Elevate Difference

Elizabeth Packard: A Noble Fight

In 1860, it was legal for a man to send his wife to an insane asylum against her will, based on his word and that of one or two witnesses. The asylum could deny patients the right to legal representation as well as visits and uncensored correspondence with friends. And a man could sell his property and take his children across the country without consulting his wife, because the property and children were considered his, even if her inheritance and income had contributed to that property. This was the world in which Elizabeth Parsons Packard lived.

Born in 1816 in Dare, Massachusetts, she lived a fairly conventional life her first forty-four years, marrying Calvinist minister Theophilus Packard, bearing him six children, and moving from town to town and state to state as he sought ministry opportunities. But during the family's residence in Manteno, Illinois in the 1850s she began to exhibit greater independence from her husband, dabbling in Spiritualism, espousing unorthodox (some would say heretical) religious opinions and confessing to romantic (although unconsummated) feelings for another man. Prompted by this “abnormal behavior,” in 1860 Theophilus had his wife committed to the insane asylum in Jacksonville, Illinois.

Packard was released after three years and declared sane in the jury trial she was denied when forced into the asylum. While her release may have been partially due to efforts of friends on her behalf, it was also because Andrew McFarland, the superintendent of the Jacksonville asylum and a leading figure in the psychiatric community, had become exasperated with her demands and complaints, terming her “an unendurable annoyance.” The antagonism between Packard and McFarland, which continued after her release through both of their writings, is painted in detail in this book, as are the evolving psychiatric standards and practices of the time.

Packard was not reunited with her children upon her release, as her husband had taken her younger children back to Massachusetts with him. (Her oldest sons were living on their own by that point.) A woman of tremendous resources, she began writing pamphlets and lobbying state legislatures for changes that would give both the mentally ill and married women greater rights.

Elizabeth Packard: A Noble Fight is an engaging portrait of Packard's life and crusade. She emerges as a shrewd campaigner who took advantage of stereotypes of weak females who needed the protection of strong men (legislators) because of their powerlessness; her personal charisma went a long way in lobbying efforts. Modern readers may be disappointed that she did not broaden her efforts to include greater rights for all women or claim full equality with men. Nor did she divorce her husband (although they never lived together after her time at the asylum) since she viewed divorce as scandalous. However, such statements and actions might have turned society against her and hurt her cause.

Kudos to Linda Carlisle for bringing to light the forgotten story of a woman who challenged prevailing ideas about the treatment of the mentally ill and the rights of women. Academic biographies of this sort are often quite dry, but Packard crafts an engaging narrative. Her passion for this cause shines through and creates a compelling read.

Written by: Karen Duda, April 26th 2011