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Modern Persecution, or Married Woman's Liabilities
During the post-Civil Wars years, Elizabeth Packard was one of the key champions of rights for women and people labeled as insane. At this time, men could declare their wives insane and have them institutionalized without a public hearing—a fate that befell Elizabeth Packard in 1860. She spent three years in the Illinois State Hospital in Jacksonville, for disagreeing with her husband’s conservative religious philosophy, views on slavery, and how to raise their children.
In 1863, the asylum doctors declared her incurable and released her to her husband. He deprived her of clothing and boarded her up inside a room, actions that were illegal. She smuggled a letter to a friend, who convinced a judge to grant a writ of habeus corpus. At the trial of Packard v. Packard, the jury decided in her favor in only seven minutes.
After gained her freedom, Packard became an activist for women’s rights and personal liberty. Her writings inspired Illinois and several other states to pass laws that prevented husbands declaring their wives insane and that required jury trials before people could be committed.
One of these letters from Doctor Prince, Superintendent of that Asylum, assured me of this fact, in these words:
"I will receive Mrs. Packard as a case of hopeless insanity, upon the certificate of Dr. McFarland that she is 'hopelessly' insane."
Another from Dr. McFarland, saying:
With this certificate he could get me entered without any sort of trial, and thus I could be disposed of without jeopardizing their own interests, for he added:
"The dignity of silence is the only safe course for us both to pursue!"
Another from his sister, Mrs. Marian Severance, of Massachusetts, revealed the mode in which she advised her brother to transfer me from my home prison to my Asylum prison. She advised him to let me go to New York, under the pretence of getting my book published, and have him follow in a train behind, assuring the conductors that I must be treated as an insane person, although I should deny the charge, as all insane persons did, and thus make sure of their aid as accomplices in this conspiracy against my personal liberty. The conductor must be directed to switch me off at Northampton, Mass., instead of taking me to New York, and as my through ticket would indicate to me that all was right, she thought this could be done without arousing my suspicions; then engage a carriage to transport me to the Asylum under the pretext of a hotel, and lock me up for life as a state's pauper! Then, said she:
"You will have her out of the way, and can do as you please with her property, her children, and even her wardrobe; don't be even responsible this time for her clothing."
Mr. Packard was responsible for my wardrobe in Jacksonville prison, but for nothing else. I was supported there three years as a state pauper. This fact, Mr. Packard most adroitly concealed from my rich father and family relatives, so that he could persuade my deluded father to place more of my patrimony in his hands, under the false pretence that he needed it to make his daughter more comfortable in the Asylum. My father sent him money for this purpose, supposing Mr. Packard was paying my board at the Asylum; but instead of that he appropriated it all to his own exclusive use.
Another, letter was from Dr. McFarland, wherein I saw that Mr. Packard had made application for my re-admission there; and Dr. McFarland had consented to receive me again as an insane patient!
But the Trustees put their veto upon it, and would not consent to his plea that I be admitted there again. Here is his own statement, which I copied from his own letter:
"Jacksonville, December 18, 1863. Rev. Mr. Packard, Dear Sir: The Secretary of the Trustees has probably before this communicated to you the result of their action in the case of Mrs. Packard. It is proper enough to state that I favored her re-admission!"
Then follows his injunction to Mr. Packard to be sure not to publish anything respecting the matter.
Why is this? Does an upright course seek concealment?
Nay, verily: It is conscious guilt alone that seeks concealment, and dreads agitation lest his crimes be exposed. Mine is only one of a large class of cases, where he has consented to re-admit a sane person, particularly the wives of men whose influence he was desirous of securing for the support of himself in his present lucrative position.
Yes, many intelligent wives and mothers did I leave in that awful prison, whose only hope of liberty lies in the death of their lawful husbands, or in a change of the laws, or in a thorough ventilation of that Institution. Such a ventilation was needed, in order that justice be done to that class of miserable inmates who were then unjustly confined there.
When I had read these letters over three or four times, to make it sure I had not mistaken their import, and even had taken copies of some of them, I determined upon the following expedient as my last and only resort, as a self-defensive act.
There was a stranger who passed my window daily to get water from our pump. One day as he passed I beckoned to him to take a note which I had pushed down through where the windows came together, adding:
"Stranger, please hand this note to Mrs. Haslet."
My windows were firmly nailed down and screwed together, so that I could not open them.
This note was directed to Mrs. A. C. Haslet, the most efficient friend I knew of in Manteno, wherein I informed her of my imminent danger, and begged of her if possible in any way to rescue me, to do so forthwith, for in a few days I should be beyond the reach of all human help.
She communicated these facts to the citizens, when mob law was suggested as the only available means of rescue which lay in their power to use, as no law existed which defended a wife from a husband's power, and no man dared to take the responsibility of protecting me against my husband.
And one hint was communicated to me clandestinely that if I would only break through my window, a company was formed who would defend me when once outside our house. This rather unlady-like mode of self-defense I did not like to resort to, knowing as I did, if I should not finally succeed in this attempt, my persecutors would gain advantage over me, in that I had once injured property, as a reason why I should be locked up.