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By Bradette Michel, author, For Their Own Good

The idea to write my novel, For Their Own Good came after I attempted to confirm a family rumor that my grandmother had been committed to the mental hospital in Jacksonville, about sixty miles from her home. Modern privacy legislation prevented my access to her treatment records, but I did gain information about the history of the asylum and a woman who was locked up in the hospital long before my grandmother’s time—Elizabeth Packard.

In 1860 Mrs. Packard was committed to the Illinois State Hospital for the Insane in Jacksonville, Illinois for disagreeing with her husband’s religious beliefs. I was stunned by her fate, but sadly found she was not alone. Many nineteenth century patients were locked in this institution and others like it for reasons that had more to do with the needs of their families than any mental aberrations. Deemed unfit to live in their communities, these outcasts were rejected by society, often lost custody of their children, and were deserted by spouses.


Mrs. Packard

Legally, Reverend Packard was not required to seek a court hearing before committing his wife. Instead, he enlisted the sheriff to bring her to the hospital by force. Naively, Mrs. Packard thought that since the hospital was experienced with the treatment of the insane, staff would recognize her as sane and refuse to admit her.

The institution’s superintendent, Dr. Andrew McFarland diagnosed Mrs. Packard’s illness as monomania, a condition in which the patient is sane in every way but one. Dr. McFarland concluded that Mrs. Packard’s insanity came from religious excitement. Only by agreeing with her husband’s theology, would she show evidence of being cured.

The Jacksonville hospital was one of many built across the country in the early nineteenth century through the efforts of social reformer Dorothea Dix. Dix convinced Illinois state legislators that asylums were the best way to cure the mentally ill. The Illinois State Hospital for the Insane in Jacksonville, Illinois, admitted its first patient in 1851.


Like many other asylums built across the country at that time, the Jacksonville hospital was designed by Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride. Kirkbride and other medical professionals believed that locating these hospitals in rural areas with landscaped grounds and farmland stimulated and calmed patients’ minds, as well as reduced costs by providing food products and livestock for the facility. Large and multi-storied, these institutions were most likely the biggest structures country patients had ever seen.

Kirkbride Buildings were intended to facilitate a new method of the care for the mentally ill—moral treatment. Moral treatment advocated placement in the hospital, away from vaguely defined causes of insanity, where meaningful work and recreation regulated the mind, encouraged physical fitness, and fostered social skills. Recovery could only be achieved in the asylum under the Christian guidance of a strong superintendent who acted as a wise father to all in the facility.

Residents were classified according to gender and symptoms before they were placed into wards on either side of the administration building. The most disturbed patients lived on the lower floors, in wards far away from the civilized activities of the central offices. The better-behaved patients resided near the administrative center on the upper floors.

Moral treatment’s tenet that good behavior be rewarded motivated some, but also created an atmosphere of fear of placement in the worst wards for bad behavior. Those wards had windows as well, but the expected therapeutic views of the grounds were blocked by metal screens to deter escape.

Mrs. Packard continued to defy Dr. McFarland’s instructions and refused to accept her husband’s beliefs. As a result, she was moved from a ward near the administration building to Jacksonville’s infamous Ward Eight, which housed the most disturbed residents. Mrs. Packard worked diligently to improve the filthy conditions she found there, while keeping a strict personal schedule to maintain her own sanity.

The implementation of moral treatment soon proved to be anything but simple. Patients did not always respond positively to the so-called healthy environment provided by the hospital. Staff returned to the use of restraints like the holding chair, opium, and punishing cold baths—old practices that Dix had found shocking. Even traditional medical practices, such as bleeding and blistering were revived. It became difficult to tell the difference between the use of these methods as treatment and their use as punishment for what staff deemed sinful behavior.


Holding Chair

Because of the ease of commitments and the lack of any standardized definition of mental illness, the asylums quickly became dumping grounds for what society deemed as misfits, who were forced to live with truly dangerous residents. The total control of staff and confusion over appropriate therapeutic interventions created an environment ripe for mistreatment of patients.

Asylum superintendents adamantly defended the hospitals, establishing the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane (AMSAII), forerunner of the American Psychiatric Association. As heads of these institutions they had attained secure and well-paid employment. Their families lived in spacious, well-appointed living quarters in administration buildings, complete with attendants to serve their needs.

RBased on absolutely no research on best practices for the treatment of the mentally ill, but utterly convinced of their own expertise, superintendents maintained support from power brokers and the public—for a time. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the system began to crumble. Crowding, expensive operating costs, and no evidence of the effectiveness of moral treatment made it difficult for politicians to justify funding the asylums. Reports of abuse and unsanitary conditions within the walls sped up the hospitals’ demise.

Mrs. Packard contributed to the system’s downfall as well. In spite of Dr. McFarland’s refusal to provide her writing paper, she acquired writing materials surreptitiously and wrote almost continuously about the asylum’s mistreatment of patients, and how many women were locked up as a result of their husbands’ selfish purposes. After her release, she published her writings and lobbied state legislatures across the country to enact laws requiring a trial before commitment. In spite of the objections of the AMSAII, Illinois and other states passed such legislation.

Interestingly enough, Mrs. Packard’s release did not lessen her impact on Reverend Packard and Dr. McFarland. They followed her to several states, testifying before state legislatures that her opinions were the ranting of an insane woman.

Mrs. Packard’s story inspired me to write For Their Own Good, but my challenges as a twenty-first century woman do not compare to her struggles against persecution. The agents of nineteenth century society attempted to break her, but in the end, as with all trailblazers, attempts to contain Mrs. Packard only made her stronger.


Carlisle, Linda V. Elizabeth Packard, A Noble Fight, University of Illinois Press, 2010.

Packard, Elizabeth, The Prisoners’ Hidden Life Or Insane Asylums Unveiled (1868) Kessinger Publishing, LLC (February 21, 2008).

Sapinsley, Barbara, The Private War of Mrs. Packard, Saint Paul, Minnesota: Paragon House Books, 1991.






Bradette Michel small

Bradette Michel served as a counselor and teacher in locked institutions. She has degrees in psychology and human development counseling. A published non-fiction author of Supervising Young Offenders, she has authored several online courses.  For Their Own Good won second prize in the Florida Writers Association’s 2013 Royal Palm Literary Awards historical fiction category. She and her husband live in south Florida.

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