Elizabeth Packard Biography - by Douglas Langworthy

Elizabeth Parsons Ware married the Reverend Theophilus Packard on May 21, 1839. The couple had six children and for much of their marriage, the Packards led a fairly peaceful life in Kankakee County, Illinois.

But Theophilus Packard, a strict Old School Calvinist, was very set in his conservative views about religion. After they had been married for many years, Elizabeth Packard began to question her husband’s religious beliefs, and began to express her opinions to parishioners in Reverend Packard’s church as well as to other members of the community. On one occasion, she stood up in the middle of a service and announced that she was going across the street to worship with the Methodists, whose beliefs were much closer to her own.

Theophilus, convinced she must be insane for disagreeing with him on these religious matters, had Elizabeth committed to the Illinois State Hospital at Jacksonville. It was legal at that time for a husband to have his wife committed on his word alone. Elizabeth learned of her husband’s decision when the county sheriff arrived on June 18, 1860, and physically removed her from her house and put her on the train to the asylum.

The superintendent of the hospital was Dr. Andrew McFarland, an intelligent and charming man who at first took a liking to Elizabeth. But when she refused to pretend she agreed with her husband or change her religious views as the doctor suggested, he turned against her and had her transferred to the 8th Ward for the violent and hopelessly insane. 

Elizabeth did many things to maintain her sanity while inside the hospital. She took it upon herself to clean up the filthy 8th ward and its patients. She wrote constantly, and even after she was forbidden to have paper, she managed to find scraps here and there. With the help of some of the staff throughout the asylum she collected written testimony from patients detailing their experiences. She even kept a journal which become the basis for several books she wrote after she was released. To maintain her health, she stuck to a regular routine of physical exercise and hygiene.

Eventually Elizabeth was discharged, but Theophilus then boarded her up in a room of their house. 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. Elizabeth was able to throw a letter out the window to a neighbor, and a writ of habeus corpus was filed on her behalf.

At the subsequent trial, Theophilus’ lawyers brought witnesses from the family and church, who said the Packards had publicly argued and Elizabeth had attempted to leave the church, evidence in their eyes that she was insane.

Elizabeth’s lawyers responded by calling witnesses from the neighborhood who knew the Packards but were not members of Rev. Packard’s church. These witnesses testified that they had never seen Elizabeth demonstrate any signs of insanity.

The jury took only seven minutes to find in Elizabeth’s favor. She was declared legally sane. While the Packards never formally divorced, Elizabeth and Theophilus remained separated for the rest of their lives. It took Elizabeth Packard nine years to gain custody of her children.

Until the end of her life at age 81, Elizabeth worked for the rights of the mentally ill and partnered with the abolitionists for the emancipation of married women. Due to her efforts and the influence of her books, 34 bills were passed in various state legislatures, including a law passed by the Illinois legislature passed in 1869 which required a jury trial before a person could be committed to an asylum. She also influenced the formation of The National Society for the Protection of the Insane and the Prevention of Insanity.