“E.P.W. Packard was a badass”: The story of this well-known reformer

Recently, I was pursuing Twitter and searching for the word “Packard,” coming upon, in the process, some tweets from Jessica Lowell Mason, a feminist, writer (specifically of her blog My Wicked Life With Nuns), gardener, and much more about E.P.W. Packard, also known as Elizabeth Packard or Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard, a well-known reformer, two of which are shown above. In response to one of her tweets I noted that I was glad that E.P.W. Packard, a woman whom “lived simply, not with much flourish,” was my ancestor:

And I proceeded to, of course, share my articles on the subject, the last of which is the origin of the phrase used in the title of this article:

Compounding Jessica Mason’s tweets, a woman whom I will call “K.M.” as to not mention her real name, told me earlier this year that she found my “great website, Packed with Packards, and wanted to drop you a line as I am currently researching Mrs Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard,” saying she was “at a very early stage in my research, but hoping eventually to reach out to direct descendants of Mrs Packard, in the hope that they might be able to share some insight into their ancestor, family stories etc,” adding that she is “looking specifically at the years of 1859-69 in Mrs Packard’s life, but interested in personal details before and after that too.” I was flattered by this, telling her that I was glad she found my wonderful website and that it is “always good to see people researching the Packards,” noting my previous posts, and hoping it helps. K.M. respondedby thanking me for “an informative reply,” believing that the “actual court files of the trial” and that “the insane asylum records are now closed for legal reasons” while they would “keep trying to contact some descendants.” This conversation closed by me saying that it “would be unfortunate if the actual court files of the trial were long ago destroyed in a fire or that the insane asylum records are now closed for legal reasons” and adding that “my blog remains open to submissions and soon Packard’s Progress will be as well, as soon as it’s up and running.”

This brings us to the main question this article aims to answer: what was the story of E.P.W. Packard (called Elizabeth in the rest of this article) anyhow? She was a well-educated woman, born to the name of Elizabeth Parsons Ware, whom married a minister, Theophilus Packard, on May 21, 1839, at the insistence of her parents, but soon found herself at odds with the religious teachings of her husband. This led to her commitment, by Theophilus, to the Jacksonville State Hospital, for “moral insanity,” a place where she “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,” writing constantly. Soon enough, her oldest son convinced Theophilus to have her released, but her daughter, Elizabeth (shown to be the case as noted as her child in the 1860 census) had to take charge of “housework and child care at the age of 11.” Theophilus literally kept Elizabeth under lock and key, leading to the infamous Packard v. Packard trial where her lawyers, Stephen Moore and John Orr, called “witnesses from the neighborhood that knew the Packards but were not members of Theophilus’ church” and the verdict reached by the court on January 18, 1864, in seven minutes, that “we, the undersigned, Jurors in the case of Mrs. Elizabeth P.W. Packard, alleged to be insane, having heard the evidence…are satisfied that [she] is sane.”

A colorized photo of Elizabeth from her famed book, Marital Power.

But there is much more of her life than that, more than her final probate will show or what a front-page article in Volume 14 of Packard’s Progress would reveal. [1] The latter has a clipping of newspaper article by Daniel Lombardo, Jones Library Curator, which is worth quoting here:

In March of 1866 Elizabeth Packard walked into the offices of the Hampshire and Franklin Express in Amherst and announced the publication of her new book. The astonishing story told in the book [titled Martial Power Exemplified in Mrs. Packard’s Trial] spread quickly: Mrs. Packard had been declared insane for her religious views and placed in an asylum by her husband…Mrs. Packard’s book was a bombshell aimed at her respected husband, a Sunderland minister, and the entire male-dominated judicial system. Theophilus Packard [her husband,] attended both Amherst Academy and Amherst College, graduating in 1823. In 1839 Packared married Elizabeth Ware of South Deerfield, and they lived in Shelburne, where he was a preacher. It was after the family moved to Manteno, Ill. that the marriage broke down and became the subject of newspaper articles from Chicago to Boston. Theophilus was an immovable Calvinist, believing in a man’s total depravity and that God had foreordained some to be saved and some to be damned. Elizabeth came to believe that humans have free will and are accountable to God for their actions. She also thought slavery was a national sin. Her husband considered these views “the vagaries of a crazed brain.” Early on the morning of June 18, 1860, [when] Elizabeth…prepared to take a bath…she hastily tried to dress…[and] the group [of two physicians and a sheriff] smashed through a window and entered the room…[and in a] “state of almost entire nudity”…the physician declared her insane. Thus complying with the 1850 Illinois laws, Theophilus…committed [her]…to the Jacksonville Insane Asylum [actually it was Jacksonville State Hospital]. Elizabeth Packard was taken from her six children [Isaac, Samuel, Elizabeth, George, Arthur, and ?] and kept in the asylum for three years. While there she wrote a 700-page allegory about her situation….[after she was released] her husband…imprisoned her in their home…[and she was] allowed to see no one, [with] the windows screwed from the outside and the doors were kept locked. Rev. Packard’s next plan was to return to Massachusetts where he could have his wife place in the Northampton Lunatic Asylum. Just two days before they were to leave Illinois, [her] friends…delivered…a suit [to the court] asking for her release under the Habeas Corpus Act…On Jan. 18…the jury found Elizabeth Packard sane, [with] cheers…[in] every part of the courtroom…[as] women waved their handkerchiefs…[while] Theophilus…had “left the state”…[taking] the children to his sister’s [undoubtedly Sybil] house in South Deerfield [with] a number of people there [believing]…his story of flight from an “insane” wife…a great groundswell of support for Elizabeth developed as major newspapers picked up the story. She moved to her brother Austin Ware’s house in South Deerfield and published more books and pamphlets. She then successfully petitioned the Massachusetts legislature to make it virtually impossible for a husband to commit a healthy wife to an asylum. She later helped change laws in Illinois, Iowa, and Maine

