Update: On Aug. 9, 2023, Gov. J.B. Pritzker renamed the former Andrew McFarland Mental Health Center the Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard Mental Health Center. Read the news release here. This entry has been lightly edited to reflect the change, as has the entry’s title.
Dr. Andrew McFarland, namesake of the former Andrew McFarland Mental Health Center near Springfield, directed the Illinois Hospital and Asylum for the Insane in Jacksonville in the 1850s and ’60s. Perversely, McFarland (1817-91) also helped expand the rights of people accused of mental instability – by opposing them.
McFarland’s nemesis was a Manteno woman, Elizabeth Packard (1816-97), who won national fame in the late 1800s for her efforts to reform mental treatment and the mental confinement process.
Packard was sent to the Jacksonville asylum in June 1860 – literally carried out of her house and put on a train – on the sole authority of her husband, Theophilus, a Calvinist minister. The “evidence” of her insanity was that she publicly disagreed with Theophilus on religious issues.
Her commitment was “in full compliance with Illinois law,” Samuel Wheeler of the Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission wrote in a November 2021 essay on the court website:
To expedite the commitment process, married women could be placed in the state hospital “on the request of the husband.” Married women like Elizabeth Packard had no legal recourse to protest their commitment or the length of their confinement in the Jacksonville asylum.
Inside the asylum, Elizabeth never wavered from her belief that she was not insane and challenged the superintendent, Dr. Andrew McFarland, to prove otherwise. While incarcerated, Packard documented the inhumane conditions inside the asylum and the mistreatment of her fellow patients, causing Dr. McFarland a great deal of aggravation. After 42 long months, a frustrated Dr. McFarland labeled Packard “incurably insane” and recommended her discharge from the asylum.
Theophilus Packard tried again to have Elizabeth committed, this time in Massachusetts, but was thwarted when her friends filed a legal action to free her from her husband’s control. In an unusual action, the judge in the case empaneled a jury to determine Elizabeth Packard’s sanity or insanity.
Among other testimony, Theophilus’s evidence included the certificate McFarland issued when he discharged Elizabeth Packard from Jacksonville. “Of the existence of insanity I have no question,” McFarland wrote. “She is now ordered to be discharged, as having remained here as long as it is expedient to retain such a case, and not because the disease is cured, or because any doubt has arisen as to its existence.”
To support her case, Elizabeth Packard read the jury one of her essays on religion, several friends testified that she seemed sane to them, and a respected physician/clergyman from Kankakee provided the clinching note. “I pronounce her a sane woman and wish we had a nation of such women.”
It took the jury seven minutes to reach a verdict: “We … are satisfied that said Elizabeth P.W. Packard is SANE.”
As Wheeler wrote, Elizabeth Packard spent the rest of her life trying to change mental health laws.
In 1867, Packard successfully lobbied politicians in Illinois to enact a new law, “An Act for the Protection of Personal Liberty” that guaranteed everyone accused of insanity, including married women, a jury trial. The law became known as “Mrs. Packard’s Personal Liberty Law.” Abraham Lincoln’s widow, Mary Todd Lincoln, received a jury trial in 1875 under this law when her son Robert petitioned the court to declare her insane. Packard is credited with influencing 34 bills in various state legislatures ….
McFarland opposed the Personal Liberty law, and he even objected to independent state inspections of mental facilities like that at Jacksonville.
The legislature nonetheless set up a commission in 1867 to investigate Packard’s allegations against McFarland and the asylum. Among other things, the panel found McFarland had tolerated a variety of abusive treatments, including one similar to modern-day waterboarding: obstreperous patients would be wrapped in a straitjacket and dunked in a bathtub over and over, submerged each time until they nearly passed out.
The commission delivered its conclusion that December:
(A)fter hearing the arguments of counsel, and carefully reviewing and considering the evidence, the committee unanimously resolved that it seemed their imperative duty to recommend an immediate change in the office of Superintendent, and the correction of abuses shown to exist.
McFarland, however, rode out the controversy, helped partly by disclosure of a cloying “love letter” Packard unwisely wrote him during a period when she hoped McFarland would be her ally in winning release from Jacksonville. More important, though, was support from the Jacksonville community and influential newspapers around the state.
Among them was the Illinois State Journal in Springfield, which published a letter from a Jacksonville resident in answer to the commission’s call for McFarland to be fired.
“The feeling in our community of sympathy for Dr. McFarland, and indignation against the inquisitorial manner of conducting the late so-called ‘investigation’ has increased very much since the date of my last letter,” the writer (identified only as “Sigma”) said. Jacksonville residents reacted with incredulity, Sigma wrote, “to the presence of so much incompetency, mismanagement, cruelty, etc., as alleged, in our midst without our knowledge, and contrary to our belief.”
Andrew McFarland remained superintendent of the Illinois Hospital and Asylum for the Insane until 1870, when he resigned to establish his own private asylum, Oak Lawn, in Jacksonville.
Neither he nor Elizabeth Packard was done with the other, however. Paul Lombardo of the University of Virginia summarized their last years in an essay prompted by a 1991 book, The Private War of Mrs. Packard by Barbara Sapinsley.
Dr. Andrew McFarland’s professional reputation suffered significantly following the investigation of his asylum prompted by Packard’s accusations. He watched Mary Todd Lincoln publicly declared insane in an 1872 jury trial, required under the (Personal Liberty) law, and considered public trials of insanity both unnecessary and harmful. McFarland reported the peculiarities of Mrs. Packard’s case to medical conferences years after she left his asylum but never accepted her contribution to the law. He had this to say of the Illinois “Act for the Protection of Personal Liberty”:
“(It) is injurious, odious, barbarous, damnable, and you may add as many more expletives to it as you please, and still not say the truth in regard to its evils. … Every superintendent of an asylum in the State is most eloquently pleading for a change in this detestable system. … A Bill is before the Legislature, reported favorably upon … but all, as I fear, will amount to nothing, because there are a few fanatics who raise the hue and cry over an imaginary bugbear.
Mrs. Packard’s persistence in opposing McFarland’s attempts to change the law qualified her as a most successful “fanatic.” The legislation she wrote remained intact for years.
Ironically, the last days of both McFarland and Packard were shadowed by mental illness. McFarland, suffering from depression, hanged himself at Oak Lawn in 1891.
“Packard outlived her psychiatrist by six years,” Lombardo wrote. “Her final years were devoted to caring for her daughter Elizabeth. Although her child was seriously mentally ill, often to the point of violence, the indomitable Mrs. Packard steadfastly refused to institutionalize her.”
Acknowledgement: This entry was informed by The Woman They Could Not Silence: One Woman, Her Incredible Fight for Freedom, and the Men Who Tried to Make Her Disappear, (2021) by Kate Moore.
Moore has described her book as “narrative non-fiction,” and she frequently characterizes Elizabeth Packard’s thoughts and emotions in ways traditional historians would not. However, The Woman They Could Not Silence is extensively footnoted (in a separate “Notes “section, not within text). And Moore was helped greatly by the fact that Packard wrote four books and many essays during her lifetime. As the reviewer of an earlier book on Packard commented, “Packard committed just about every waking thought to paper.”
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