Elizabeth Ware Packard – Advocate for Rights of Women and the Mentally ill

It never occurred to Elizabeth Ware Parsons Packard that one day she would be an advocate for rights of women and psychiatric patients. Yet that is what she became after being forced into a situation where she saw mentally ill people every day, how they lived, and how they were treated. She became a difficult force to deal with when her liberty and life were at stake.

On June 18, 1860, early in the morning, Elizabeth was in her bedroom preparing for a bath. She heard her husband and others coming down the hall towards her room. Because she was completely undressed, she hurriedly locked the door. In the Introduction to her book, Elizabeth wrote the following account of what her husband termed “legal kidnapping”:

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“I was kidnapped in the following manner. Early on the morning of the 18th of June, 1860, as I arose from my bed, preparing to take my morning bath, I saw my husband approaching my door with our two physicians, both members of his church and of our Bible-class,and a stranger gentleman, sheriff Burgess. Fearing exposure I hastily locked my door, and proceeded with the greatest dispatch to dress myself. But before I had hardly commenced, my husband forced an entrance into my room through the window with an axe! And I, for shelter and protection against an exposure in a state of almost entire nudity, sprang into bed, just in time to receive my unexpected guests. The trio approached my bed, and each doctor felt my pulse, and without asking a single question both pronounced me insane. So it seems that in the estimation of these two M. D.s, Dr. Merrick and Newkirk, insanity is indicated by the action of the pulse instead of the mind! Of course, my pulse was bounding at the time from excessive fright; and I ask, what lady of refinement and fine and tender sensibilities would not have a quickened pulse by such an untimely, unexpected, unmanly, and even outrageous entrance into her private sleeping room?”

– Elizabeth Ware Packard, from her book titled ‘Three Years Imprisonment for Religious Belief’

For the next three years, Elizabeth, was confined to the Illinois State Hospital at Jacksonville, Illinois, which was at that time commonly called an “Insane Asylum”. For what reason was this woman, who was considered by her husband and all who knew her as an exemplary wife, mother and housekeeper, committed to an “Insane Asylum”? The sad truth is that she was committed to the hospital for the mentally ill simply on the arbitrary will of her husband because of her disagreements with him on religious beliefs.

The law in Illinois, and in all U.S. states at the time Elizabeth was abducted from her home, allowed that a wife could be committed if her husband said she was insane. Regardless of his reasons, if a man said his wife was insane he could uproot her from her home and way of life and have her put away in an institution to be treated as a prisoner.

Elizabeth Parsons Ware (December 28, 1816 – July 25, 1897) was born in Ware, Hampshire County, Massachusetts, Her parents were Reverend Samuel Ware and Lucy Parsons Ware. The parents had named her Betsey at birth. Betsey changed her name to Elizabeth in her teens when she already knew the woman she wanted to be and felt ‘Betsey’ was not reflective of her goals in life.

Samuel Ware was a minister of the Calvinist faith. He was a wealthy man, well respected in society and a man of great influence. He made sure all his children received the best education available. At that time in history, it was very controversial for a woman to seek higher education, however, Samuel had Elizabeth enrolled in Amherst Female Seminary which brought out her passion for learning. She was so dedicated to her studies that she excelled in subjects such as literature, philosophy, science, and anything she chose to tackle. It was not long before the instructors admitted she was the best scholar in their school. Samuel was right in ignoring the stigma of women receiving a thorough education and giving Elizabeth the opportunity to learn to the best of her capacities — which turned out to be far above average.

From her rigorous studies, she developed a sharp, analytical mind that would one day save her life and pave the way for the rights of married women. After Elizabeth graduated she became a teacher. During the Christmas holidays of 1835, Elizabeth began having bad headaches and became delirious. She was seen by doctors from Amherst. The procedures done for Elizabeth (bleeding, purges, and emetics) were of no help. Very concerned for her health, Samuel admitted her to Worcester State Hospital, which was a psychiatric institution.

Samuel felt that Elizabeth had been under too much mental stress with her teaching and also that she wore her lacings (corset) too tight. Although Elizabeth was treated well in the hospital and able to return home in a short while, the incident had damaged her tender and loyal relationship with her father.

