By Emily Mann
Directed by Vanessa Stalling
April 4 – 12, 2014
Based on historical events, Mrs Packard tells the story of an Illinois woman committed, by her husband Theophilus Packard, into the Jacksonville Insane Asylum in 1860. Supported by an Illinois state law passed in 1851, Theophilus was able to institutionalize his wife "without the evidence of insanity required in other cases." Frustrated by his wife’s disagreements with him on a number of topics ranging from religion to how to raise their children, Theophilus hoped that she would succumb to his ideas (or in other words, “be cured”) during her incarceration. Struggling against a dysfunctional, patriarchal system, Elizabeth Packard eventually freed herself after being imprisoned in the Jacksonville Insane Asylum for three years. She championed the rights of women and those in need of mental health services, ultimately leading to the reform of the Illinois state law. Come on a journey with Elizabeth as she struggles to prove her sanity to her doctor, husband and society.
Packard v. Packard
“Married women and infants who, in the judgment of the medical superintendent are evidently insane or distracted, may be entered or detained in the hospital on the request of the husband of the woman or the guardian of the infant, without the evidence of insanity required in other cases”
Passed into law on 15 February 1851, in the state of Illinois
After Elizabeth Packard’s own court-ordered release from Jacksonville during the spring of 1863, the Reverend Theophilus Packard locked her in the nursery of their home and nailed the windows shut. In many states in the nineteenth century, it was a husband's legal prerogative to so institutionalize his wife in a hospital, and Elizabeth had had no recourse against her 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. While imprisoned in the nursery, Elizabeth was able to get a letter of complaint, secretly, to her friend, Sarah Haslett. Haslett immediately appealed to Judge Charles Starr.
Judge Starr, of Kankakee City, Illinois, issued a writ of habeas corpus and ordered Reverend Packard to bring Elizabeth to his chambers January1864. 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.”
Elizabeth Packard campaigned to change the law in Illinois and similar laws in 30 other states. During her lifetime, four states revised their laws.
The main conflict leading to the estrangement between Mr. and Mrs. Packard is the difference in religious opinions. While Mr. Theophilus Packard believes that a person is damned from birth, his wife, Mrs. Packard, believes that people have a chance to be saved from damnation.
(photo courtesy of American Theater)
"Emily Mann is one of our most urgently engaging, provocative and significant American playwrights whose work bears witness to some of the most pressing moral issues of our time."
-Joyce Carol Oates
"More than any other American writer of our time, the body of her work has demonstrated the central importance of theatre to the psychic well-being and sanity of a society."
- Athol Fugard
Rights and Wrongs: Talking with Emily Mann about Mrs. Packard
Dramaturg Douglas Langworthy recently spoke with Emily Mann about her new play. This is the conversation:
Doug: What was it about Mrs. Packard’s story that made you want to dramatize it?
Emily: I read a one-page synopsis of her life on the recommendation of a friend, and her story stunned me. I did not know a woman could be thrown into a lunatic asylum in this country simply because she disagreed with her husband. Elizabeth was an educated woman, but like many women of her day she was ignorant of the fact that she did not have the right to think her own thoughts; she didn’t know that as a married woman she was property of her husband and a legal non-entity. The experience in the asylum in both the ward for sane women and her experience in the violent ward woke her up and transformed her. My plays often are about giving voice to the voiceless. Elizabeth’s voice was not only almost silenced in her own day, but like many women, her story has nearly disappeared from history.
Doug: How was writing this play different for you than writing a documentary play?
Emily: It’s been liberating. It took a combination of all the skills used in writing a documentary—research, editing—because in fact this is inspired by a true story. But it gave me complete freedom to know what the bones of the story were and then fill in from there and create characters and make scenes and tell a story from my imagination. That’s been the great fun of it. If I needed a scene, I could write it. I didn’t somehow have to construct it out of spoken word or found text.
Doug: How close is your play to the actual events, and how much poetic license did you take?
Emily: It’s quite close but I took some license. I had to. There are all kind of things in the real story that are not dramatically useful for a play, so I streamlined some things, left some things out. I’ve had to make composite characters. But I’m pretty true to the basic story.
Doug: How did you research the story? How rich is the historical record?
