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Packard v. Packard


In 1864, Illinois law permitted a man to institutionalize his wife "without the evidence of insanity required in other cases." After her own court-ordered release, Elizabeth Packard campaigned to change the law in Illinois and similar laws in 30 other states. During her lifetime, four states revised their laws.

Near the end of 1863, the Reverend Theophilus Packard locked his wife Elizabeth in the nursery of their home and nailed the windows shut. He had earlier had her committed for three years to the Illinois State Hospital for the Insane, based only upon on his own observation that she was "slightly insane," a condition he attributed to "excessive application of body and mind." In many states in the nineteenth century, it was a husband's legal prerogative to so institutionalize his wife, and Elizabeth had had no recourse against that earlier confinement. Now, however, she had a valid argument: The law did not permit a husband to "put away" a wife in her own home. Elizabeth Packard dropped a letter of complaint out her window, which was delivered to her friend, Sarah Haslett. Haslett immediately appealed to Judge Charles Starr.

Judge Starr issued a writ of habeas corpus and ordered Reverend Packard to bring Elizabeth to his chambers on 12 January 1864. Packard produced Elizabeth and a written statement explaining that she "was discharged from [the Illinois State] Asylum without being cured and is incurably insane . . . [and] the undersigned has allowed her all the liberty compatible with her welfare and safety." Unimpressed, the judge scheduled a jury trial to determine whether or not Elizabeth Packard was insane.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882Packard v. Packard - Significance, Reverend Packard's Case Against His Wife, Mrs. Packard Defends Her Sanity