Packard, Elizabeth (1816–1897)

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Packard, Elizabeth (1816–1897)

American mental health and legal reformer. Born Elizabeth Parsons Ware on December 28, 1816, in Ware, Massachusetts; died of paralysis on July 25, 1897, in Chicago, Illinois; daughter of Samuel Ware (a Congregational minister) and Lucy (Parsons) Ware; married Theophilus Packard, Jr. (a Calvinist minister), in 1839; children: Theophilus (b. 1842); Isaac Ware (b. 1844); Samuel (b. 1847); Elizabeth Ware (b. 1850); George Hastings (b. 1853); Arthur Dwight (b. 1858).

Taught as the principal teacher in a girls' school at the age of 19 (c. 1835); spent five weeks in the state hospital for mental illness (1836); married Theophilus Packard and moved to Illinois (1839); committed to an insane asylum by her husband (1860); released (1863); acquitted of insanity in a jury trial in Kankakee, Illinois (1864); published books supporting the rights of married women and mental health patients, and lobbied for legislative reform in both areas (1860s–70s).

Elizabeth Packard, forced by her husband into an insane asylum in 1860 for voicing her religious beliefs, witnessed and experienced abuse by institution doctors and attendants. After she was acquitted of insanity by a jury in 1864, she began a crusade for the rights of married women and mental health patients. According to Phyllis Chesler , "Elizabeth Packard understood that women needed more, not less, legal speech; that insecure people, both men and women, conspired to silence women within the family, the church, and the state."

The well-educated daughter of a Congregational minister and a mother who had a history of mental illness, Packard (named Elizabeth Parsons Ware upon her birth in Massachusetts in 1816) grew up into an intelligent, strong-minded, charming, and well-spoken woman with a deep spiritual commitment to Christianity. Shortly before her 20th birthday, she was treated for five weeks in the state hospital at Worcester, Massachusetts, for mental illness, and released back into her father's care upon her recovery. At age 23, she married Theophilus Packard, a strict Calvinist cleric 14 years her senior. They moved several times, finally settling in Illinois. From 1842, Packard gave birth to six children in 16 years, during which time she was an impeccable homemaker who grew her family's vegetables, sewed their clothes, tutored the children, and helped Theophilus write his sermons.

However, Packard's Christianity did not always agree with doctrine. She privately believed that the female embodiment of the Holy Ghost dwelled within her, and at Sunday school she taught that human beings were born good, not evil. Her family frequently had to relocate within Illinois because of trouble caused in Theophilus' church by these beliefs. Theophilus himself believed that his wife's duty was to remain silent about her convictions and support his own by her example. Their conflicts reached a climax in 1860, when Packard openly opposed him on religious matters among his congregation. His retaliation, in her own words, took this form:

Early on the morning of the 18th of June, 1860, as I arose from my bed,… I saw my husband approaching my door with two physicians, both members of his church and of our Bible-class,—and … [with the] sheriff…. Fearing exposure I hastily locked my door…. [M]y husband forced an entrance into my room through the window with an axe!… [E]ach doctor felt my pulse, and without asking a single question both pronounced me insane…. This was the only medical examination I had. This was the only trial of any kind that I was allowed to have, to prove the charge of insanity brought against me by my husband. I had no chance of self defense whatever. My husband then informed me that the "forms of law" were all complied with, and he therefore requested me to dress myself for a ride to Jacksonville to enter the Insane Asylum as an inmate.

All the forms of law had, in fact, been met, for under Illinois law a man could have his wife committed to an insane asylum with the asylum superintendent's agreement. At the time, many states had laws permitting the forced committal of women to insane asylums at the request of their husband or other family members. It is impossible to know how many of these women were genuinely mentally ill, particularly given the discrepancy between the meaning of that term in the mid-19th century and in contemporary times, but it is certain that many women who spent time in asylums were simply bothersome or upsetting to their families, whether because of their personalities, opinions, or behavior. (In some cases women were committed so that their husbands could more easily spend their money and sell their property.) In Elizabeth Packard's case, a difference of religious opinion was enough to label her insane.

Packard spent 42 months in the Jacksonville asylum. Some four months after her arrival, she argued for her release in a 21-page brief to the superintendent, a physician named Andrew McFarland, who ignored her request. She then sent him letters documenting the abuse of patients she saw all around her. He ultimately transferred her to the Eighth Ward, reserved for the most deeply disturbed patients, and denied her requests for a private room, protection from violent inmates, exercise, and paper on which to write. Packard described the asylum as a prison rather than a hospital. In the midst of this, she compassionately attempted to take care of other inmates.

In the autumn of 1863, Packard's eldest son came of age, and by offering to take responsibility for her persuaded his father to permit her to leave the asylum. After convincing doctors that she was both God-fearing and sane, Packard was released. Life at home, however, was another prison, for Theophilus forbade the children to speak to her, intercepted her mail, locked her in her room, and made plans to have her committed for life in Massachusetts. After six weeks, she managed to send a note to friends who convinced a judge to order Theophilus to prove Packard's insanity in court. The trial caused much local excitement, and received mention in national newspapers. A jury acquitted her of insanity in 1864, and she returned home to find that Theophilus had mortgaged her house and returned to Massachusetts with their children.

The public notice she had gained from the trial enabled Packard to sell subscriptions for books she had not yet written, and she was thus able to support herself while she wrote, among numerous others, The Exposure on Board the Atlantic & Pacific Car of the Emancipation for the Slaves of Old Columbia, … or, Christianity and Calvinism Compared: With an Appeal to the Government to Emancipate the Slaves of the Marriage Union (1864); Marital Power Exemplified in Mrs. Packard's Trial, … or, Three Years' Imprisonment for Religious Belief (1866); and her two-volume autobiography Modern Persecution: Insane Asylums Unveiled (Vol. I, 1873) and Married Women's Liabilities (Vol. II). With her earnings, Packard bought a house in Chicago in 1869, and she convinced Theophilus to return their minor children to her custody.

In addition to writing, Packard lobbied numerous state legislatures for laws protecting the rights of married women and mental patients. She was especially anxious to change the laws in Massachusetts, under which Theophilus had potential legal power over her, and her lobbying resulted in laws protecting the rights of mental patients in Massachusetts, Illinois (where the state legislature passed "Mrs. Packard's Personal Liberty Bill"), Iowa, and Maine. In 1869, she lobbied for an Illinois law to give married women the right to control their property, which was approved in the legislature as framed by Illinois reformer Myra Bradwell . In 1874, seeking to provide asylum inmates with mail access, Packard was rebuffed by the postmaster general. With her charm and intelligence, she then went, uninvited, to the White House to introduce herself to the first lady, Julia Grant . While surprised, Grant took a liking to Packard and arranged for her to meet President Ulysses S. Grant. The following year, Congress passed a bill granting asylum inmates access to on-site federal post offices. After the 1870s, Packard retired from public life, although she continued publishing through the early 1880s. She died in Chicago in 1897, and was buried in Rose Hill Cemetery.


Chesler, Phyllis. "Rebel with a Cause" in On the Issues. Fall 1995, pp. 11–12, 58–59.

Geller, Jeffrey L., and Maxine Harris. Women of the Asylum: Voices from Behind the Walls, 1840–1945. NY: Doubleday, 1994 (includes a chapter of Packard's writings).

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

suggested reading:

Sapinsley, Barbara. The Private War of Mrs. Packard. Paragon House, 1995.

Daniel E. Brannen , Jr., freelance writer, York, Pennsylvania