Hospital, issued by the superintendent, Dr. Andrew McFarland, was read. It said that Elizabeth Packard was discharged because she could not be cured. Reverend Packard's lawyers rested their case.
Elizabeth Packard Defends her Sanity
Elizabeth Packard's lawyers, Stephen Moore and J.W. Orr, asked her to read aloud an essay which she had written for a Bible class. It contained statements such as "… the Christian farmer has no more reason to expect success in his farming operations than the impenitent sinner." Then Mr. and Mrs. Blessing, Methodist neighbors of the Packards, testified in turn as to Mrs. Packard's sanity.
Sarah Haslett described Elizabeth's housekeeping efforts after her release from the Illinois State Hospital: "I called to see her a few days after she returned from Jacksonville. She was in the yard cleaning feather beds.… The house needed cleaning. And when I called again it looked as if the mistress of the house was home." Haslett then testified about her friend's in-home confinement and described the sealed window, "fastened with nails on the inside and two screws passing through the lower part of the upper sash and the upper part of the lower sash from the outside."
The last person to testify on Mrs. Packard's behalf was a Dr. Duncanson, who was both a physician and theologian. He testified that he had conversed with Mrs. Packard for three hours, and he disagreed with Dr. Brown's understanding of Mrs. Packard's thoughts concerning her relationship to the Holy Ghost. Mrs. Packard later wrote, "A spiritual woman is a living temple of the Holy Ghost." At her trial, Dr. Duncanson located this belief in a neglected 16th century doctrine expounded by Socinus of Italy. "I did not agree with … her on many things," Duncanson testified, "but I do not call people insane because they differ with me.… You might with as much propriety call Christ insane … or Luther, or Robert Fuller.… I pronounce her a sane woman and wish we had a nation of such women."
Verdict Takes Seven Minutes
On January 18, the jury reached its verdict in seven minutes. "We, the undersigned, Jurors in the case of Mrs. Elizabeth P.W. Packard, alleged to be insane, having heard the evidence … are satisfied that [she] is sane." Judge Starr ordered "that Mrs. Elizabeth P.W. Packard be relieved of all restraints incompatible with her condition as a sane woman." Neither the judge nor jury addressed the question of whether, had Mrs. Packard been found insane, Mr. Packard had the right to confine her at home rather than in an asylum.
The Packards remained married but estranged for the remainder of their lives. Elizabeth Packard wrote, lectured, and lobbied on behalf of the rights of women and those alleged to be insane; she was instrumental in changing the commitment laws in four states and in passing a married women's property law in Illinois.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Burnham, John Chynoweth. "Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard," in Notable American Women, 1906-1950. Edward T. James, Janet Wilson James and Paul S. Boyer, eds. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.
Packard, Elizabeth Parsons Ware. Great Disclosure of Spiritual Wickedness!! in high places. With an appeal to the government to protect the inalienable rights of married women. Written under the inspection of Dr. M'Farland, Superintendent of Insane Asylum, Jacksonville, Illinois, 4th ed. Boston: Published by the authoress, 1865.
. Marital Power ExempliJied in Mrs. Packard's Trial and self-defense from the charge of insanity, or, Three years imprisonment for religious belief, by the arbitrary will of a husband, with an appeal to the government to so change the laws as to afford legal protection to married women. Hartford, Conn.: Case, Lockwood & Co., 1866.
. The Mystic Key; or, The Asylum Secret Unlocked. Hartford, Conn.: Case, Lockwood & Brainard Co., 1886.
. 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 coadjustors'testimony. Chicago: The Author; A. B. Case, Printer, 1868.
Sapinsley, Barbara. The Private War of Mrs. Packard. New York: Paragon House, 1991.