In 1860, Elizabeth Packard, a teacher and mother of six from Jacksonville, Illinois, began to disagree with her husband's religious beliefs.

Theophilus Packard, a strict Calvinist pastor, was mortified when his usually obedient wife become opinionated.

One morning at church, Mrs Packard stood up in the middle of her husband's sermon and announced to the congregation that she was moving to the Methodist church over the road, reports News.com.au.

According to author Hendrik Hartog, Mrs. Packard became more attracted to "enlightened" and "modern" religious movements, including perfectionism and spiritualism.

Advertisement

Hartog wrote: "To the more conservative members of Reverend Packard's church, who held firm to the Calvinist bedrock of human depravity and ignorance, her beliefs were literal evidence of insanity"

Mr Packard, who was worried about his wife's mental health, asked a doctor to come to their home to see his wife and pretend he was a sewing machine salesman. Mrs Packard invited the "salesman" inside and, as they were making small talk, she commented about her husband's religious views, telling him that her husband thought she was "insane".

The salesman/doctor concluded that Mr Packard was correct; his wife was insane.

It was 150 years ago this month that Mrs Packard was admitted to the Illinois State Hospital for the Insane. In those days, the law didn't require any proof of mental illness. It was accepted that if a husband decided to commit his wife to a mental asylum, he must have very good reasons.

MRS PACKARD THE CAMPAIGNER

To her absolute horror, Mrs Packard was incarcerated at the asylum for three years and was only allowed to leave when her son turned 21 and was able to release her.

But, even when she was home, her husband kept her locked inside the house, even nailing the windows shut. A year after her release, the couple appeared in court where Mrs Packard fought to convince the judge of her sanity so she had the right to leave her home whenever she pleased.

It took the jury just seven minutes to see that Mrs Packard was sane and she won the case. She divorced her husband and founded the Anti-Insane Asylum Society, campaigning for divorced women to retain custody of their children. She also wrote several books, including Insane Asylums Unveiled.

But Mrs Packard was one of the lucky ones. For many people — especially women — once they were admitted into an asylum the chances of an early release were very slim.

Advertisement
Kidnapping Mrs. Packard. Photo / Indians, Insanity, and American History Blog
Kidnapping Mrs. Packard. Photo / Indians, Insanity, and American History Blog

THE RISE OF THE ASYLUM

Prior to the 19th century, if a person was thought to be insane, their only hope would be for family members to look after them. In England in 1808, the government authorised the building of 20 "insane asylums" to house the mentally ill.

By the end of the 1800s, there were more than 120 asylums, housing around 100,000 people. Most of these places were described as "a place of confinement and a loss of hope".

An inspector who visited Hanwell Asylum in London in 1893 described "gloomy corridors and wards", an "absence of decoration, brightness and general smartness" and "a want of sufficient ventilation".

He concluded, "It would be astonishing to find that any cures are ever made there."

According to historian Nancy Tomes, author of The Art of Asylum-Keeping, doctors merely confirmed a diagnosis of insanity already made by families, neighbours, and other non-medical authorities.

Tomes writes: "The composition of a 19th century asylum population tells more about the family's response to insanity than the incidence or definition of the condition itself."

Among those committed to an asylum due to "chronic mania" or being "deluded" were others committed for reasons such as "causing domestic trouble," "religious excitement" and "overwork."

Those who complained that they were being committed for reasons other than mental illness had their remarks noted as just another clarification that they were, in fact, "deluded".

Most patients were treated appallingly. Asylums were used as a way to keep the mentally ill out of the public eye, so many were tied up and treated like animals.

A STRANGE LIST OF REASONS FOR INSANITY

This image listing dozens of reasons why people could be admitted into an asylum has been doing the rounds on social media for a long time; including laughable reasons such as "laziness," "novel reading", "parents were cousins" and "politics".

The list was taken from the log book of the West Virginia Hospital for the Insane, documenting admissions to the institution between 1864 and 1889.

The hospital claimed to treat patients suffering from chronic dementia, acute mania, chronic mania and melancholia.

So, according to the hospital, this list — rather than being a list of reasons people were committed to the asylum — was more a list of reasons why the patients were believed to have developed their underlying maladies.

MENTAL ASYLUMS IN AUSTRALIA

Australia has its fair share of asylum horrors, with Tarban Creek opening in 1838 in Sydney, at Bedlam Point. Originally built for 60 patients, by 1844 there were 148 inmates.

According to a University of Western Sydney study, in 1850 an inquiry was held into the deaths of two patients.

"On May 23, 1849, a maniacal patient fractured the skull of another patient with a chamber pot. The injured patient died six or seven weeks later. The Medical Board of Inquiry's report laid the blame for the deaths of the two patients squarely on conditions at the asylum.

