Monday, November 19, 2012

The Early American Insanity Defense

Alyssa Kay
Dr. Coronado
ENGL 226
10 November, 2012
The Early American Insanity Defense
“If anyone be insane, let him not be seen openly in the town, but let his kinsfolk watch over him as best they may under penalty of a fine,”
-Plato, Laws
In 1848, there was an inevitable, dated presence of British law that permeated judicial decisions in the Post-Revolutionary United States of America. Despite their attempts to break free from British influence, United States constituents were subject to legislation guided by the framework of their transatlantic mother.   This held particularly true with the insanity defense.  “Insane” was a loose term used to describe people who would be classified in 21st century terms as either mentally disabled or mentally ill. The insane were generally isolated within their homes at the care of their family, locked in cellars away from civilization.  Any acts committed outside the home would be left for judgment of the United States court systems.  If an individual did not fit narrow criteria in manifesting lack of moral reasoning, he or she would be incarcerated or put to death.  By the mid 1700’s, insane British and American citizens were placed into a version of Dutch Dr. Boerhaave’s “gyrating chair,” also known as the “circulating swing” (Foerschner, par.6).  The gyrating chair unsuccessfully intended to restore any internal imbalances by shaking its patrons at a speed of 100 revolutions per minute.  The insane were often left unresponsive after the treatment (Noll 97). 
This is a portrait of the insane in 1848.  During a time when little was known about the brain and its functions and dysfunctions, I. Edwards, a little known author to the 21st century American reader, published a progressive text in the American Whig Review that was ahead of his time in its ability to comment on the fallacies of the United States’ legal system.  Edwards contended that dated systems dictating the mortality of individuals undermines the United States promise of life and liberty.  Moreover, Edwards argued that attempting to understand the mind of any other individual and then sentence him or her to death was unethical, as was the process of trying to define “insane” so narrowly.   Thus, Edward’s “Insanity—How Far A Legal Defence” is imperative to understanding American culture before 1865 in its ability to demonstrate how far Americans had come in understanding their own legal system, and yet, how little the system understood about the people it served. 
            In the 21st century, doctors are able to discern between schizophrenia and autism; however, in the 19th century, individuals with either illness were lumped into the category of "insanity."  There were two categories of insane that largely dictated the repercussions of an individual’s actions.  The first loosely hinted at an idea of mental retardation, or underdevelopment, while the second alluded towards a mental illness        
          The first degree of insanity, or partial insanity, distinguished between development and illness.  That is, a man deemed partially insane was thought to display the reasoning and developmental skills of a child.  People of the time often described partially insane as infantile or drunkards, who are rendered incompetent in civil affairs (Edwards 269).  Partially insane people were thought to be incapable of managing personal finances and passing the reasonable judgment essential for day to day functioning.  These standards, however, were defined in 1680 by English jurist Lord Matthew Hale (Crotty 108).  During the time Edwards completed this text, the standards for partial mental illness had remained utterly stagnant for over 150 years
            French Psychiatrist Jean-Etienne Esquirol, however, was a pioneer in defining and discerning between the mentally ill and the mentally challenged.  In his 1845 publication Mental Maladies: A treatise on insanity, Esquirol stated that "idiocy is not a disease but a condition in which the intellectual facilities are never manifested or have never been developed sufficiently to enable the idiot to acquire such amount of knowledge as persons of his own age reared in similar circumstances are capable of receiving" (Human, par.3).  This speaks true to the court system’s definition of partially insane.  Defendants who were considered partially insane were free of their civil crimes based on this idea of idiocy.   By the time Edwards’ “Insanity—How Far A Legal Defence”  reached the printed press, terms like idiocy and lunacy were used to characterize the two groups.  The parameters of lunacy, or the second category of insanity, were subject to change with the trials that arose. 
The second definition of insane, or lunacy, insinuated the individual was dangerous to society or self.  These individuals were considered totally insane.  Appraisal depended on the individual’s inability to remember committing the crime, as well as their moral inability to distinguish right from wrong. Dating back to 1581, the insanity plea excused the defendant of any responsibility on the basis of their mental illness (Frontline, par.1).  Mental illness was merely defined by an inability to distinguish good from evil. British courts called this “the wild beast test,” which stated, “If a madman or a natural fool, or a lunatic in the time of his lunacy do [kill a man], this is no felonious act for they cannot be said to have any understanding will.” (Frontline, par.1)    If it was apparent that the defendant lacked reasoning, the individual was deemed totally insane and sent home, thus acquitted of his crime.  The problem with this test, as pointed out in Edward’s text, is that discerning good from evil, or right from wrong, is not always definitive of mental illness, as more needed to be taken into consideration.