Elizabeth’s mother, Lucy, was just as dedicated to her children’s education as Samuel was. Lucy, however, did not have the strong constitution that Samuel had. Samuel was very open-minded and was able to look to the future — whereas, Lucy often dwelled within herself and the past.

When they married, Lucy was much older than the normal marriageable age for women, she was thirty-one. Five of her children died at an early age. The deaths of her babies haunted Lucy and she often suffered from the memories. Any mention of the children she had lost would send Lucy into extreme anxiety and heightened hysteria.

Incidents such as Lucy had were quite common in the nineteenth century with women. The restrictions they had on their role in marriage, from society and the lack of independence and freedom had a lot to do with the pressures that built up against the natural need to be their true self. Although this was widespread among women of that era, the attacks that Lucy suffered would one day be used against Elizabeth and have a negative effect on her life.

Theophilus Packard (February 1, 1802 – December 18, 1885) was born in Shelburne, Massachusetts. He was a minister of the Calvinist faith. His father was also a devout Calvinist and raised Theophilus in a very strict manner and doctrine of faith.

In the world Theophilus lived, there was no other way of belief than what his father taught him. He adhered strongly to the creed of Calvinism. His truths were that of original sin, the suppressed role of women in society, man as master, and his own unquestionable role as a spiritual leader.

Theophilus had long been friends with Samuel and Lucy Ware. He knew Elizabeth only as a daughter of friends, they were never romantically involved and there was no customary courtship.

The marriage was arranged between Samuel and Theophilus as a practical and convenient way of providing for Elizabeth. It was also to provide Theophilus with a proper wife, raised in the same religious faith, to create a well-run home and produce heirs. Just as Lucy agreed with her husband to the arrangement without question, so, too, did Elizabeth consent to the marriage.

Theophilus was steadfast that man was master of his wife and home. That was the accepted way of life in society during his time and he would accept no other way. On outward appearances, the marriage seemed peaceable and proper. Theophilus held to the belief that women were inferior to man, as evidenced by the acts of Eve in the Garden of Eden, which showed that all women were the bearers of evil and all children born with sin.

On the contrary, Elizabeth had beliefs that horrified Theophilus and rather than discuss or even listen to her, he termed her beliefs as those of an insane person. As she once wrote to a friend of hers in 1860:

The very firm hand with which Theophilus controlled the marriage and restricted his wife, began to weigh heavily on Elizabeth. In private life, their arguments grew as Elizabeth could no longer suppress her frustration and intent to have her own freedom of thought. Theophilus for the most part tried to ignore Elizabeth’s talk of religious issues that strongly opposed his Calvinistic doctrine. When her views began to become public he was very deeply disturbed. Even though Elizabeth had been raised in the Calvinistic faith by her father, she was drawn to the deeper spiritual thoughts of self-realization and the right to have one’s own belief system.

Openly disagreeing with her husband’s preaching in church, prompted Theophilus to remove Elizabeth from the general congregation and put her in the Bible class, where his brother-in-law was the teacher. Theophilus had hopes that this would calm Elizabeth down a little, since discussions in class were strictly on the Bible, and that her presence there would attract more people to the class.When the class grew from six members to over forty after Elizabeth joined, Theophilus felt he made the right decision.

However, it had the opposite effect on Elizabeth, for she saw the Bible class as an open forum for her views and beliefs. She made her viewpoints clear, that each person was responsible to God in their own way, and that each had the right to freedom of thought between their self and God. Woman did not bring evil upon the world, children were not born with the original sin, and predestination was not a truth, and it was possible to commune with spirits — these were Elizabeth’s thoughts and her spiritual truths. In Bible class, Elizabeth had no qualms about suppressing these beliefs and many others, for Theophilus was not there to humiliate or suppress her.

After twenty-one years of marriage and six children, Theophilus realized the life he had was not what he had planned. He began discussing in private with his sister and close friends that Elizabeth was insane and not fit to raise his children.

