This month I chose as the featured oddball a woman whose story was a hit from my newest live show, “Crazy About You: Sifting for Sanity in the History of the Insane.” Elizabeth Packard was a nineteenth-century oddball–and I say this with great respect–mostly in the sense that she did not belong in the Illinois State Mental Hospital to which she was committed by her religious fanatic husband.
One fine day 1860 in Manteno, Illinois, Elizabeth Packard stood up in Bible class in her Presbyterian Church and openly questioned her husband’s religious beliefs. She said she might as well go across the street to worship with the Methodists. Unfortunately, her husband happened to be the pastor of her Presbyterian church.
Reverend Theophilus Packard thought his wife’s behavior was unacceptable. Not silent treatment unacceptable. Not yell and holler unacceptable. Not throw the crockery across the room unacceptable, no, Reverend Packard found his wife’s support for the church across the street so repugnant, that, despite the fact that they had six children together, the youngest of whom was only eighteen months old, he conspired to have his wife committed to the state mental asylum.
One morning, Reverend Packard invited the sherriff and two physicians—both members of his Bible class—to his house. Then he forced his entrance to Elizabeth’s room with an axe. Both doctors felt Elizabeth’s pulse and—without asking her one question—pronounced her insane. The sheriff took her into custody.
When Illinois opened its mental hospital in 1851, the state legislature passed a law that required a public hearing before a person could be committed against his or her will. But there was one exception: a husband could have his wife committed without a public hearing or her consent. And once inside the asylum, only a woman’s husband had the power to release her.
Reverend Packard wouldn’t release Elizabeth until she recanted her religious views. Elizabeth refused. To punish her, he had the director of the asylum transfer Elizabeth to the ward for the violent and hopelessly insane.
Elizabeth spent the next three years at the asylum. She was regularly questioned by doctors but refused to change her religious views.
She cleaned up the filthy 8th ward and its patients. She wrote constantly, and when she was forbidden paper, she found scraps.
When Elizabeth’s eldest son came of age, he volunteered to support Elizabeth if his father would release her. The Reverend agreed, with the condition that if she ever returned to her own home and children he would put her away again in for life.
Elizabeth was placed with her adopted sister’s husband. But she wanted to see her kids. And when she did, the Reverend boarded her up in the nursery, nailing the windows shut, cutting off her contact with everyone. He started planning to put her away for life.
Desperate, Elizabeth beckoned from behind the nailed windows to a stranger who was getting water from their pump. She pushed a note through a crack between the panes. The note was addressed to her friend and said that Elizabeth feared for her life. Her friend delivered the letter to a judge, who ordered the Reverend to bring Elizabeth to his chambers.
While it was legal for a husband to commit his wife, it was against the law for a husband to lock his wife in her own home.
At the trial of Packard v. Packard, the Reverend’s lawyers produced the hospital record stating that Mrs Packard’s condition was incurable and witnesses from church swore to Elizabeth’s insanity.
Elizabeth’s lawyers called witnesses from the neighborhood who were not members of the church, and they testified that they never saw Elizabeth exhibit any signs of insanity.
The jury took seven minutes to find in Elizabeth Packard’s favor.
When she returned to her home in Manteno, Illinois, she found that her husband had rented it that very night to another family, sold her furniture, and taken her money, notes, wardrobe, and children and left for Massachusetts. She appealed to Supreme Courts of Chicago and Boston, but she had no legal recourse, as married women in those states at the time had no rights to their property or children.
She petitioned the Illinois and Massachusetts legislatures, and in 1869 legislation was passed allowing married women equal rights to property and children. Only then did her husband send the children back to Elizabeth in Chicago.
Elizabeth founded the Anti-Insane Asylum Society, published several books, and advocated fearlessly for the rights of the mentally ill and married women. Her efforts led to the passing of 34 bills in state legislatures across the country.
Needless to say, the Packards remained separated for the rest of their lives.