"Another serious incident occurred during 1843 when it was discovered two of the male convict keepers were sexually abusing female patients, which resulted in the keepers' imprisonment on Cockatoo Island."

There were said to be more than 1000 corpses buried beneath the asylum. Sadly, such was the stigma of mental illness that when a patient died, often family members would refuse to collect the body for a proper burial.

Insane patients in a French asylum. Photo / Wellcome Collection
Insane patients in a French asylum. Photo / Wellcome Collection

In 1878, Callan Park in Rozelle was opened, with a view to specialising in the new medical practice of psychiatry.

According to Sarah Luke, author of Callan Park, Hospital for the Insane, Callan Park was equipped with a cricket pitch, farm, orchard and zoo. Soon the asylum proper was built and became home to more than 700 patients.

But it wasn't long before Callan Park was overcrowded and ruled by sadistic doctors and nurses.

A former patient told Sydney's Truth Newspaper in July 1900, "These so-called nurses treat patients most cruelly. They are mechanical, inhumane creatures. I once had my hair pulled until my nose bled. I have seen the nurses twist patients' arms behind their backs until they cried out in pain and bump their heads against the stone wall."

ENGLAND'S WEST RIDING LUNATIC ASYLUM

At a recent exhibition presented by London's Wellcome Collection, photos and short histories of some of the female patients of the West Riding Lunatic Asylum in the late 1800s were featured.

It was a fascinating and terribly sad snapshot of the lives of women who, had they been mentally ill, would have been treated quite differently today.

ELLEN FOLEY

Ellen Foley, a patient at the West Riding Lunatic Asylum. Photo / Wellcome Collection
Ellen Foley, a patient at the West Riding Lunatic Asylum. Photo / Wellcome Collection

In May 1861, 22-year-old Ellen Foley was admitted to the West Riding Asylum, Yorkshire. Her case notes states that she was suffering from "mania characterised by her excited manners — talking and laughing and wandering about the ward breaking the windows".

Twelve years later, Foley was described by her physician as "almost completely demented". She was eventually transferred to the South Yorkshire Asylum, near Sheffield, and then discharged in 1875 with apparently no improvement.

While her official photograph carries the note "acute melancholia", her official records make no mention of the mental illness.

EMMA PAGE

Emma Page, a patient at the West Riding Lunatic Asylum. Photo / Wellcome Collection
Emma Page, a patient at the West Riding Lunatic Asylum. Photo / Wellcome Collection

In May 1866, 36-year-old widow, Emma Page, was admitted to the asylum suffering from "delusions". Ms Page believed that all her food was poisoned and that people, including her brother, entered her locked house and stole her documents and other valuables.

According to her case notes, she believed the Queen of England and the Emperor of France were going to ensure that she took possession of large properties in India and the US.

She remained in the asylum until her death in July 1911 at the age of 81 from tuberculosis.

ELLEN SUTCLIFFE

Ellen Sutcliffe, a patient at West Riding Lunatic Asylum. Photo / Wellcome Collection
Ellen Sutcliffe, a patient at West Riding Lunatic Asylum. Photo / Wellcome Collection

Ms Sutcliffe was admitted to the asylum in April 1865 when she was 26 and had been working at the Halifax Workhouse. She'd been married and had two children.

Her case notes don't state who admitted her, but when she was being examined, a physicist made notes when considering whether she was a lunatic: "That she is whining and crying out 'Oh dear'. That she fails to reply to my inquiries, that she is desponding and now crying out loudly for her father.

"That Mrs Haigh tells me she has been obliged to confine her in the padded room at the Workhouse, that she attempted to throw herself and infant out of the window a week ago." In July 1884, Ms Sutcliffe was said to be dancing in the main hall of the asylum when she had a seizure. She was carried to her bed where she died shortly afterwards.

ALICE CHRISTINA ABBOTT

The case of Alice Christina Abbott perhaps best illustrates the reasons some women were committed to insane asylums in the 19th century.

According to the Daily Alta California newspaper in 1867, 17-year-old Abbott allegedly killed her stepfather by putting poison in his tea. Abbott claimed her stepfather had been having an "improper connection" with her since she was 13.

According to the newspaper, she "had threatened to kill her stepfather and had made no secret of her satisfaction at his death". Abbott's accusations against her stepfather were dismissed by the court, and she was committed to Taunton State Lunatic Hospital in Massachusetts.

Following Abbott's admission to the asylum, nothing more is known about her. Whether the teenager was insane or not, we will never know. Whether she was committed to the asylum as a way to brush such a scandalous story under the carpet, or not, we will never know.