In early June of 1860, his sister offered to take the youngest daughter for a visit and holiday at her home. A friend offered to take the baby to give Elizabeth a little break and some relaxation for a spell. Another friend took her youngest boy. Elizabeth was coerced into being relieved of her three youngest children “for her own good as a little holiday for herself”. When Theophilus tried to coax Elizabeth to come along quietly and properly with him to the asylum, she refused to cooperate and said she would never willingly submit to entering the hospital and that she would have to be taken there against her will.

Elizabeth felt that a husband should be a woman’s protector and allow her to have the right to her own opinions and beliefs, to support her in those rights. Theophilus felt that a man had the right to control his wife, her actions, her opinions and even silence her voice. They were in total opposition. He therefore exercised his legal rights and on June 18, 1860, had Elizabeth forcibly removed from his home and committed to the “Insane Asylum”, where she was diagnosed by Dr. Andrew McFarland as hopelessly insane, because she would not agree to agree with her husband on religious matters.

For three years Elizabeth was held in confinement at the psychiatric hospital. She was at the complete mercy of her husband, who was the only one who could have her released. Theophilus had told her he would never consent to her release unless she denied her own beliefs and adhered to his. For awhile she was placed in a room by herself and had good care, all she needed to keep herself clean and healthy.

After several sessions with Dr. McFarland her situation changed radically. Since she would not submit to changing her beliefs to those of her husband, she was transferred to the fourth ward where the violent and seriously ill patients were kept, where she said she was attacked and harassed on a daily basis. Her stamina and faith in herself and spirituality sustained her and she survived.

During the time Elizabeth was confined, she saw with horror how the patients were treated with physical and mental abuse. Theophilus may have thought he made a mistake by taking Elizabeth as wife — yet, his biggest mistake in life was to commit her to an “asylum”. The voice he was determined to silence came out in full force. Some will say that there is a reason for all things that happen. In Elizabeth’s case the reason for her suffering due to cruel treatment and betrayal by her husband would some day become very much evident.

Elizabeth began writing. At first she was given paper and pen for her needs. That stopped when she was placed in the ward. Gathering any scrap of paper she could find, she continued to write her views and beliefs.

In the third year of her confinement, the trustees of the institution had informed Theophilus that his wife must be removed, for they could keep her no longer. Theophilus decided he would just transfer her to another institution for life.

When her eldest son, also named Theophilus, became of legal age he made a proposition to his father and the trustees of the hospital, stating that he would take full responsibility to support Elizabeth for life if his father would release her from the hospital. The elder Theophilus agreed on the condition that if Elizabeth ever stepped foot in his home or came near the children, he would have her confined for life at Northampton Asylum.

Elizabeth went to Dr. McFarland and requested that she be allowed to meet with the trustees on their next visit to present a defense for her self. Dr. McFarland agreed and gave her paper and pen to write down her arguments.

The day finally came and Elizabeth was ready to meet with the trustees. She had no attorney or anyone representing her, only her own analytical mind and strong faith. She stood with dignity before the men as she was introduced then presented her case so they could judge for themselves if she should be committed for life. Elizabeth was aware that the trustees were Calvinists and the chairman was a member of the Presbyterian Synod.

After being seated, calm and fearless before men who had the same religious beliefs as her husband, in a firm voice she read the letter she had constructed and which Dr. McFarland had already read and approved. She began:

Elizabeth continued in the same manner, comparing Christianity and Calvinism. When she had finished that letter, she said she had another she wished to read if they would allow her to. Dr. McFarland had not read the second letter which she had written on papers she had found and kept hidden. They gave their permission and she began reading again, exposing the “foul conspiracy” of her husband and the doctor and their “wicked plot against” her “liberty and rights”. No one made a sound or uttered a word as Elizabeth read about the insensitive way she had been treated.

The trustees asked Theophilus Packard and Dr. McFarland to leave the room. When alone with Elizabeth, the trustees endorsed her statements and offered her an immediate release from the hospital. They suggested she could stay with her father, or offered to board her in Jacksonville. Elizabeth appreciated their offer and thanked them, but said since she was still Mr. Packard’s wife, she was not safe from him outside the institution. With great understanding of and admiration for Elizabeth, they saw her sad situation and told her if Dr. McFarland agreed, she could stay on in the institution.

