Illinois

Woman forced into mental facility against her will after openly disagreeing with husband’s views

June 18, 1860
Jacksonville, Illinois
Elizabeth Packard is committed to the Jacksonville Insane Asylum against her will

When the first mental hospital opened in Illinois in 1851, a law was passed which prohibited any patient from being committed against their will without a public hearing to determine their mental health. One provision, however, allowed a husband to commit his wife without either her consent or a hearing.

Elizabeth Packard was outspoken in her disagreements with her husband, Theophilus Packard. The two often disagreed on various topics, including how to raise their children, religion (Theophilus was a minister), and slavery. Eventually, Theophilus took advantage of the law’s exception allowing husbands to bypass consent and trial, and had a sheriff escort Elizabeth to the Jacksonville Insane Asylum (now the Jacksonville Development Center). She was held there for three years when her eldest son turned 21. He was legally able to release his mother himself at that age, but managed to convince Theophilus to allow her release instead.

After her release, Theophilus locked Elizabeth in their nursery. She managed to slip a letter out a nailed-shut window which was brought to the addressee, a friend named Sarah Haslett, who in turn delivered the letter to a local judge. The two were brought to trial and the jury took just 7 minutes to deliberate in Elizabeth’s favor. She returned to her home to find it had been rented to another family, her furniture sold, and her children, money, and clothing had been taken to Boston. The laws in Illinois and Massachusetts at the time stated married women did not have a legal right to their property or custody of their children. She successfully petitioned the states of Illinois and Massachusetts to grant married women equal rights to children and property, after which time Theophilus voluntarily gave Elizabeth custody of their children.

Elizabeth spent the next several years writing books about her experiences in the asylum, bringing attention to the mistreatment of patients. She and Theophilus never divorced but remained separated for the remainder of their lives.

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