Fighting like crazy
A courageous woman’s assault on insane asylums
On June 18, 1860, Elizabeth Packard, a mother of six and wife of a Calvinist minister in Manteno, Ill., was carried from her home and admitted to the Illinois Hospital for the Insane in Jacksonville against her will.
Her husband, Rev. Theophilus Packard, thought she was insane and, according to state law at the time, that’s about all it took to get a married woman committed. (Men couldn’t be committed without a jury trial.)
His evidence? Elizabeth was exploring and discussing other religious philosophies and Theophilus thought they were “dangerous to the spiritual interests of his children and the community,” wrote Elizabeth in one of many books about her experiences and the need for mental health care reform. Two doctors in his church signed certificates agreeing that Elizabeth was insane and she spent three years in Jacksonville as a result.
There she witnessed or experienced the sometimes cruel and injurious treatments patients were subjected to. Submersion in frigid baths, withholding food, and holding a patient’s head under water were common, according to her 1868 book, Prisoners’ Hidden Life….
Upon Elizabeth’s release (the asylum superintendent declared her “incurable,” so she had to return home), Theophilus locked her in their home’s nursery while he tried to get her committed elsewhere. With the help of neighbors, she secured a trial and was declared sane by a jury — in seven minutes.
“Her husband, seeing the trial was not going his way, called it a sham and left town with two of their younger children,” says Dr. Linda V. Carlisle, author of an upcoming book about Elizabeth. “He went to Massachusetts and took all of her personal possessions. Their older kids were already away from home. He mortgaged their house to his sister… Under Illinois law that was perfectly within his right and (Elizabeth) had no right to her children, possessions or property.”
At 6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 19, Carlisle, an associate professor in library and information services at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, will give a talk about Elizabeth in the Pearson Museum of the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in Springfield (801 N. Rutledge). Titled “Committed to Reform: Elizabeth Packard’s Assault on the Asylum,” Carlisle says it will focus on Packard’s legislative work to reform the system. “The title is figurative and literal. When Elizabeth was in the asylum she incited the patients to riot one time. Once she was out, she became committed to mental health reform and better legislation that would protect people against involuntary commitment; most commitment was involuntary then.”
Elizabeth traveled around the country lobbying the press and legislature for reforms, with many successes. She paid a high price, however. By 1873 Elizabeth lost custody of her children to her husband. “She said, ‘Maybe that’s just God’s will to free me, He gave me the joy of having my children back (she had regained custody for a while), and now he’s freed me to work in my calling,’” Carlisle says.
During her upcoming lecture, Carlisle will also discuss how Elizabeth developed her religious ideas, or her “wild vagaries, as her husband called them, to show they weren’t insane, but a strain of thought in America at that time. In addition, Carlisle will explain Elizabeth’s “love/hate relationship” with Dr. Andrew McFarland, the superintendent of the Jacksonville asylum, and her battle with the psychiatric profession.
Back then the group that became the American Psychiatric Association “consisted of the superintendents of insane asylums basically, those were the only people allowed to be members,” says Carlisle. “It was a very tight community and they opposed Packard at every step. So her assault was not only on the asylum system, but on these asylum superintendents and the power that they had to make decisions about how long a person could be held and what a diagnosis might be.”
She has studied Packard for 10 to 12 years, traveling coast to coast to follow her footsteps and read her books, as well as her husband’s and youngest son’s papers. “She was a mother and I am, too, and that intrigued me… . How would you follow your personal ideas to the point that you knew your husband was about to commit you and take you away from your six children?” Carlisle says. “(Elizabeth) lost out on the childhood of her young children. How could she do that? As I got into the research more, I was amazed at how significant her impact really was on the jurisprudence of psychiatry.”
Carlisle’s book, Elizabeth Packard: A Noble Fight, is being published by the University of Illinois Press and should be released in mid-November. It costs $40 and can be pre-ordered on amazon.com.
Contact Tara McAndrew at firstname.lastname@example.org.