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Elizabeth Ware Packard (1816-97)

In the late 1800s Elizabeth Ware Packard successfully fought for the rights of asylum patients and women. She was born in Massachusetts in 1816 to a religious family, and became a teacher aged 16. Packard experienced severe headaches and trances and expressed eccentric views about Christianity. She was briefly committed to a Massachusetts asylum with ‘brain fever’ in 1835. The asylum physician pronounced her cured and she married a minister soon after.

But Packard continued publicly expressing radical religious views, and her husband was worried about the effect this had on his career and reputation. The family moved several times, then he committed her to an Illinois asylum in 1860 with the help of a physician friend. After three years Packard finally convinced hospital trustees of her sanity and was released. Her husband subsequently imprisoned her at home by locking the doors and nailing the windows shut. A long court battle ended in divorce. Packard’s husband returned to Massachusetts with custody of their six children; Packard herself was left penniless.

Packard described her unjust imprisonment in a popular memoir. Its sales saw her regain financial independence, and she used the publicity she gained to campaign successfully for changes to the ways individuals were committed to asylums. The reforms, called Packard Laws, increased the number of people involved in the commitment process. Individuals could no longer be forcibly confined on the testimony of a few. Packard was concerned with cases like her own, where biased testimony from husbands or other men had unjustly committed women to asylums, often for many years. She also successfully campaigned for divorced women to retain financial support and custody of their children.

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M Samuels Himelhoch and Arthur H. Schaffer, 'Elizabeth Packard: Nineteenth-Century Crusader for the Rights of Mental Patients', Journal of American Studies, 13/3 (1979), pp 343-75

E Ware Packard, Modern Persecution; Or, Insane Asylums Unveiled (Hartford, CT: Case, Lockwood, and Brainard, 1875)

B Sapinsley, The Private War of Mrs. Packard (New York: Paragon House, 1991)

M Wood, The Writing on the Wall: Women’s Autobiography and the Asylum (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994)