Witnessing Insanity: Madness and Mad-Doctors in the English Court.


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EIGEN, JOEL PETER. Witnessing Insanity: Madness and Mad-Doctors in the English Court. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995. xv + 240 pp. $32.50.The jacket of this book promises an “intriguing” account of the evolution of medical testimony in British insanity trials. Eigen fulfills this promise, crafting an interesting and informative narrative sprinkled with fascinating verbatim testimony from several insanity trials, beginning with the “partial insanity” defense of Earl Ferrers in 1760 and ending with the oft-cited Daniel McNaughtan trial of 1843. Eigen manages to systematically track the changes in the role of medical experts over this period of time through methodical scholarship while maintaining a lively and compelling writing style.In his introduction, Eigen acknowledges the importance of previous attempts to investigate the evolution of the “medical jurisprudence of madness” in England (p. 1). These investigations have described several famous eighteenth and nineteenth century trials in painstaking detail. Foremost among these trials were those of Ferrers and McNaughtan. Eigen wonders, however, if these notorious trials necessarily reflect “the law's conception of madness at any particular moment on history” (p. 2). He believes that they “provide at best a skeletal outline” of the development of the role of medical testimony in such trials. He painstakingly undertakes the task of reviewing verbatim testimony from every insanity trial heard at the Old Bailey, the London trial court that adjudicated felonies at the time. He finds these accounts in the Old Bailey Sessions Papers, a pamphlet that, beginning in 1674, reported to the general public the trial outcomes of every prosecution at the Old Bailey. Eigen discovers that until the 1730s attorneys played a marginal role in criminal proceedings. In fact, until this time “attorneys seldom appeared for the prosecutor... and never for the defense” (p. 10). Instead, direct questions were asked of witnesses and the defendant, often by the victim. Over the course of the eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth, the advocacy role of the attorney began to take a form closer to what we might recognize today. The role of the medical expert became more prominent as the role of the defense advocate developed.In Chapters 1 and 2, the role of the jury and the legal context of the insanity defense are outlined. Eigen intersperses statistics, judges' instructions, and case examples to acquaint the reader with legal framework within which the evolution of medical testimony took place. In Chapter 3, he addresses some of the important approaches to “medical psychology” that vied for scientific and popular acceptance between the years 1760 to 1843. Over the following chapters, Eigen describes the differences between lay witness testimony and medical testimony on insanity. Liberally illustrating his points with verbatim accounts, Eigen summarizes trends in lay and medical testimony over time, and documents the emerging specialty of forensic medicine.Some of the most fascinating accounts are of the prisoners' own perceptions of their madness, or their denial of it. Unlike contemporary trials, where defense attorneys may speak for the defendant, in the English courts of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the defendant played an active role in testifying and cross-examining witnesses. The verbatim accounts found in Chapter 7 are compelling reading. As Eigen notes, “such determined protestations of sanity were the most persuasive `insanity defenses' heard at the Old Bailey” (p. 177).Eigen concludes by summing up the changing role of medical experts over the course of the period he investigates. He states that by the 1840s “the forensic-psychiatric witness had arrived” (p. 183). He is not sure if this is a good thing in all cases.

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