The Insanity of Inequality

In 1851, the state of Illinois opened its first hospital for the mentally ill. The state legislature passed a law to protect people from being committed against his or her will. The law required a public hearing before that person was committed. With one exception, a husband could have his wife committed without either a public hearing or her consent. All the law required was “the permission of the asylum superintendent” and one doctor who agreed with the diagnosis. In the summer of 1860, Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard (1816-1897) was a victim of that law. Such was the insanity of inequality. 

black and white photograph or linotype of Elizabeth Packard a woman who faced the inanity of inequality and fought it.

Early Life

Betsy Parsons Ware was born in Ware, Massachusetts on December 28, 1816, to Lucy Parsons Ware and Reverend Samuel Ware. The oldest of three children, she was the only daughter. She changed her name to Elizabeth as a teenager.

Her father, a Calvinist minister, made sure all his children were well-educated. Elizabeth studied French, algebra, and the new classics at the Amherst Female Seminary. She became a teacher.

Elizabeth fell ill during the 1835 winter holidays. Doctors treated her with emetics, purges, and bleeding for “brain fever.” But her symptoms (headaches and feeling delirious) continued. Her father believed her condition was from stress and checked her into Worcester State Asylum for several weeks. Some speculate that her symptoms resulted from tight lacing her corset, which caused restricted breathing, fainting, and “poor digestion.”

Marriage

In 1839, twenty-two-year-old Elizabeth married the man her parents insisted she marry. Theophilus Packard, a conservative Calvinist minister was fourteen years her senior. They had six children and lived in Western Massachusetts until September 1954. 

They moved to Kankakee County, Illinois. She worked as a teacher in Jacksonville, Illinois.

A New Life and New Ideas

Spiritualism and other modern religious movements intrigued Elizabeth, a religious woman. She questioned her husband’s beliefs and started talking openly about her ideas to his parishioners.

Alarmed by her refusal to follow his wishes, Packard questioned Elizabeth’s sanity. 

His suggestion worried Elizabeth enough she consulted an attorney. The attorney assured her he could not commit her without a jury trial.

In the middle of her husband’s church service, Elizabeth states she was going across the street to worship with the Methodists.

Packard arranged for Dr. J. W. Brown, masquerading as a sewing machine salesman, to speak with his wife.

She complained to the “salesman” about her husband’s domination and his accusations that she was insane.

The doctor told Packard what she’d said. Packard decided to commit her to an asylum.

Committed

Elizabeth came face-to-face with the insanity of inequality on June 18, 1860, when the county sheriff forcibly removed her from her home. 

They committed her to the Jacksonville Asylum. At first, she had a private room and could keep clean and healthy.

black and white photograph of an 5 storied white insane asylum with multiple connected buildings.

The superintendent of the state hospital, Dr. Andrew McFarland, saw her several times. When she refused to agree she was insane or to change her religious views, he had her moved to the 8th Ward for the violent and hopelessly insane.

Over the next three years, Elizabeth steadfastly refused to agree she was insane or to change her beliefs. Attacked and harassed daily, she also witnessed abuse other patients suffered. She wrote her thoughts and experiences on scraps of paper she found. And she collected written testimony from other patients.

She maintained good hygiene, routine physical exercise, and cleaned the filthy rooms of Ward 8.

Discharged to Home

Depending upon which source you read, either the hospital decided it could no longer keep Elizabeth or her oldest son turned twenty-one and had the legal authority to remove her from the asylum. 

She fought the release. She wanted to finish writing her book, and she was afraid her husband would lock her up somewhere else. 

In the fall of 1863, the hospital discharged her with a letter stating she was “incurably insane” and returned to her husband.

Packard had placed locks on everything. Elizabeth could not get food or clean linens without his permission. Before long, he nailed the windows of their former nursery shut and locked her in. She had no fire or warm clothing. Meanwhile, her husband tried to get her committed somewhere else.

Elizabeth Gets Help

After about a month and a half, Elizabeth threw a letter out of the window to a neighbor. A writ of habeus corpus was issued on her behalf.

Judge Charles Starr ordered Packard to bring Elizabeth to his chambers on January 12, 1864. Packard presented Elizabeth to Judge Charles Starr as ordered. He also brought the letter from the Illinois State Asylum that said she left without being cured and is incurably insane.

Packard v. Packard

The Packard v. Packard trial began on January 13, 1864.

Theophilus Packard’s lawyers produced witnesses from his church and family and even Dr. J. W. Brown, the doctor-salesman. All of whom declared Elizabeth was insane for her disobedience and for trying to leave the church.

Elizabeth Packard’s lawyers, Stephen Moore and John Orr, called witnesses who knew the Packards but were not members of her husband’s church. None of them had ever seen any signs that Elizabeth was insane. Her friend, Sarah Haslett, testified about Elizabeth’s confinement in the locked nursery. Dr. Duncanson, a physician and theologian, testified that he had interviewed Elizabeth for three hours, and while he did not agree with her beliefs, he did not call people insane “because they differ with me.”

After seven minutes of deliberation, on January 18, 1864, the jury declared Elizabeth sane.

Home Again

Elizabeth returned home, but Packard had sold their house, took her money, notes, wardrobe, and their young children back to Massachusetts with him. His actions were perfectly legal under Illinois and Massachusetts law. Elizabeth could do nothing to recover her children and property.

Elizabeth never divorced her husband, but she never returned to him either. 

Asylum Reform

Elizabeth devoted the rest of her life to changing the conditions suffered by the mentally ill. She traveled around the country and campaigned to pass laws that required a jury trial to prove insanity. 

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). Her book sales made her financially independent.

Various state legislatures passed thirty-four bills, which required a jury trial before anyone could commit a person to an asylum. Illinois passed such a law in 1869. In 1880, they formed The National Society for the Protection of the Insane and the Prevention of Insanity, in part because of her influence.

And she didn’t stop there.

Married Women’s Rights

Elizabeth wrote, lectured, and lobbied against the insanity of inequality for married women. She fought for a married woman’s right to own property, sign legal documents, enter a contract, obtain an education, and keep custody of her children.

She won custody of her children when they were teenagers (1873).

After her children grew up, she lobbied for people locked up in mental wards. She got laws changed in Iowa, New York, Connecticut, and then worked on a federal bill. The bill passed.

She spent fifteen years organizing 25 other states. Many laws changed because of her influence.

A Life Story Worth Telling

book cover for the woman they could not silence by Kate Moore detailing the life story of Elizabeth Packard

Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard, also known as E.P.W. Packard, died on July 25, 1897. She faced the insanity of inequality, fought it, and won. Thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of mentally ill people were saved from abuse because of her. She probably saved hundreds of married women from false imprisonment for insanity. If you’d like to read more about this strong woman who fought for women’s rights check out The Woman They Could Not Silence by Kate Moore. 

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