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Packard v. Packard: 1864

Reverend Packard Presents His Case, Elizabeth Packard Defends Her Sanity, Verdict Takes Seven Minutes, Suggestions For Further Reading

Plaintiff: Reverend Theophilus Packard, Jr.
Defendant: Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard
Plaintiff Claim: That his wife was insane and that he was therefore entitled to confine her at home
Chief Defense Lawyers: Stephen Moore and John W. Orr
Chief Lawyer for Plaintiff: No record
Judge: Charles R. Starr
Place: Kankakee, Illinois
Dates of Trial: January 13-18, 1864
Verdict: Elizabeth Packard declared sane and restored to liberty

SIGNIFICANCE: In 1864, Illinois law permitted a man to institutionalize his wife "without the evidence of insanity required in other cases." After her own courtordered 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 and nailed the windows shut. Earlier, he had committed her for three years to the Illinois State Hospital for the Insane, based only 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 19th century, it was a husband's legal prerogative to so institutionalize his wife, and Elizabeth Packard 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 R. Starr.

Judge Starr issued a writ of habeas corpus and ordered Reverend Packard to bring Elizabeth to his chambers on January 12, 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 Elizabeth Packard was insane.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882