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The Anti-Insane Asylum Society

This coming Saturday (28 September) at Bethlem Museum of the Mind, Nick Hervey will be speaking about the history of the nineteenth century campaigning group founded by Spencer Perceval, the Alleged Lunatics’ Friend Society (tickets still available at https://museumofthemind.org.uk/whats-on/events/the-alleged-lunatics-friend-society).

It is interesting to note that a society similar to the ALFS was founded in the United States of America in the nineteenth century by Elizabeth Packard, who like Perceval published several books about her own experience of asylum incarceration.

Packard was born in 1816, the daughter of a Congregational minister, Samuel Ware. At the insistence of her parents Elizabeth married Calvinist minister Theophilus Packard,14 years her senior, in 1839. Elizabeth disagreed with her husband on a number of religious issues, but also on child rearing, the place of women, family finances and the issue of slavery.

When Illinois opened its first hospital for the mentally ill, the law required a public hearing before a person could be committed against their will. The only exception was that a husband could have his wife committed without a public hearing, or indeed her consent.

In 1860 Theophilus adjudged his wife ‘slightly insane’ and arranged for a doctor to assess her. The doctor pretended to be a sewing machine salesman, and during their discussion Elizabeth complained about her husband’s domination. This was enough for him to certify her insane.

In June that year Theophilus had her committed, and she remained in Jacksonville Insane Asylum, Illinois for three years. She was finally released as incurable, after pressure from her children, but her husband then locked her in the nursery of their home, and nailed the windows shut.

Her friends obtained a writ of habeas corpus, and at the subsequent trial the jury took seven minutes to confirm her sanity. When Elizabeth returned home she found that, on the night before her release, Theophilus had rented their home to another family, sold her furniture and taken her money, wardrobe and children and left the state. It took her six years to get her children back, but only after legislation she had fought for was passed, which allowed married women equal rights to marital property and custody of children.

As a result of these experiences, Packard founded the Anti-Insane Asylum Society. In 1867 its pressure led the State of Illinois to pass a “Bill for the Protection of Personal Liberty”. Barbara Hambly refers to Elizabeth in her novel about the insanity of Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln.

Elizabeth Ware Packard

Elizabeth Ware Packard