She told McFarland that she wanted to write a book to present her case to the public and asked for protection of the laws — he provided the supplies she needed and the room where she could write in peace and quiet. She spent the remainder of her three years (nine months) at the institution and wrote her first book, “The Great Drama – An Allegory”, which did well and had six thousand copies in circulation from the first installment.

The day finally arrived that Elizabeth had feared, when the trustees had no choice but to have her husband remove her from the institution. Theophilus had asked Elizabeth’s father, Samuel, for a portion of Elizabeth’s patrimony money to pay for the room, board and care of his daughter — however, Theophilus never used that money for Elizabeth and she was living in the institution at the expense of the state, therefore had to be let go. Theophilus complied and took her to the home of Dr. David Field, the husband of Elizabeth’s adopted sister, in Granville, Putnam County, Illinois. Her son paid her room and board for four months.

While she lived there, Elizabeth became acquainted with the members of the community. They learned all there was to know about her situation. At a town meeting they had with the sheriff in attendance, they all agreed that Elizabeth should be sent home to her children with their solemn vow to protect her if her husband attempted to imprison her again without trial and use their influence in the Commonwealth to make sure he was imprisoned in a penitentiary. They gave her thirty dollars for her trip home to Manteno.

Once back home, Theophilus again made Elizabeth a prisoner, this time in her own home. He locked her up in the nursery and securely locked the only window shut with nails and screws. Theophilus intercepted all mail addressed to Elizabeth and refused to let any of her friends visit her.

Although Theophilus was so strict in monitoring her every move, mail and visitors, he was at times careless in leaving his own mail sitting around. Elizabeth knew he was conspiring to find a way to have her locked up again and providence helped her when she found some letters he accidentally left in her room and read them. A letter from the Superintendent of Northampton Insane Asylum and one from Theophilus’ sister confirmed that she was correct in her fears. A letter from Dr. McFarland assured Theophilus that he would consent to receive Elizabeth back in his institution, but the Board of Trustees denied the application.

In horror she realized that in just a few days henceforth, a plan to get her to Northampton Asylum and locked up for life was to take place. Her sister-in-law had it all worked out and had been advising Theophilus on the details. Elizabeth made copies of parts of the letters before she put them back exactly as she found them. She now knew something had to be done and quickly.

Elizabeth recalled that she had seen a man pass by her window every day to get water from the pump. She penned a letter to her faithful and intelligent friend, Mrs A. C. Haslett, then watched for the man to come to the pump. When she saw him, she got his attention to come to the window. She pushed the letter down through the seam of the top and bottom windows and begged him to deliver it. This was her only hope to receive any help, for in just a few days she would be beyond help from anyone.

Mrs. Haslettt sent a letter back with the water man. She had suggested that a mob law was the only way they could rescue her, and, if Elizabeth could break out the window a crowd would be waiting to defend her. Elizabeth refused this action in fear that the unlady-like action and the destruction of property would be sufficient reason to legally be locked up and only aid Theophilus in his evil plans.

With communication established between Elizabeth and Mrs. Haslett there was now some hope. Mrs Haslett agreed with Elizabeth’s views and forthwith sought counsel from Judge Starr of Kankakee City, “to know if any law could reach my case so as to give me the justice of a trial of any kind, before another incarceration”. The judge’s advice that a writ of habeas corpus might be her only chance to secure a trial, if she and witnesses would sign an oath that Elizabeth was a prisoner in her own home. There were many witnesses Mrs Haslett gathered, for they all had seen the front door of the house secured from the outside and back door also secured and guarded, plus the window of Elizabeth’s room nailed and screwed shut from the outside.

Just two days before Theophilus and his sister would carry out their plans to be rid of Elizabeth for good, the County Sheriff delivered the writ to Theophilus with the order to appear in court with Elizabeth and give the reason why he kept his wife prisoner. Theophilus replied that he did so because she was insane. The judge said Theophilus would have to prove that in court. Judge Starr then empaneled a jury and the trial ensued, lasting five days.

Theophilus had used the reason for insanity against Elizabeth that she disagreed with him on religious and money matters. He also stated and had Dr. McFarland vouch that Elizabeth’s mother was insane.

