Into the Asylum

“Kidnapping Mrs. Packard” (image). “1873: Modern Persecution.” Disability History Museum. Straight Ahead Pictures. Accessed October 20, 2021.

Elizabeth Packard reveals the details of what she calls her “abduction” in her first hand account in Women of the Asylum by Geller and Harris as well as in her own primary source of Modern Prosecution. Her description of events is as follows:

“Early on the morning of the 18th of June, 1860, as I arose from my bed, preparing to take my morning bath, I saw my husband approaching my door with our two physicians, both members of his church and our Bible-class — and a stranger gentleman, Sheriff Burgess.”

“Fearing exposure, I hastily locked my door… but my husband forced an entrance into my room through the window with an axe!”

“The Trio approached my bed, and each doctor felt my pulse, and without asking a single question both pronounced me insane. Of course my pulse was bounding at the time from excessive freight… I say it impossible for any women, unless she was either insane or insensible to her surroundings; not to be agitated under such circumstances”1.

The beginning parts of Packard’s description of her abduction showcase the absolute control her husband had of the situation. Elizabeth’s privacy was ignored as well as her ability to defend herself — supporting the notion that her husband had complete control of her and her environment. The doctors being members of his church is also an important factor since it represents the state of power that Theophilus held in the community that also surrounded Elizabeth.

Her description continues:

“This was the only medical examination I had. This was the only trial of any kind that I was allowed to have, to prove the charge of insanity brought against by my husband to be a false charge. I had no self-defense whatever.”

“My husband then informed me that the “forms of law” were all compiled with, and he now wished me to dress for a ride to Jacksonville insane asylum.” (Ibid, 51)

The laws that Packard claims her husband is referencing are laws that favor the husband’s power within the marriage and removed the wife’s ability to stand on her own. These laws are what allowed Theophilus to successfully admit his wife with nearly no medical examination that proved her insanity. Packard’s use of the word “trial” also exemplifies her understanding of the situation being an unjust accusation against her.

“I then asked the privilege of having my room vacated… intending to then secure about my person, secretly, my Bible-class documents, as all I have said in defense of my opinions was in writing, lest I be misrepresented. I therefore regarded these documents as my only means of defence, and had resorted to this innocent stratagem to secure them… But he refused me this request…”

“I resolved upon one more strategy as my last and only hope… to ask to be left alone long enough to pray in my own room once more before being forced from it into my prison. I asked to see my dear little ones to bestow upon them my parting kiss. But he denied me this favor also”2.

Packard’s ability to understand that this was her last few moments of freedom and her ability to quickly come up with a plan knowing she was going to need to defend herself represents how she was not in fact insane. Her use of language also shows that she was highly educated and understood the direness of the situation she was in. Her restriction from seeing her children before leaving also shows how the husband also controlled familial relations within the household — a place commonly reserved for women during this time.

  1. Elizabeth Packard, Modern Prosecution, 51 []
  2. Ibid, 52 []