Emily: It’s very rich. Elizabeth Packard wrote a lot. After leaving the asylum, she made her living as a writer, so there were her own books. She wrote in the asylum. She kept copious notes and she got testimonies from other women and she wrote it all down. It started in the asylum, but she continued to write until she died. There are letters that she wrote to [fellow Jacksonville inmate] Mrs. Chapman, which are beautiful. There’s also the trial which was short but fascinating. There is one biography of her, The Private War of Mrs. Packard, and that was helpful. There are some historical books on madness in which she is cited or her case is discussed. And I’m still reading about Calvinism.
Doug: Did you have to research mental institutions in the nineteenth century?
Emily: A lot of it was in what she wrote. Mostly I need to know what she went through, so it’s mainly just poring over her books. But yes, I did some research on the horrors of the nineteenth-century asylum system.
Doug: Mrs. Packard was very strong in the face of adversity. Where do you think she got her strength from?
Emily: During the trial, the witnesses for both the defense and the prosecution said she was very passionate, had a nervous temperament and was very strong willed. So where did that strong will come from? I don’t know. Most of us are born with our own personalities, I’m convinced of it. You may temper them in some way, but we are who we are. She clearly dazzled people with her mind. Everyone remarked on it. And she was articulate. And she was beautiful. She was used to being listened to. She had a father who listened to her, who took her mind seriously, who had her as well educated as her brothers. So to come up against people telling you no, you can’t think your own thoughts, you’re not allowed to, you are in fact property— well, it enraged her. It shocked her. She was incapable of letting that stand.
Doug: Do you think her faith was also a part of it?
Emily: Yes, and that’s a part of the story that I clearly had to research very hard because I don’t share it. I think she was a very spiritual woman, and a very deeply religious woman who had her own very personal sense of what it was to be godly. I think she felt she had a special mission, and she was looking for what it was. And I think she thought she found it in the asylum. That same spirituality and godliness gives her a rock solid moral and ethical spine. Like her husband she would not bend. The two of them were equally stubborn and equally unbending, incapable of compromise.
Doug: When Dr. McFarland offered her the deal of pretending to agree with her husband and being set free, she refused to go along. Why do you think she refused even if it meant being cut off from her children?
Emily: I think she has a horror of lying. It’s a sin. She entered the asylum a sane woman, she will leave a sane woman. But if the deal is I go home and pretend to believe everything my husband says and everything he believes in, I can’t do that to myself and I can’t do it to my children. I can’t live a lie. At one point, because she’s so worried about her children, she does think she will in fact do anything to get out. And then she hears a woman scream. And she says to herself, no, I can’t. That scream has a lot of echoes, one of those echoes is her thinking she would hear that scream for the rest of her life if she lies to get out. She wouldn’t be able to live with herself.
Doug: She thinks the best choice is to help the doctor tell the truth. She thinks “I’ll urge him to be the man he would like to be. Let him know he does not have to compromise his ethics. He is a man who wants to heal, and as his loving friend I must tell him to stand up to these husbands and say, ‘No, I will not keep your sane wives here. I don’t care what it costs me, I will tell the truth.’” And he disappoints her. Moreover, he’s infuriated that she dared question his integrity because he needs to believe he is a man of integrity. His rage against her is horrible, and she pays dearly for it.
Emily: How do you think this play speaks to the present?
Doug: Is it Pascal who said “Good people do terrible things in the name of religion?” We are seeing the results of religious fanaticism all around the world and in our own country at the moment, and of course religious fanaticism is usually disastrous for women. Also—I started writing this when the Abu Ghraib story broke. As in Elizabeth’s story, we saw how absolute power corrupts absolutely. Torturers can go mad, just like their victims. And I am always struck by the fact that what happened to Mrs. Packard and countless other women happened in this country not so very long ago.
Written by Douglas Langworthy
Elizabeth Parsons Ware married the Reverend Theophilus Packard on May 21, 1839. The couple had six children and for much of their marriage, the Packard’s led a fairly peaceful life in Kankakee County, Illinois.
But Theophilus Packard, a strict Old School Calvinist, was very set in his conservative views about religion. After they had been married for many years, Elizabeth Packard began to question her husband’s religious beliefs, and began to express her opinions to parishioners in Reverend Packard’s church as well as to other members of the community. On one occasion, she stood up in the middle of a service and announced that she was going across the street to worship with the Methodists, whose beliefs were much closer to her own.
