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June 11, 2024 8 mins

Did you know that as recently as the Victorian era, somebody could have you committed to an insane asylum just because you disobeyed a husband, were too opinionated, were caught masturbating, and so much more? The treatment ranged from being chained to a wall, beaten...and more. And no one had to prove your insanity! This is the story of how one woman, post-lock-up, changed the status quo.

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
Okay, I get it. You're opinionated, sometimes disagreeable, emotional, or
maybe you have intellectual interests you'll like to read, you
have interesting but kind of sketchy friends, they're artistic, or
you're a little overly sexual, all reasons given for getting
folks committed to what they call lunatic asylums back in
the eighteen and early nineteen hundreds. Inside they could be

restrained and even tortured. I'm Patty Steele, one woman's story
about the insanity of getting perfectly sane people locked up.
That's next on the backstory. The backstory is back. We
know how mental illness impacts our society, people we know
and work with, our families, even ourselves. But there was

a time when you could be wrongly accused of being insane,
thrown into an asylum and maybe never get out. Inside
you might be chained to a wall or tied up,
forced into freezing baths, fed bug infested food, and even beaten,
and most of the time you had no recourse. Nobody
was going to listen to you because you were air

quotes insane. It's eighteen sixty Elizabeth Parsons where Packard born
in eighteen sixteen, is living in Kankakee, Illinois, with her husband,
Theophilus Packard, a conservative Calvinist minister. When she was a teenager,
her parents felt she had what was called brain fever

and had her committed for six weeks of treatment. She's
probably just a typical difficult teenager. That's when they decided
she needed to marry a much older and very demanding
husband who could control her, and they chose Theophilus. Now,
the problem is, Elizabeth is brilliant, independent, and strong willed
qualities her husband doesn't really appreciate. She's well educated, which

fuels her passion for learning and debate, and that really
pisses off her husband, who doesn't like to be dis
agreed with and has zero interest in engaging in debates
with her. The Aphulis was all about fire and brimstone
as well as absolute obedience, and he certainly was not
okay with having a wife that questioned anything he believed

or demanded of her. The couple had six children, but
as time went by, Elizabeth started to voice her own
more liberal ideas about religion, politics, women's rights, as well
as her views on their financial decisions and raising their children.
And that's where the trouble started. The Aphulis saw her
as a threat to his authority and probably his ego.

He decided she was slightly insane due to what he
called the excessive application of body and mind, whatever the
heck that meant. So what to do with this difficult chick. Well,
in a move that wasn't actually all that unusual in
those days, he had Elizabeth declared insane. I mean it
was really crazy. He had a doctor pretend to be

a sewing machine salesman and then get into a conversation
with her so he could evaluate her. During the chat,
Elizabeth talked about how domineering her husband was, and even
told him that he was accusing her of insanity. How
you get into a discussion like that with a sewing
machine guy, I don't know. Anyway, of course, the doctor

went straight to her husband and told him everything. The
next day she was off to the Jacksonville Insane Asylum
in Illinois, where she spent the next three years. It
was a nightmare. Literally, patients were kept in cramped quarters,
fed putrid food, plunged into ice baths to cool them off,
and there was a total lack of basic hygiene. Frequently

they were tied up or even chained to walls. If
they protested loudly enough, they might be beaten and put
into total isolation. In some places, the public could actually
take tours of the asylum for entertainment, staring at the inmates.
But Elizabeth was tough, and she began to meticulously document

everything that happened to her, as well as the abuses
she witnessed. She wrote everything down, and it was a
window into a really dark past. She described how patients
were physically restrained and treated more like prisoners than patients.
But Elizabeth wasn't just writing for herself. She was building
a case, one journal entry at a time. Her strength,

as well as the support of her children, finally paid off,
and she was ultimately released in eighteen sixty three after
three grueling years. But her husband still wanted control, so
when she arrived home, he kept her locked up in
the nursery with the windows nailed shut. Eventually, she managed

to smuggle out a letter to a close friend, who
took it to a judge. The judge sent the case
to trial. Packard versus Packard only lasted five days in court.
Theophilis's lawyers tried to prove Elizabeth was insane because she
had argued with her husband and tried to withdraw from
his congregation at church. Her defense attorneys called witnesses from

the neighborhood who testified they never saw any signs that
she was insane, and a local doctor who had interviewed
her said that while he didn't always agree with her
religious beliefs, he felt she was totally sane. He said,
I do not call people insane because they differ with me.
I pronounce her a sane woman, and actually wish we

had a nation of such women. The jury deliberated for
only seven minutes before she was legally declared sane. But
it didn't end there. When Elizabeth went home, she found
that her husband had rented their house to another family,
sold her furniture, taken her money, all of her writings,
her clothing, and even taken her children and left the state.

But she had no legal recourse because in those days,
married women had no legal rights to their property or
to their children. She didn't take all this without a fight,
and Elizabeth Packard went on to found the Anti Insane
Asylum Society. She fought for compassionate care and against laws
that allowed people to so easily be committed by just

one other person. Her books like Modern Persecution or Insane
Asylums Unveiled exposed the horrific conditions in most asylums, and
the public was outraged. That's a good thing. She also
wrote books about and advocated for women's rights and freedom
of speech and all this made her a national celebrity. Ironically,

her celebrity status earned her so much money she was
able to not only take care of her children financially
once she got them back, but also took care of
her estranged husband, whom she never divorced. And that is
a kindness born of absolute strength, and her strength and
courage which change the way we view and treat mental illness.

I'd like to thank Danny Lawrence Cohen for suggesting this
really fascinating story. I hope you're enjoying The Backstory with
Patty Steele. Follow or subscribe for free to get new
episodes delivered automatically, and feel free to dm me if
you have a story you'd like me to cover. On Facebook,
It's Patty Steele and on Instagram Real Patty Steele. I'm

Patty Steele. The Backstories a production of iHeartMedia Premiere Networks,
the Elvis Duran Group, and Steel Trap Productions. Our producer
is Doug Fraser. Our writer Jake Kushner. We have new
episodes every Tuesday and Friday. Feel free to reach out
to me with comments and even story suggestions on Instagram
at Real Patty Steele and on Facebook at Patty Steele.

Thanks for listening to the backstory with Patty Steele, the
pieces of history you didn't know needed to know.
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