Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard, born December 28, 1816, was a women’s rights and mental health advocate.
She married a conservative old school Calvinist minister, and together they had six children. But her views on religion radically differed from her husband’s. After voicing her opinions openly and causing a stir in his church, Theophilus Packard had his wife committed to an insane asylum in Jacksonville, Illinois. At this time in history, a husband could have his wife confined to an asylum on his word alone.
The historical drama Mrs. Packard by Emily Mann recounts Mrs. Packard’s time spent in the asylum. Like the early 20th century Nellie Bly who also wrote about the decrepit conditions and horrific abuse of power by nurses and doctors, Elizabeth Packard’s story is fascinating, gritty and harrowing. And, like Bly’s plight, the reader does question Packard’s sanity throughout the play.
However, Bly voluntarily had herself committed for ten days, whereas Packard’s three year detention highlights the unfair power dynamics in 19th century marriages. Early in the play, the superintendent of the hospital tells Mrs. Packard that he will release her and declare her sane if she agrees to her husband’s wishes and opinions and keeps her own to herself. Mrs. Packard refuses the doctor, and later after she witnesses and reports a violent incident between a nurse and a patient, the doctor moves Mrs. Packard to the 8th Ward, where the “maniacs” are kept. Release now is near impossible, but Mrs. Packard does not wallow in self-pity. She rolls up her sleeves and works to clean up the filthy ward and its inhabitants.
Eventually Elizabeth Packard was released from the Illinois State Psychiatric Hospital, but her husband then imprisoned her to a room in their house. To alert authorities, Packard tossed a letter out of the window to a neighbor, and a writ of habeas corpus was issued on her behalf. The next day, Theophilus brought his wife before a judge and claimed that she was insane and he was entitled to confine her. The trial to determine her sanity lasted five days, and the jury only took seven minutes to decide the verdict.
They pronounced her sane.
However, her troubles were far from over. Elizabeth returned home to find that Theophilus sold their house from under her and moved out of state with their children, which he had the legal right to do – during this time, married women did not have custodial or property rights.
Elizabeth Packard did become financial independent by writing and publishing many successful books and she spent the rest of her life fiercely advocating for mental health reform and married women’s rights. On both issues, her efforts led to real change. Thirty-four bills were passed across the United States requiring a jury trial before a person could be committed to an asylum. She was also influential in the passage of several bills in Illinois on women’s rights to property and earnings, and after a lengthy nine year battle, she won custody of her children and they were reunited.
The drama Mrs. Packard by Emily Mann ends with her obituary, “No woman of her day, except possibly Harriet Beecher Stowe, exercised a wider influence in the interest of humanity.” Truly a remarkable heroine and really good play about her fight for mental and married women’s rights.