Sunday, April 26, 2015

Historic Heroism: Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard

One Woman’s Fight for Justice and Change

By: Michele Morris

Before the mid-nineteenth century, women’s rights were unheard of. In most of the United States, married women were forbidden to own property, have a bank account, or own a business. A husband could sell, gamble, or give away all of his wife’s possessions without her knowledge or consent. Her husband legally controlled a woman’s children and health care. My goodness, we have come a long way, haven’t we?
Theophilus Packard

Elizabeth Packard
Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard was born December 28th, 1816, the oldest, and only daughter of the Reverend Samuel and Lucy Ware. 

In 1839, Elizabeth’s father insisted she marry Theophilus Packard. A minister, who was fourteen years Elizabeth's senior, Mr. Packard was a staunch leader of his church. Elizabeth and her new husband appeared to have an amicable life together.

After twenty years of marriage, Elizabeth began to speak out publicly against her husband’s strict religious views. In response, Theophilus declared her “slightly insane” and secretly arranged for Dr. J.W. Brown to evaluate her. 

The doctor pretended to be a sewing machine salesman. During his visit, Elizabeth complained of her husband’s religious views and that he had told others she was insane. The "good doctor" gave his report to Mr. Packard, and on June 18th, 1860 the sheriff came to Elizabeth Packard's home and arrested her.
The arrest of Mrs. Packard

Without an official trial, Elizabeth Packard spent the next three years at the Jacksonville Insane Asylum in Jacksonville, Illinois. 
Jacksonville, Illinois Insane Asylum

Finally, after public outcry and pressure from her six children, she was granted a trial. 

The judge and jury declared her falsely imprisoned. The asylum doctors officially (and falsely) recorded her diagnosis as “incurable” and thus, released her.

Upon returning to her family’s home, she found her husband had recently rented it to another family, sold all her furnishings and belongings, and moved her children to another state.

Elizabeth took her husband to court The final witness in Elizabeth's case was Dr. Duncanson, who was both a physician and a theologian. Dr. Duncanson interviewed Elizabeth Packard, and he testified that while not necessarily in agreement with all her religious beliefs—“I do not call people insane because they differ with me. I pronounce her a sane woman and wish we had a nation of such women."

The jury took only seven minutes to find in Elizabeth Packard's favor. She was legally declared sane, and Judge Charles Starr issued an order that “she should not be confined”. Mrs. Packard had won.

Elizabeth never returned to her family, but she did, however, stay close to her children. As far as I can tell, she never legally divorced her husband.

Aware of how close she came to being incarcerated against her will, and that other women suffered the same fate, Elizabeth founded the Anti-Insane Asylum Society. 

She also published several books about her experience, including Marital Power Exemplified, (or Three Years Imprisonment for Religious Belief) (1864), Great Disclosure of Spiritual Wickedness in High Places (1865), The Mystic Key (or the Asylum Secret Unlocked) (1866), and The Prisoners' Hidden Life, (or Insane Asylums Unveiled) (1868). 

Elizabeth became a champion for the rights of women and people accused of insanity. Thanks to her hard work and persistence, in 1867, the State of Illinois passed a "Bill for the Protection of Personal Liberty". This bill guaranteed all people accused of insanity, including wives, had the right to a public trial. She also saw similar laws passed in three other states.

One woman’s life took a horrific, tragic turn that could have ruined her. But Elizabeth chose to rise above by blazing an early path for women’s rights and fair treatment. Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard’s achievements deserve to be known and remembered, and I hope that Mrs. Packard’s story might inspire and empower you.

Do you have a story that might have been tragic, but you were able to turn it around to make "lemon-aid from lemons". If you feel comfortable enough to share, please do so in the comments below. I’d love to celebrate your victories with you!   


  1. Wow! glad I wasn't a woman/lady back in those days.
    The tragic thing in my life is losing my husband to cancer on 2-24 of this year after a very short illness. I am trusting God to turn this into something wonderful for Him. We were married 44 years and it's like half of me is suddenly gone. Thanks for your post. sm wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com

    1. Sharon, I'm so very sorry for your loss. I'm praying in agreement with you that you will see God work in amazing ways. I'm also rejoicing in the 44 years you had together, what a blessing. Thank you for the comment and please, know that I'll be keeping you in my thoughts and prayers. Michele

  2. Oh my goodness I LOVED this post! I read a book about this woman just last year. I admired her so for "enlisting her suffering" for the good of others. A true heroine.

    1. Thank you so much, Stephanie! I "discovered" Elizabeth by accident while doing research for a novel, and I was so inspired by her story. Thank you for the comment. Michele

  3. What an enlightening post, Michele. Thank you so much for sharing about this brave woman. Welcome aboard.

    1. Thank you, Jen! I appreciate the kind words and the welcome. I'm honored to join Heroes, Heroines, and History.

  4. This post is so close to my heart. I've written about the use of asylums in England and understand just what a close call this woman experienced and was very fortunate she had family and others to fight for her release. Great post. I loved this quote by Duncanson, “I do not call people insane because they differ with me. I pronounce her a sane woman and wish we had a nation of such women."

    1. Jillian, I was thinking of your books when I read this post. And yes, that's a very good quote.

    2. I love the doctor's quote too. It just amazes me that this type of thing could have happened. I love historic stories of strong women. Thank you for stopping by, Michele

  5. Michele, I'm very glad you posted on this subject. Instead of ranting about the atrocity, I'll bring another book to your attention...
    A recent book printed in hardcover and paperback in 1994 would be WOMEN OF THE ASYLUM: VOICES BEHIND THE WALLS 1840-1945. This book presents 26 first-person accounts of women placed in asylums for reasons similar to your post, and not just in the 19th century, either.

  6. Anita Mae, Thank you for the book recommendation. I've written it down and will be looking it up.
    I read an article written in the mid-nineteenth century about a female reporter who had herself committed for first hand experience. First, she couldn't bear to stay the two weeks she planned, it was too unbearable, and secondly, she reported that close to half the women seemed perfectly "normal". Wow. You used a very appropriate word... atrocity.

    1. Michele, there's also the story of Nellie Bly who went undercover as a patient at the Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island in New York. Ten days later, her employer had her released and she went on to pave the way for women in journalism.
      Pamela Myers featured her story here on HHH at

  7. How fortunate to have someone like this woman to pave the way for others,
    and with six children! She certainly made a difference for them and was an
    excellent role model. I enjoyed reading this, and although I knew women were
    the property of men years ago, I didn't realize who Elizabeth Parsons was.
    I'm eager to read the book you're writing, Michele, that geared you toward
    this interesting research. God Bless~

    1. Thank you for the comment, Diane! She sure was a brave lady. I feel for her and the time she lost with her family, but am grateful for the role she took in history. Thanks for stopping by. Blessing, Michele.