8/16/10 - not guilty by reason of insanity

In today's excerpt - not guilty by reason of insanity, first introduced in Britain in 1843—and the perils of attempting to define insanity. This became manifest especially in the desperate poverty and social disruption of early Victorian England:

"Many illegitimate babies were killed by poor and desperate women in Victorian England: in 1860, child murders were reported in the newspapers almost daily. Usually the victims were newborns, and the assailants were their mothers. In the spring of  1860, Sarah Gough, a housekeeper and cook at Upper Seymour Street, a mile or so  from Upper Harley Street, killed her illegitimate child, parcelled it up and sent it by train from Paddington to a convent near Windsor. She was easily traced: in the package was a paper bearing the name of her employer.

"Juries showed compassion to women such as Sarah Gough, preferring to find them deranged than depraved. They were helped in this by new legal and medical ideas. In the law courts the 'McNaghten rule' had since 1843 allowed 'temporary insanity' to be used as a defense. (In January 1843 a Scottish woodturner, Daniel McNaghten, had fatally shot Sir Robert Peel's secretary, mistaking him for the Prime Minister.) Alienists detailed the kinds of madness to which the apparently and usually sane could fall victim: a woman might suffer from puerperal mania just before or after giving birth; any woman might be overcome by hysteria, and anyone might be struck by monomania, a form of madness that left the intellect intact—the sufferer could be emotionally deranged yet show cold cunning. By these criteria, any unusually violent crime could be understood as evidence of insanity. The Times put the dilemma neatly in an editorial of 1853:

"Nothing can be more slightly defined than the line of demarcation between sanity and insanity ... Make the definition too narrow, it becomes meaningless; make it too wide, and the whole human race becomes involved in the dragnet. In strictness we are all mad when we give way to passion, to prejudice, to vice, to vanity; but if all the passionate, prejudiced and vain people were to be locked up as lunatics, who is to keep the key to the asylum?"


Kate Summerscale


The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective


Walker Publishing Company


Copyright 2008 by Kate Summerscale


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