There is more apart from other possible sources to explore for learning more information, as I told K.M., including one saying that she was admitted to the Jacksonville State Hospital on June 19, 1860 and that she was discharged on June 18, 1863, with her “next of kin” listed as her abusive husband, Theophilus. [1] There are a number of webpages on legal sites about the Packard v. Packard case, noting that: “Elizabeth Packard was declared sane and her liberty was restored” and recommending a number of separate readings for more information, most of which are Elizabeth’s books! What she experienced in the courtroom must have been frightening as she did read “an essay which she had written for a Bible class” aloud, while “Mr. and Mrs. Blessing, Methodist neighbors of the Packards, testified in turn as to Mrs. Packard’s sanity,” as did Sarah Haslett, seemingly a housekeeper for the Packards or nearby, and “Dr. Duncanson, who was both a physician and theologian. He testified that he had conversed with Mrs. Packard for three hours, and he disagreed with Dr. Brown’s understanding of Mrs. Packard’s thoughts concerning her relationship to the Holy Ghost.” I say frightening because there were those whom testified against Elizabeth like “Dr. Christopher Knott, who had spoken with Elizabeth prior to her commitment to Illinois State…Dr. J. W. Brown [whom] had been falsely introduced to Elizabeth as a sewing machine salesman several weeks before, and had surreptitiously interviewed her during what she thought was a sales pitch…Abijah Dole, the husband of Reverend Packard’s sister, Sybil…Sybil Dole [herself] also testified against Elizabeth…Sarah Rumsey, a young woman who had briefly served as a mother’s helper for the Packards.” There was also “a certificate concerning Elizabeth’s discharge from the Illinois State Hospital, issued by superintendent Dr. Andrew McFarland” which was read, saying that “Elizabeth Packard was discharged because she could not be cured.” Even with all of that, the jury still “reached its verdict in seven minutes” stating that Elizabeth was a sane woman, but the issue of “whether, had Mrs. Packard been found insane, Mr. Packard had the right to confine her at home rather than in an asylum” was not addressed. This led to, as one website put it, the fact that both of them remained married but were “estranged for the remainder of their lives” with Elizabeth lobbying and advocating “on behalf of the rights of women and those alleged to be insane,” being “instrumental in changing the commitment laws in four states and in passing a married women’s property law in Illinois.”

This image shows Issac and Rebecca Blessing relatively nearby, along with a Sarah Rumsey. The source is “United States Census, 1860“, database with images, FamilySearch, NARA M653, film #192, GS film # 803192, digital folder #005165763, image #00339. I found Dr. Duncanson and he is in a nearby town. I did find a C.W. Knott nearby, but he is a merchant, not a doctor. Additionally, there are eight Sarah Hasletts in Illinois and I’m not sure which one is her.  There were 9 J.W. Browns in Illinois, so I’m not sure which is the right one here. I was also unable to find Abijah Dole, the husband of Reverend Packard’s sister, Sybil, or Sybil Dole.

I also found Andrew McFarland in the 1860 census for Jacksonville Precinct, Morgan County, Illinois

With that, there are also those whom summarize her effect on asylum legislation, some arguing that “the American asylum reform would not have been the same without Packard’s influence and personal account reflections. Packard’s attribution to this field of American psychiatry is very critical because of her experience,” another which said that described her as a “Nineteenth-Century Crusader for the Rights of Mental Patients.” Further articles looked at her case through a legalistic perspective and summarized her horrid experience in the hospital, basically an asylum. One recent article I found noted that Elizabeth was among a group of women “placed in mental institutions for behaving in ways male society did not agree,” arguing that she “fought for women’s rights during the admission process,” adding that she “was a teacher in Jacksonville, Illinois, and the mother of six children when her husband committed her to the state hospital…until her death she fought for married women’s rights by lobbying in the state legislature and writing books about these rights and her personal fight,” adding that “Many of the women admitted to mental asylums [across the U.S.] were admitted for reasons similar to Mrs. Packard.” One article in The Atlantic went into more depth, noting that Elizabeth was “expected to be gentle, caring, and obedient, the ideal Victorian woman” but she started “disagreeing with the radical religious beliefs of her husband, Theophilus Packard, a strict Calvinist pastor,” even saying in the middle of her husband’s sermon that she “was going to the Methodist church across the street,” which was to “the more conservative members of Reverend Packard’s church…literal evidence of insanity.” As such, the article goes onto note that “after separating from her husband, Packard founded the Anti-Insane Asylum Society and campaigned for divorced women to retain custody of their children. She also went on to author a number of books” while saying that “not every story ended as happily as Packard’s” as some ended much worse.