  As Edwards pointed out, the legal system noticed, more needed to be considered in the insanity defense.  In the year 1800, James Hadfield attempted to murder King George III of the United Kingdom (Moran 493).  Hadfield, a former prisoner of war, insisted his attempt to assassinate the King was to inspire the crowd to attack him. Hadfield believed Christ was coming for him, and he thought assassinating the King would lead to his own execution.  Hadfield wished for death, but was unable to commit his own suicide (Moran 493).  Hadfield’s case required a restructuring and reconsideration of insanity.  Chief counsel Thomas Erskine, thus added to the definitions of insanity.  Erskine contended that in order to be acquitted of a crime, the defendant must lack both moral reasoning skills and recollection of the actions (Moran 504).  Because Hadfield attempted to assassinate the king, Parliament needed to reconsider the danger of allowing the mentally ill back into society.  Therefore, after acquitting Hadfield, the Parliament of Great Brittan saw it necessary to pass the Criminal Lunatics Act of 1800, which forced all acquitted criminally insane persons into incarceration (Moran 513).  
Shortly after the insanity defense considered Hadfield and the cognitive inability to remember a crime, courts adopted the M'Naughten test.  In 1843, Daniel M'Naughten attempted to murder the prime minister (Crotty 117). Instead, M'Naughten murdered the prime minister’s secretary, Robert Peel.  Initially acquitted after pleading the insanity defense, M’Naughten’s case was reviewed again by a verdict under orders from Queen Victoria. After review, the jury decided that M’Naughten was not only unable to distinguish right from wrong, but unable to comprehend his actions as he was committing them.  This came be to known as the M’Naughten rule, which was adopted by the United States.   It stated, “in all cases that every man is to be presumed to be sane…until the contrary be proved…and that to establish a defense on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was laboring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong” (Lee, par.4).   This would later be challenged by irresistible impulse, or the challenge that one can be conscious of his or her actions and their implications; however, their mental illness renders them unable to fight that impulse.
            While some of the mentally disabled and mentally ill were distinguished between and acquitted of crimes, the categories for defining these people were limited.  Mental disorders were not fully accounted for in the early legal definitions of insanity; thus, many individuals, who were mentally ill or inept, waived responsibility for their crimes.  Therefore, Edward’s lamentations on America’s congruence with the United Kingdom’s treatment of the insane seems to speak to a larger idea of reformation.  He argues insanity is multifaceted and complex; moreover, Edwards recognized the intangible complexities of mental illness and the array of individual cases within one type of illness.  He argues that a judge’s observation of moral judgment alone cannot conclusively identify illness. This speaks directly to the legal systems dichotomy of preponderance of evidence and clear and convincing evidence. Clear and convincing evidence, which Edwards seems to desire in cases regarding the criminally insane, bases itself off of substantial, complete evidence, rather than probability. Probability of insanity is what Edwards sought to reform, as his documents call for a closer examination of mental disease and an individualized structure.
            Thus, the aforementioned cases, which Edwards speaks against in 1848, are the same that paved the constitutionality of John Hinckley Jr.’s 1982 acquittal for shooting President Ronald Regan (Linder, par.1).  Soon after, the United States Congress noted the fallacy in the court’s ability to define insane.  The United States passed The Insanity Reform Act of 1984, which required clear and convincing evidence from the insanity defense, where it had before required a preponderance of evidence, or the probability of lack of moral reasoning (Linder, par.53). 
            Edwards, though he did not lead a well documented life, certainly documented the erroneous nature of the acquittal process in its earlier stages.  “Insanity—How Far a Legal Defence” serves as a beacon to preserve legal individuality; it seeks to eliminate legislative ignorance against unique cases that exist at biological levels.  The text elicits a response from judges and jurors, showing the problematic nature of using a moral compass as the conclusive, definitive diagnoses of mental illness.  Moreover, the following text lends itself as a mirror to the U.S judicial system, recognizing the court rooms’ underserved constituents and the United States’ transatlantic umbilical cord.

