Insane? I Think Not!


Women’s rights have been challenged for so long, it’s no wonder that sometimes we sometime feel less than! A few of us were talking the other day about this very thing. Husbands could have their wives committed to an insane asylum just because they didn’t approve of their feelings when expressed. Fathers, of course, were free to do the same thing if they felt inclined. It is no small wonder women learned to stifle their voice! Many women, merely on the whim of a man, were shuffled off as insane, with no proof, just the opinion of the man. Startling, to say the least!


Case in point, Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard, also known as E.P.W. Packard, was an American advocate for the rights of women and those accused of insanity. I learned about her just recently. She was wrongfully confined by her husband, who claimed that she had been insane for several years! After all, who in their right mind would advocate for women’s rights?! Elizabeth Packard did.


That is not where the story began, though. Elizabeth was born in Ware, Massachusetts. Her father, Samuel, was a Calvinist minister. Calvinism is a major branch of Protestantism that follows the theological tradition and forms of Christian practice set down by John Calvin and other Reformation-era theologians. It emphasizes the sovereignty of God and the authority of the Bible. The five principles of Calvinism, formulated in the early 1600s, are total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistibility of grace and final perseverance of saints. Quite restrictive and rigid.


Elizabeth attended the Amherst Female Seminary, studying the classics, literature, and mathematics. We can already see that she was an educated woman and they can be dangerous. When she was 19, she was stricken with what they then called “brain fever.” She had headaches, high fevers and delirium. The usual treatments of the day, purging and bleeding, were employed. Her condition didn’t improve and her father committed her to an asylum in Worcester, Massachusetts, on December 28, 1816. After six weeks, she was declared cured and released. This experience resulted in Elizabeth’s great mistrust of the medical systems and believed that the most severe symptoms that she had experienced were because of the treatments received in the asylum, and not the original fever. Elizabeth felt it was the passage of time that healed her, and not the ministrations of any doctors, that let to her eventual recovery.


Elizabeth married Theophilus Packard Jr., a Calvinist minister, a longtime associate of her father’s, in 1839. She was 23, and he was 14 years her senior. The couple settled in Shelbourne, Massachusetts, where Theophilus preached and led a congregation. They had six children. Moving several times before finding a community that suited Theophilus, they finally settled in Manteno, Illinois, in 1857.


Elizabeth thrived in the Midwest and began to question the Calvinist principles. She felt free away from her restrictive family, and her native New England. Elizabeth expressed religious views that did not sync with her husband’s beliefs. Elizabeth explored other religious beliefs and adopted ideas from Universalism and Spiritualism, thus challenging Calvinist doctrines. She traveled on her own. In short, she was taking on roles outside of the expected dutiful wife and mother, and it was just not acceptable.


Theophilus became more and more controlling and disapproving of her chosen views, which now differed from his and her lifestyle. He claimed she was negligent as a wife and mother. Reflecting on the fact that she had been committed earlier in her life, it was easy for him to decide that Elizabeth’s sanity was once again questionable.


Theophilus was terrified at her outspokenness and growing independence. Where had the meek and subservient young wife he married gone? This woman was wicked and a treat not only to him, but to society! After all, hadn’t her commitment in her youth, by her father, proved what he knew? She was crazy.


In Illinois, in the 1860s, no hearing, medical diagnosis, or other due process was necessary, so why not have her committed? Since neither Theophilus nor Elizabeth believed in divorce, an alternative must be found. She was akin to his favorite easy chair, just a possession for him to do with what he wished. To commit her would allay his fear and eliminate the threat she had become, and it was completely legal. Commit her, he did.


The conditions in her new home, the asylum, were absolutely horrifying! During her stay, Elizabeth discovered that most of the women there were, just like her, perfectly sane. They had been committed by the men in their lives simply to keep them quiet and in line. A technique that worked well.


For three long and horrifying years, Elizabeth protested her conditions continuously, while wasting away in that asylum. In 1863, a team of doctors declared her incurably insane and released her from the institution. They were tired of her protestations and needed to make room for more “curable” patients. They remanded her to the care of her husband, where she was imprisoned in her own home.


Elizabeth, still fighting, with the help of her grown children, smuggled a letter to a friend who made an appeal to Judge Charles Starr. The Judge demanded that Theophilus bring Elizabeth before him. Theophilus claimed he was allowing Elizabeth “all the liberty compatible with her welfare and safety” because of insanity. Judge Star declared it had been legal for Theophilus to have Elizabeth committed to an asylum. It was illegal to confine her in their home and order a jury trial to determine Elizabeth’s mental state.


The trial was set for January 1894, and lasted for five days. There were various witnesses, some from the Hospital saying that her religious views and refusal to submit to her husband, clearly demonstrated insanity. Neighbors and friends testified on her behalf and one doctor, who was also a theologian, detailed how many intellectuals in Europe shared Elizabeth’s beliefs. After only seven minutes of deliberation, the jury found Elizabeth Packard to be sane.


Following the verdict, although relieved and free, she discovered her husband had left the state with their younger children and all of their property. Of course, Elizabeth had absolutely no rights to either. She was free, but homeless, penniless, and without her children.


After three years as a “crazy woman,” Elizabeth felt she had nothing more to lose and fought back. She went public with her story and the squalid conditions at the asylum and shone a spotlight on the abuse that she had endured at the hand of her husband, as well as at the asylum. The story was told to help other women who were vulnerable, and suffered the same fate as she had. She campaigned vigorously for legislation that would ensure the rights of those in mental asylums and increase the rights of married women.


In Iowa, Maine and Massachusetts, Elizabeth helped win the fight for regular evaluations and strict monitoring of conditions in asylums. In Iowa, “Packard’s Law” now made it illegal for asylum officials to intercept patients’ mail. Elizabeth helped win reforms that would regulate commitment laws in some states as well as protect the property of married women in Illinois.

Elizabeth published books that outlined her ordeal and gave speeches to gain publicity for the cause of married women. Finally, in 1869, she could convince the court to award her custody of her three youngest children. Elizabeth supported those children, as well as her reform efforts, with the proceeds from her writings. Her nationwide lobbying efforts continued through the late 1800s. While she faced opposition for an increasingly powerful and organized psychiatric profession, her work continue undaunted. Elizabeth continued the fight, not only for herself, but for all the other women committed to asylums against their will and were completely devoid of rights.

Elizabeth Packard spent her twilight years in California, with one of her sons and his wife. She and Theophilus never divorced, but lived separately for the rest of their lives.