Elizabeth’s story has been prominent enough to be featured in varied books, like Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed‘s recently-published Madness and the demand for recognition: A philosophical inquiry into identity and mental health activism (see page 5), Evaluation for Civil Commitment by Debra Pinals and Douglas Mossman (see pages 7 and 8), Steve Mintz’s The Prime of Life (see pages 147 and the rest of the chapter), Police, prison, and punishment: major historical interpretations by Kermit L. Hall (see pages 834 and 835), a small mention in Psychiatric Nursing: Contemporary Practice, edited by Mary Ann Boyd (see page 28), American Women Activists’ Writings: An Anthology, 1637-2001 by Kathryn Cullen-DuPont (see pages 100-110 which reprints excerpts from her book, Martial Power Exemplified: Mrs. Packard’s Trial), and a chapter within The Writing on the Wall: Women’s Autobiography and the Asylum by Mary Elene Wood.  [2] One book even talked of the conflict between Elizabeth and Dorothea Dix, saying that “Packard collected signatures on behalf of her mailbox bill [to reform asylums, which she drafted with prominent women’s rights attorney Belva Ann Lockwood” while Dix “quietly sought to block the measure behind the scenes” with the asylum directors thanking Dix for “your labors to prevent mischief.” [2]

In the years to come, the Packard Laws would live on, and her legacy would continue to this day. In a post to come next week, I will focus specifically on Elizabeth’s words describing her imprisonment, to show her side of the story.


[1] I suggested that she could contact Kankakee County and see if they have county court records of the Packard v. Packard case, which was on trial in January 1864, or that she could ask for records of E.P.W. Packard’s time at Jacksonville State Hospital, like those associated with the “DIRECTORY OF JACKSONVILLE STATE HOSPITAL PATIENTS 1854 – 1870.” I also suggested that she contact the Illinois State Archives about their records within varied collections like “Jacksonville Mental Health and Developmental Center: Commitment Papers, circa 1851-1943“,  “Jacksonville Mental Health and Developmental Center: Register of Patients, November 3, 1851-July 19, 1897” and “Jacksonville Mental Health and Developmental Center: Case Records, 1854-1870; 1872-1873; 1875-1907,” which was originally talked about here. Additionally I said she could contact the Illinois State Legislature research unit about E.P.W. Packard or look at the books written on her (Elizabeth Packard: A Noble Fight and The Private War of Mrs. Packard), along with a play (Mrs. Packard), although can’t guarantee their genealogical accuracy.

[2] Other mentions include a chapter within Susan J. Hubert’s Questions of Power: The Politics of Women’s Madness Narratives, mentions within Elizabeth Abbott’s A History of Marriage: From Same Sex Unions to Private Vows and Common Law, the Surprising Diversity of a Tradition, mentions within Benjamin Reiss‘s Theaters of Madness: Insane Asylums and Nineteenth-Century American Culture, mentions within Stephen Pimpare’s A People’s History of Poverty in America, mentions within Thomas Cooley’s The Ivory Leg in the Ebony Cabinet: Madness, Race, and Gender in Victorian America, and Jill Norgren’s Rebels at the Bar: The Fascinating, Forgotten Stories of America’s First Women Lawyers, to name the most prominent books. The information in the latter sentence, beginning with “one book even talked” comes from page 339 of Thomas J. Brown’s Dorothea Dix: New England Reformer. Also see page 340 where it is noted that forces allied with Packard were ultimately successful and that Dix lost in the battle against the reforms. Also see the following articles: “Mrs. Packard on Dependency,” “Elizabeth Packard’s Life Dramatized in Mrs. Packard,” “Daring to Disagree, and Sent to an Asylum.” Apparently there is someone who is an “Elizabeth Parsons Ware professor,” although I’m not sure what that means.

7 thoughts on ““E.P.W. Packard was a badass”: The story of this well-known reformer

  1. Pingback: From slaveowners to liberators: the Packard family and slavery | Packed with Packards!

      • Thanks so much! I did discover two things: She fulfilled her threat to go to a Methodist Church when she moved to Chicago with her children once she got them back. Two, She and Mary Todd Lincoln had the same attorneys. So it seems almost inconceivable that they didn’t at least corresponded either directly or indirectly through their same two attorney, if not ever in person. James


    • Hello! My name is Audrey Simpson I am a High School student from Minneapolis. I am currently working on a National History Project. My partner and I won second in state, and are moving on to the national competition. Your comment about Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Packard having the same attorneys really interested us and would be so helpful for our project. If you could possibly email me your links to this information it would be amazing!


  2. Hello! My name is Audrey Simpson I am a High School student from Minneapolis. I am currently working on a National History Project. My partner and I won second in state, and are moving on to the national competition. Your comment about Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Packard having the same attorneys really interested us and would be so helpful for our project. If you could possibly email me your links to this information it would be amazing!


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