The theatre department at the university where I teach recently ended a production run of Emily Mann's play Mrs. Packard. This play tells the story of a woman named Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard, who was wrongly committed to an insane asylum in the 1860s simply for disagreeing with her husband. Husbands during this era had the legal right to commit their wives if they felt they were insane. Theophilus Packard, a minister, concluded that insanity was the only explanation for his wife's failure to agree with his stridently "Old School" Calvinist views. She wound up spending three years in an Illinois insane asylum.
Mrs. Packard's story is profoundly disturbing, not only because of the circumstances of her life, the truths it reveals about the severely circumscribed lives women led until very recently, and the tragedy of what this series of events did to her family, but also because her story is so little known. I hold a Ph.D. in American history, and until my theatre-professor friend began telling us about his latest production I had no idea Mrs. Packard had existed. I knew the basic outline of what life was like for women in this era, but the details of Mrs. Packard's story bring the dimensions of this era into alarming and essential detail.
Stories without people fail to arouse the sense of identity necessary to fully understand the past. Mann's play is an important corrective. A woman named Barbara Sapinsley has written a biography of Mrs. Packard and I hope to read it. Meanwhile, see this Web site for the theater that debuted Mann's production for a wonderfully detailed overview of the play, Mrs. Packard's story and the broader historical context.