Elizabeth was not so easy to be put down or silenced. She said she had a God given right to have her own thoughts and do what is right for her to say and do.

Elizabeth was well prepared for her trial and the determination to fight for her freedom. She had been physically and emotionally damaged due to the arbitrary acts of her husband, but her spirit was not broken.

She knew this trial would be profoundly important, not just for herself, but other women in her position. Stephen R. Moore, Attorney At Law, was Elizabeth’s counsel to defend her in court. He wrote a full report of the trial, which can be read at Gutenberg Project eBook of Marital Power Exemplified, by E.P.W.P.

Moore was extremely thorough in details, in questioning witnesses for the defense and cross-examining witnesses of the prosecution. Elizabeth never wavered throughout the trial and her faith in herself was powerful.

On January 18, 1864, at 10:00 in the evening, the jury deliberated for just seven minutes. When they returned to the courtroom, they gave the following verdict:

The packed courtroom exploded in applause and cheers. The women present crowded around Elizabeth, hugging and praising her, all handkerchiefs out and soaked with tears. It took quite awhile for the outburst of joy and sentiments to be quieted and for all to be seated again. When order was restored, Elizabeth’s attorney made the motion that his client be discharged from confinement. The judge stated:

Elizabeth survived the “asylum”, imprisonment in her own home, and the trial. She came out invigorated and victorious. She had no other place to go but back home to Theophilus and her children and knew not what to expect.

When she arrived at her home, she found that all was gone and new residents were living there, who refused to let her in. Theophilus had sold the house. Her home, the furniture, all her personal items and clothing, her beloved children were all gone. She had nothing left and nowhere to go.

After some struggles she returned to the home of her father, where she was accepted and given protection. Samuel sent a letter to Theophilus demanding the return of all Elizabeth’s clothes, which arrived shortly after the letter was received. Theophilus would not, however, allow Elizabeth to see the children, except for a few visits where he was present.

Elizabeth never once gave up or let her fate destroy her — her spirit remained strong. Nor did she let the laws continue to be in the man’s favor at the expense of innocent wives and mothers. She wrote books and appealed to the Legislature of Illinois. She felt she had a moral duty and obligation to the women she left behind in the “asylum”, intelligent women who were committed by the whim of their husbands.

She did not stop at appealing to Illinois — she went on to the Senate and the House of Representatives. Through her efforts and hard work, 34 bills were passed in several state legislatures for the protection and rights of married women and for the mentally ill. Old laws were repealed and new ones enacted.

To the end of her life, Elizabeth worked hard to see laws changed and she continued to write her books and the profits she earned went into her travels and advocate work.

State hospitals came under the investigation of a committee from the House and Senate to examine financial matters, sanitary conditions, treatment of patients and whether any inmate was wrongly committed.

Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard was a remarkable and courageous woman. She crossed boundaries, questioned laws and tackled religious, cultural, and complex political beliefs. She was a highly educated and loyal woman who took her role as wife and mother as an honor and rightful responsibility of a refined and genteel woman. Although she suffered much because of her husband’s cruelty, when asked if she would ever be able to forgive her husband for what he did, Elizabeth replied:

Theophilus never found it in his heart to ask Elizabeth’s forgiveness. He took his bitterness, cruelty, and self-righteousness with him to the grave. Theophilus tried to silence a voice that would never be silenced.

Elizabeth never filed for a divorce. She lived till the age of 81. After the trial and her vindication and nine years of longing, she was finally reunited with her children in 1869 and was given custody of her three youngest sons. She never gave up her work of petitioning and fighting for the rights of the mentally ill and the rights of married women.

The terms ‘insanity’, ‘insane’, ‘asylum’, and ‘insane asylum’ are used by the author to express the terms used by all involved in Mrs. Packard’s story — which at that time in our history was the common usage. These terms are not much used today because of the derogatory attachment placed on them. The preferred terms are ‘mental illness’ or ‘psychologically impaired’, and ‘psychiatric hospital’ or ‘rehabilitation center’. People like Elizabeth had much influence on the stigma of mental illness in society which has changed a lot since the early days of psychiatric treatment.