Primary Text

Works Referenced
Crotty, Homer D. "History of Insanity as a Defence to Crime in English Criminal Law." California Law   Review 12.3 (1924): 104-23. Berkeley Law Scholarship Repository.  Web. 9 Nov. 2012
Edwards, I. "Insanity--How Far a Legal Defence." The American Whig Review 8.3 (1848): 269-275. Cornell University Library. Web. 25 Sept. 2012.
Foerschner, Allison M. “The History of Mental Illness: From ‘Skull Drills’ to ‘Happy Pills’." Student Pulse Online Academic Student Journal. 2.9 (2012). Web. 9 Nov. 2012
"Human Intelligence: Jean Etienne Esquirol." Human Intelligence: Jean Etienne Esquirol.  Indiana University, 26 Jan. 2012. Web. 03 Nov. 2012.
"Insanity." National Paralegal. National Paralegal College, 2012. Web. 03 Nov. 2012.
"Jean-Etienne-Dominique Esquirol". Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 03 Dec. 2012
Lee, Stephanie. "The M'Naghten Rule." The History of the Insanity Plea. n.d. Web. 05 Nov. 2012.
Linder, Douglas O. "Account of the Trial of John W. Hinckley, Jr." Famous Trials. University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) School of Law, n.d. Web. 06 Nov. 2012. 
"Mental Illness." Mental Illness, Information about Mental Illness. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Nov. 2012.
 Moran, Richard. "The Origin of Insanity as a Special Verdict: The Trial for Treason of James Hadfield (1800)." Law & Society Review 19.3 (1985): 487-519. Print.
Noll, Richard. The Encyclopedia of Schizophrenia and Other Psychotic Disorders. 3rd ed. New    York: Facts on File, Incorporated, 2007. Print.
"Notorious Insanity Cases." Frontline: A Crime of Insanity. PBS, 2002. Web. 07 Nov. 2012.



  1. Alyssa,

    In the second paragraph, sentence 4, I don't like your stylistic choice of the word "Ultimately." That is, you use "Thus" after it. That wouldn't make it, "Ultimate."

    This may confuse the reader!

    In all seriousness, this is a an informed piece of writing that is beautifully written. Normally, you see, I encourage writers to consider castration anxiety or phallic symbols in introductions of this sort, but you handle the subject matter wholly without. Good job.

    You nail the piece home when you correlate this mysterious I. Edwards fella with Ronald Reagan's assassination attempt. You connect an undiscovered gem of the written word with major historical event. That is truly the essence and purpose of this assignment.

    Your sentences are well aimed and your word choice is precise. Keep up the good work, and you'll find your place among the stars!

  2. Hey Alyssa,

    Just a little MLA side note but at the end of the first paragraph shouldn't the period go after the citation like this: (Noll 97). Instead of the other way around?

    Also, the third paragraph is so short compared to the other ones. Is there more you can add, or possibly take away and just adding that to another paragraph?

    I like the way you form connections and you tie everything back together beautifully. This introduction is just that, an introduction, instead of analyzing everything in the text you just got right into it.

    Great job!

  3. I love how well you blended the research with introducing your text. Sometimes it is difficult to find ways to tie the background information to the text itself, but I think you did this really well.

    I think this is a really well done introduction to your text without getting too much into the text. Since everything was tied together so well, you didn't have to use specific quotes from your text often.

    Overall, your rough draft has done a great job introducing your text and showing the relevance of it even today.

  4. I think that you did a great job of contextualizing Edward's writing and making it easy to understand. Though interesting, the text itself was a bit dense, so reading your introduction really helped me in comprehending the main issues or the "so what" of the text. I also liked the way that you hook your reader in the first paragraph by providing some shocking and interesting information about the gyrating chair. It made me want to read on.

    The only criticism that I have is that you provide a lot of factual information that isn't cited. Because this project is geared more towards context and historical backgrounds rather than focusing solely on textual evidence, it's difficult to figure out what to cite and when to cite it. I may be wrong on this, but I think that when you give dates or are describing an event that isn't well-known, they should be cited. It's hard to use MLA citation style when writing a historically-focused paper because it begins to look really cluttered, so maybe Chicago Style would be useful in this case.

    I also think that you could strengthen your thesis statement because I wasn't too clear on what your thesis was. I wasn't sure if your thesis was in your introduction, or maybe somewhere in the body of your paper.

    Either way, this was a truly interesting introduction that was very well-written. Your writing style made me want to read on and understand the text as a part of early American literature. Great job!


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