Elizabeth Packard’s Fight Against Legal Tyranny of Husbands

The Private War of Mrs. Packard by Barbara Sapinsley is a classic case of the legal subjugation of women in Euro/American society, a legacy of Pauline scripture and medieval law all the way through Blackstone and the Napoleonic code. An Illinois housewife in Kankakee, married to a  Calvinist minister, dared to disagree with the dogma of humankind’s “total depravity” (by original sin) and to refuse the absolute obedience that her husband demanded.

After browbeating her for years, in 1860 Theophilus Packard had his wife  forcibly removed from home and locked up in a mental hospital for years. Illinois law, as of 1851, allowed husbands absolute authority to do this,  without any restraint whatsoever: “Married women and infants who, in the judgment of the medical superintendent of the state asylum at Jacksonville, are evidently insane or distracted [i.e., distressed or upset] may be entered or detained in the hospital at the request of the husband of the woman or the guardian of the infant, without the evidence of insanity required in other cases.” [p. 66]

There was ample precedent for this in the chattel status and legal minority of women in most European law. The medieval term for it was couverture; the male literally covered the woman, eclipsing her personhood, her name, and her rights with his own privilege as head of household. Countless laws allowed him to beat, to “chastise” and “correct” his wife (and children), with the smug approval of church and state. He had absolute control over her body, her property, and her children.

The irrepressible Elizabeth Packard
The irrepressible Elizabeth Packard

Having failed to force Elizabeth’s submission on doctrinal questions, and furious that she left his church and joined the Methodists, Theophilus enlisted the support of the church deacons to get her out of the house and on the train to Jacksonville. He needed them, because Elizabeth stoutly refused to go: they were forced to carry her out of the house and onto the train. On the long trip south, she told other passengers what was going on, and they were appalled. The husband meanwhile lectured his wife about how god was on his side, because he was winning “while all your efforts are defeated.” Sapinsley comments, “The Lord may have been on his side, but the passengers were not. A few offered to hide Elizabeth and help her escape…”

Elizabeth gradually won over most of the staff at the hospital and was even given a set of keys because of the duties she assumed there. She wrote voluminously, telling the story of the injustice she was suffering. The doctors denied her paper at one point, but she managed to get hold of it thanks to assistance from other patients and staff. She hid her most important writings in the backing of a mirror. At first she had her own room – class counted for something, but only for a while; after increasing clashes with the head doctor, he had her removed to the open wards. Elizabeth adapted to that situation too, and set about cleaning the filthy rooms and restuffing the mattresses, one by one. She cared for other inmates.

When her oldest son turned 21, he had legal authority to remove her from the asylum, and convinced his father to agree. But Elizabeth resisted leaving, because she was finishing her book about what had been done to her, and was afraid her husband would try to lock her up somewhere else. (That proved to be true.) She also refused her cousin’s counsel to divorce Theophilus, knowning that she would lose her children. So once again she refused with passive resistance: “And here in the presence of these witnesses I claim a right of my own identity, and in the name of the laws of my country, I claim protection against this assault against my personal rights. I claim a right to myself. I claim a right to remain unmolested in my own hired room.”

Absolute lord of the household, by law and custom
Absolute lord of the household, by law and custom

She came home to a dirty and disorganized house, her husband having forced her daughter to take over all the housework and child care at the age of 11. Theophilus had placed locks on everything, so that she could not even get food or clean linen without his permission. Soon he locked her into the nursery, having nailed the windows shut, and prevented anyone from seeing her. She was now his prisoner, as she had foreseen, and remained so for a month and a half. She was forced to live in a room without a fire and without warm clothing. Then she discovered, through an fateful series of events, that her husband was plotting to get her locked up in another mental ward “as a case of hopeless insanity.”

She managed to slip a note out through the inner and outer windows to a transient who had been using their water pump, and notify her friends that she had to escape. The Hasletts took her in. Now, after almost four years, Elizabeth Packard finally succeeded in getting a court hearing. Some 200 female supporters packed the courthouse. Before the trial was over, Theophilus “mortgaged the house and everything in it, including what was hers,” and decamped to Massachusetts, with her children. He failed to appear in court, and she was finally set free.

Now Elizabeth Packard began to print her story and sell “tickets” for forthcoming editions of a series of books that she would publish from 1864 on. They made the case for women’s rights, rights of people committed on grounds of insanity, and the harms of religious absolutism. She overcame numerous obstacles to do this, and succeeded in getting positive press attention for her work. Next, she organized support in the Massachusetts legislature for reform of the laws around commitment for insanity and treatment of people confined in madhouses. And she began to win.

Packard sold thousands of books, funding herself, and effectively lobbied legislators, civic leaders, laborers, anyone who would listen. She gathered petition signatures and made speeches. She got a law passed in Massachusetts, did a campaign in Connecticut, and forced Theophilus to finally return her clothes and other property he had withheld from her for all those years. (As the husband, he had full legal control of anything belonging to her.) Packard returned to Illinois and started a petition to change commitment procedures there. She used this to leverage support from the governor, and used the press to great effect. The Illinois State Register wrote about her book on the front page: “The book is designed to inform the public of the power husbands may assume under the law over their wives. Mrs. Packard designs to bring the subject matter of complaint before the general assembly to the end that relief may be provided other unfortunates who are suffering under similar persecution.”

Meanwhile her old nemesis Dr. McFarland, and his associates, were defaming her as an unhinged and indecent woman in order to defeat her measure, which the medical establishment (all white men) opposed. When the state senate debated the Personal Liberty Bill that she had gotten introduced, women filled up the gallery. But they had to leave to fix dinner before the bill came up. Many senators were pushing to adjourn, and various procedural difficulties followed. It was due to her utter determination every step of the way that the bill got read, necessary edits added and, when mislaid, located and signed into law.

Packard publicized testimony from former attendants at the Jacksonville wards about abuse, humiliation, and horrific beatings of straitjacketed patients (the Victorian language hints at rape). “The cold baths, O my God! it makes me shudder to think of it. The patient, often for a small offence… is taken to the bathroom, made to strip… and after being tied hand and foot, plumped into [the water] and held there under it until almost dead, and then drawn out only long enough to catch their breath and then plunged in again..” Torture, in other words.

"Mrs. Packard, your bill is all right." "The Reign of Terror is over..."
“Mrs. Packard, your bill is all right.”
“The Reign of Terror is over…”

Her next fight was an issue pressing on her now that she was free: female rights in child custody, and women’s right to property and earnings. She got more bills passed in Illinois on these causes. Then she went to court and won custody of her now teenaged children. Her husband did not contest this time. In the summer of 1869, her family gathered together, “the first time mother and all six children had ever been together,” and celebrated at the house Elizabeth had bought in Chicago with earnings from her books.

After her children were grown, she went back to lobbying on protections for people locked up in mental wards. She got a bill passed in Iowa, then in New York. Connecticut followed. Maine was a tougher nut to crack, and so she switched tactics. She decided to go to the federal level and went to Washington. She won over the First Lady, then President Grant, and worked on a bill with Belva Lockwood, a feminist lawyer (first woman to argue before the Supreme Court, which she had to fight to do). The bill was passed. Packard spent the following fifteen years organizing in 25 other states, traveling by railroad. She got laws changed in many of them, with a greater emphasis on rights of the “insane” as the years went by.

©2012 Max Dashu