At the Asylum

“Illinois State Asylum” (image). “1873: Modern Persecution.” Disability History Museum. Straight Ahead Pictures. Accessed October 20, 2021. https://www.disabilitymuseum.org/dhm/lib/detail.html?id=1666

Elizabeth was sent to the Illinois State Asylum at the hand of her husband. While in the asylum, she took notes of her experiences and what she had to endure on a daily basis. Her personal account The Prisoner’s Hidden Life was created alongside the Illinois Legislature to create this primary source that encompasses her experience within the asylum. This page is focused on her account of her personal experiences and treatments within the asylum.

In The Prisoner’s Hidden Life Elizabeth writes of her first day of “prison life”.1 In her account, she does mention several accommodations she is given — possibly due to her higher status. She spoke of how the other women were required to use a community bath, but she was permitted her own bowl and pitcher so she could handle her morning duties within the comfort of her own room.2 The use of communal bathrooms, while it does impede on the women’s privacy, it is nothing out of the ordinary.

In relation to the food they are given, Packard explains how they lack nutritional density. She states how she was accustomed to fruits and vegetables and that the asylum food was merely a protein, bread, and potatoes. She also makes a point to explain how McFarland, the superintendent of the asylum, had an entire spread on his table. The juxtaposition between the patients’ food and the higher officials food shows a lack of true care for the patients. Elizabeth even states that she fears her health will deteriorate in the asylum due to the food.3

Packard also writes of how she was not permitted to leave the sight of an attendant when out of her cell. She was constantly kept under watch and was rarely permitted any sense of freedom.4 Her account of this, as well as her account of staying in the asylum for three years, is different than other patients that resided in this asylum. Packard states that she saw patients be admitted, have a consultation with the physician, and once their treatment was complete, they were permitted to leave. She, however, states that she never received that appointment with the physician therefore, resulting in her being unable to leave.5

Packard lack of appointment and inability to leave is not surprising considering her husband close connection to Dr. McFarland.6 Her husband’s goal was to keep Packard locked in the asylum so that he had full autonomy over her freedom. This is something that Elizabeth mentions in nearly all of her primary accounts. She is fully aware of her husband’s desire to control her so fully, that she has all of her freedoms revoked. This is what causes her desire to work towards increasing both women’s and patients rights.

  1. Elizabeth Packard, The Prisoners Hidden Life, Chicago: Packard, 1868, 61. []
  2. Ibid, 61. []
  3. Ibid, 62. []
  4. Ibid, 69. []
  5. Ibid, 68. []
  6. Ibid, 63. []
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