Imagine being confined to an insane asylum simply for disagreeing with your husband.
Elizabeth Packard didn't have to imagine it — she lived it. In 1861, her husband, Theophilus, a minister, had her committed simply because she questioned his interpretation of church doctrine. She stayed there three years, stubbornly refusing to change her religious views or admit she was insane. Finally, after public pressure and a jury trial, she was released.
When playwright Emily Mann learned of Packard's story, she decided to research and dramatize it. The result, “Mrs. Packard,” is being presented by First Presbyterian Theater.
“It's an amazing little piece of theater based on a true story,” said director Thom Hofrichter.
“This is so perfect for First Pres,” Hofrichter said, explaining that part of the play deals with the essential dignity we all owe each other. “Part of it is about the basic rights of human beings,” he said.
The other issue inherent to the play is one of theology. Theophilus Packard, Elizabeth's husband, was a Calvinist, set in his conservative views about religion. Hofrichter said for Calvinists and Puritans at that time, “God was about trying to avoid hell and damnation.”
But in the 1800s, theology started morphing a bit, Hofrichter said. Elizabeth seemed to embrace a more modern view of Christianity and question her husband's beliefs.
Hofrichter believes the theological tension between the two is indicative of the ways Christians process Christianity even today. He said it's the eternal question for Christians: “Is God judgment, or is God love?”
Unable to control Elizabeth, Theophilus had a way to punish her for daring to challenge his religious beliefs. At that time in Illinois, where the Packards lived, a husband who could not get his wife to behave in a certain matter could declare his wife insane and put her in a mental institution, Hofrichter explained. Back in those days, there was no real medical definition of “insane,” he added.
Elizabeth wasn't insane; she just had a mind of her own. She refused to lie, and she refused to be broken, Hofrichter said.
So she found herself in the Jacksonville Insane Asylum in Jacksonville, Ill., where there really were insane people. She initially had a good relationship with the superintendent, but when she started challenging him, he punished her by putting her in the eighth ward, where the “worst of the worst” patients were sent, Hofrichter said. Elizabeth spent her time there cleaning, bathing and taking care of these severely mentally ill patients.
After three years, she finally got a trial. The jury decided she was falsely imprisoned, and she was released. Theophilus took their children and left the state. They never divorced, but remained separated the rest of their lives.
Elizabeth became a writer after leaving the asylum, so Mann used much of that material to research the story. The portion of the play that addressed the trial is taken directly from transcripts. However, Hofrichter said Mann “took a few licenses so (the play) stays dramatically interesting.”
Hofrichter noted the historic significance of the story “that in some ways stayed hidden for 150 years.”
Noting that we as a people so often forget where we've come from in society, Hofrichter said, “Mrs. Packard stood up for what she believed in, and she changed the world.”
By 1870, a husband could no longer declare his wife insane in the state of Illinois.