Theophilus, convinced she must be insane for disagreeing with him on these religious matters, had Elizabeth committed to the Illinois State Hospital at Jacksonville. It was legal at that time for a husband to have his wife committed on his word alone. Elizabeth learned of her husband’s decision when the county sheriff arrived on June 18, 1860, and physically removed her from her house and put her on the train to the asylum.
The superintendent of the hospital was Dr. Andrew McFarland, an intelligent and charming man who at first took a liking to Elizabeth. But when she refused to pretend she agreed with her husband or change her religious views as the doctor suggested, he turned against her and had her transferred to the 8th Ward for the violent and hopelessly insane.
Elizabeth did many things to maintain her sanity while inside the hospital. She took it upon herself to clean up the filthy 8th ward and its patients. She wrote constantly, and even after she was forbidden to have paper, she managed to find scraps here and there. With the help of some of the staff throughout the asylum she collected written testimony from patients detailing their experiences. She even kept a journal which become the basis for several books she wrote after she was released. To maintain her health, she stuck to a regular routine of physical exercise and hygiene.
Eventually Elizabeth was discharged, but Theophilus then boarded her up in a room of their house. While it was legal for a husband to commit his wife, it was against the law for a husband to lock his wife in her own home. Elizabeth was able to throw a letter out the window to a neighbor, and a writ of habeas corpus was filed on her behalf.
At the subsequent trial, Theophilus’ lawyers brought witnesses from the family and church, who said the Packard’s had publicly argued and Elizabeth had attempted to leave the church, evidence in their eyes that she was insane.
Elizabeth’s lawyers responded by calling witnesses from the neighborhood who knew the Packard’s but were not members of Rev. Packard’s church. These witnesses testified that they had never seen Elizabeth demonstrate any signs of insanity.
The jury took only seven minutes to find in Elizabeth’s favor. She was declared legally sane. While the Packard’s never formally divorced, Elizabeth and Theophilus remained separated for the rest of their lives. It took Elizabeth Packard nine years to gain custody of her children.
Until the end of her life at age 81, Elizabeth worked for the rights of the mentally ill and partnered with the abolitionists for the emancipation of married women. Due to her efforts and the influence of her books, 34 bills were passed in various state legislatures, including a law passed by the Illinois legislature passed in 1869 which required a jury trial before a person could be committed to an asylum. She also influenced the formation of The National Society for the Protection of the Insane and the Prevention of Insanity.
Mental Illness in the 19th Century - Carrie Hughes
“The history of the treatment (or lack thereof) of the mentally ill in the United States is a checkered one. The first colonists blamed mental illness on witchcraft and demonic possession, and the mentally ill were often imprisoned, sent to alms houses, or remained untreated at home. Conditions in these prisons were appalling. In 1841, Dorothea Dix volunteered to teach a Sunday-school class for women prisoners; she was outraged by the conditions she witnessed. Dix went on to become a renowned advocate for the mentally ill, urging more humane treatment-based care than that given to the mentally ill in prisons. In 1847 she urged the Illinois legislature to provide “appropriate care and support for the curable and incurable indigent insane.” In 1851, Jacksonville Insane Asylum, where Elizabeth Packard was later confined, was opened.
Beginning in the late eighteenth century “moral treatment” had become the prevalent school of treatment in the United States. Replacing the model of demonic possession, “moral treatment” hypothesized that insanity was caused by brain damage from outward influences on the soft and fragile brain. Removing patients to an appropriate environment where they could indulge in clean, healthy living, and would be offered exercise, work, education and religious instruction, was thought to facilitate their cure.
But the “moral treatment” method was riddled with problems. As doctors and other hospital personnel grew frustrated by their lack of progress and a shortage of willing qualified staff, conditions often deteriorated. Faced with overcrowded hospitals, and concerned about the rise of the spiritualist movement (which some attributed to the “moral treatment” method), many superintendents resorted to physical restraints. By the middle part of the century, heredity also was considered a root cause of mental illness. Many in the field believed that weak family and vices, like alcoholism and masturbation, could lead to madness. The mentally ill were considered “genetically inferior” and eugenics and warped interpretations of Darwin’s theories suggested that mental illness could be eliminated through social engineering.
By the 1880s the tide was turning against asylums, thanks to stories of their poor conditions, some true, some sensational, appearing in the press. Greater oversight and medical standards for asylums were implemented. New theories promoted by neurologists included “rest cures” and treatment using static electricity. By the close of the century, Freud’s theories began to arrive in America, precipitating a revolution in psychiatry.”