Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

"Some Mysterious Agency": Women, Violent Crime, and the Insanity Acquittal in the Victorian Courtroom

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

"Some Mysterious Agency": Women, Violent Crime, and the Insanity Acquittal in the Victorian Courtroom

Article excerpt

In June 1854 Mary Ann Brough, the middle-aged mother of a large family, slashed the throats of six of her children before unsuccessfully attempting to cut her own. Two months later she stood trial in Guildford to answer for her crimes. The issue at the trial was not whether or not Brough had actually committed the murders, for she had immediately confessed, but whether or not she was legally responsible for her actions. Brough's attorney described his client as a "devotedly attached" mother "who, in a moment, by some unaccountable impulse ... became a fiend." He spoke of "some mysterious agency" which no one in the court could "divine" but which was most certainly responsible for the murders, and asked the jurors if they could believe that Brough was the "mistress of her actions" when, in "an instant," she murdered her children and attempted to commit suicide. The jurors could not; they acquitted Brough on the ground of insanity and dispatched her to Bethlem, where she died eight years later.(1)

The Brough case was heavily publicized and controversial, not only because of the number of victims involved, but also because many regarded the verdict with skepticism, particularly since the murders could be interpreted as Brough's brutal act of vengeance against her husband, who had recently left his adulterous wife and initiated proceedings for a legal separation. Although the prominent alienist Forbes Winslow testified that Brough was suffering from a "diseased brain," and pointed to the crime itself as ample proof of her madness -- "The act itself bears insanity stamped on its very face," he later wrote of the case -- (2) his colleague John Charles Bucknill criticized the verdict as a "legal fiction" intended to spare the life of a woman who would otherwise have hanged for her crimes.(3)

Mary Ann Brough was only one of dozens of Victorian women accused of horrifying murders who were judged "not guilty on ground of insanity," or, as the official wording became in 1883, "guilty but insane."(4) Indeed, Victorian women charged with a serious violent crime were more likely than men to be acquitted on ground of insanity, even when women and men were charged with similar crimes.(5) Why was the Victorian legal system far more willing to declare female defendants insane? Was the verdict simply a "legal fiction" designed to save women from the gallows, and employed by chivalrous, paternalistic jurors, as Bucknill believed had happened in the Brough case? Although the theoretical evolution of the insanity acquittal has been well documented, we know relatively little about the acquittal in practice, except for the handful of cases which set legal precedent or illustrated key issues in the ongoing straggle between the legal and medical professions for authority over the concept of criminal insanity.(6) Unfortunately, this approach reinforces the Victorian perception of the defendants involved as passive victims, either of the mysterious workings of their bodies (particularly in the case of women), or of the skilful manoeuvres of physicians and lawyers. This paper examines the insanity plea in practice in violent crime trials in England and Wales between 1832-1901, focussing on 145 women's trials and a comparative sample of ninety-three men's trials, in which the insanity acquittal figured.(7) Analyses of these cases permit fundamental questions to be addressed about the incidence of the plea, the circumstances in which an insanity acquittal would be sought and received, and the purpose of the acquittal.

In her widely read and highly influential book, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980, Elaine Showalter argues that in the nineteenth century insanity became identified as a female condition, and cites both statistical and cultural evidence to support her contention that women were (and are) more readily declared and represented as insane.(8) This argument, notes the sociologist Joan Busfield, has become "a part of feminist orthodoxy. …

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