ALH Anna Lee Huber

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Research Topic - Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard
August 22, 2011

While doing research on Monday, I stumbled across an interesting person in American history - Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard.  Mrs. Packard was married to Reverand Theopilus Packard in 1839, and they had six children together.  In June of 1860, Mr. Packard, a strict Calvinist minister, decided his wife was "slightly insane" and had her committed to the insane asylum in Jacksonville, Illinois.  Mrs. Packard was not informed of this decision until the county sheriff came to take her into custody. 

Mr. Packard's reasoning behind his decision?  His wife had expressed opinions different from his in matters of religion, child rearing, and the issue of slavery, and because she could not be brought to see the error of her thinking, he declared her insane. Mrs. Packard was given no chance to defend herself, because under the law in 1860, it was perfectly legal for a husband to have his wife committed on his word alone. 

She spent three years in the asylum, starting in the more comfortable wards before being moved to the ward which housed more violent inmates.  During her time there, she worked to better the conditions of the ward for her fellow inmates, and documented their treatment.  When she was eventually released, back into her husband's custody, it was because she had been deemed "incurable" since she would not admit she was insane or change her religious views to match her husband's. 

Upon her return home, her husband locked her in a room--an act that was illegal at the time.  Mrs. Packard was able to escape by throwing a letter out the window to a neighbor, who filed her writ of habeus corpus on her behalf.  Her court trail was difficult, but Mrs. Packard was able to win and have herself declared legally sane by the courts.  However, it would take her another nine years to regain custody of her children, the youngest of whom was eighteen months old upon her commitment to the asylum.  She never formally divorced her husband, but they lived apart for the rest of their lives. 

After her trial, Mrs. Packard worked tirelessly for the rights of women and the mentally ill.  She wrote several books about her experiences, including The Prisoners' Hidden Life or Insane Asylums Unveiled.  Her efforts helped to pass 34 laws in various state legislatures ensuring that all citizens, including wives, were given a jury trial before they could be comittied to an insane asylum. 

For more information about Mrs. Packard and her struggles, please see the following websites:

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