When Husbands were able to Commit Wives to Insane Asylums


I recently finished reading The Woman Who Could Not be Silenced by Kate Moore. I am not necessarily recommending this book because it is melodramatic and too long. However, if you are good at skimming and picking out sections to study in detail- it is fascinating to learn that up until the late 1800s husbands had the right to put their wives in insane asylums . Almost any behavior constituted insanity including:

  1. not liking one’s husband and asking for a divorce
  2. claiming that she did not follow the husband’s religious beliefs and values
  3. thinking for herself and disagreeing with her husband

The following image depicts the play, Mrs. Packard: https://www.npr.org/2007/06/24/11294490/play-tells-tale-of-woman-silenced-for-her-beliefs

Who was Elizabeth Packard?

Elizabeth Packard was born in 1816 in Ware, Massachusetts. She was highly intelligent, well educated, respected by her community and by all accounts a successful housewife who doted on her 6 children. Her husband Theophilus Packard- a Calvinist minister, 16 years her senior moved the family to Illinois in 1857. Their lives were uneventful until Elizabeth began secretly writing essays because she felt the urge to express her thoughts….and shared them with others in a Bible group she led. The events took place during the Civil War and some preachers considered her support of abolition, yet, another sign of insanity.

Religious Insanity and the Men who Diagnosed it….

Here are a few quotes from the book:

  1. “That class of men who wish to rule woman, seem intent on destroying her reason”. – Elizabeth Packard
  2. One physician, Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright theorized “that to run away from slavery was itself madness. To cure slaves of what he called “drapetomania” , he prescribed “whipping the devil out of them” as well as the amputation of both big toes.”
  3. When Mr. Packard was leaving his wife at the asylum, she pleaded “But you cannot give them a mother’s care. O, how can my children live without their mother; and how can I live without my children? ” (Sadly one of the children, Lily was so traumatized that she became mentally ill and institutionalized after her mother’s death).
  4. One Dr. Knott, who “evaluated” Mrs. Packard in her home before the kidnapping, without telling her who he was (she thought that he was a door to door salesman) said that “her religious beliefs were not her only symptoms; he noted her unusual zealousness and prominent strong will.

Elizabeth Packard carried to train taking her to the insane asylum….

Mrs. Packard was physically removed from her home and carried to a train that brought her to the Illinois State Hospital at Jacksonville, Illinois, in the early 1860s. Her diagnosis of “insanity” was based on her husband’s report and confirmed by his church colleagues. The hospital superintendent, Dr. McFarland carried out the unjust imprisonment for 3 years despite numerous friends claiming her sanity. The law also enabled Mr. Packard to relocate the younger children to Massachusetts where he forbid his wife to see them… and if caught he would have the right to put her in a Massachusetts insane asylum.

Life at 19th century American Insane Asylums

As a respectable, White woman- Mrs. Packard initially resided in a beautiful ward with well dressed ladies, many of whom she believed to be sane. Books, crafts, outdoor walks, good food and other comforts were provided…. until the hospital administration decided that Mrs. Packard was corrupting the minds of other patients with her demands for human rights. Mrs. Packard subsequently was moved to the ward where patients actually had mental illness. The patients there were aggressive, delusional and spent time crying, screaming and suffering in a setting with cruel attendants, lack of adequate clothing, bedding, clean water for bathing and cruel mental and physical abuse.

Asylum Superintendents job of social control.

According to the book, “…. an asylum was not so much a place to treat the sick as a pseudo factory for social control. In truth, superintendents in the nineteenth century acted not only as doctors but as society’s paternal police, ever ready to step in to dissuade people -both male and female-from deviating from the social standards they themselves had set (which largely meant those observed by white, Protestant, middle class men).

Elizabeth Packard’s Accomplishments:

Mrs. Packard made such a nuisance of herself, working tirelessly to improve conditions and free herself and others in the asylum, that the superintendent Dr. McFarland released her into the care of her cousin. During this next stage of the battle, to access her children, she also worked to convince legislators of the inhumanity of laws :

  1. Packard petitioned the Illinois and Massachusetts legislatures, and in 1869 legislation was passed in those states allowing married women equal rights to property and custody of their children. Upon the passing of this legislation, Packard’s husband voluntarily ceded custody of their children back to her, and her children came to live with her in Chicago.
  2. In 1867, the State of Illinois passed a “Bill for the Protection of Personal Liberty” which guaranteed that all people accused of insanity, including wives, had the right to a public hearing, as did Massachusetts.
  3. Elizabeth Packard worked to change laws so that married women were allowed to own property and keep their own earned income.

By 1900, every state had given married women substantial control over their property. But women still faced gender bias when it came to financial matters. It would take until the 1970s before women were able to get credit cards. Before then, a woman still needed her husband’s signature. The struggle for women to be financially independent of their husbands extended well into the 20th century. https://www.thoughtco.com/property-rights-of-women-3529578

Renaming the Andrew McFarland Mental Health Center

“Renaming the McFarland Center for Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard recognizes that her revolutionary social justice vision of mental health care and women’s rights in 1867 fits comfortably with values of the state of Illinois in 2023,” said Community Behavioral Healthcare Association CEO Blanca Campos. https://www.myjournalcourier.com/news/article/elizabeth-packard-new-namesake-state-mental-18287652.php

….and she persisted….

This post is dedicated to Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren… Mitch McConnell tried to silence her but we won’t allow it!!!! She persisted and so will women!!!


Another Perspective: how African Americans were treated in Asylums

2 thoughts on “When Husbands were able to Commit Wives to Insane Asylums”

  1. We are not making progress in this country when women don’t have access to abortion healthcare. And don’t be so sure we have heard the last of “religious insanity” either……the Christian Supremacists are on a mission to repeal separation of church and state. We had better be prepared.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I couldn’t agree more. It feels like “religious insanity” has taken over the world….

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