Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Insanity, Lunacy, Madness: Psychology and Criminal Law

CONTENT WARNING: Ableist and racist language, as well as discussion of murder and infanticide in primary sources. Please feel free to duck out and take breaks if you need to.

Criminal law is the legal enshrinement of moral values, but what does it mean to commit a crime without understanding it? In this seminar we will explore ideas around mental health and mental illness in Victorian Britain, as well as the development of 'insanity' defenses throughout 19th century Britain. Notably, following the emergence of psychiatry as a profession, the landmark case of McNaghten trial in 1843 saw the plea of insanity whereby a defendant might be acquitted of a crime (including violent crimes) if they could prove they were not of sound mind.

Optional intro material:
[PODCAST] 'Mental Health in Victorian Britain', Dan Snow's History Hit, 11th May 2022.

Seminar prep questions:

  • How was 'madness' defined by the courts?
  • When did insanity start to be viewed as a legitimate defence? Which crimes was it mostly applied to?
  • Are there gender differences in pleas of insanity?
  • What are the connections between madness and crime?

Primary readings:

Essential secondary readings:

  • Mark Jackson, ‘”It Begins with the Goose and Ends with the Goose”: Medical, Legal, and Lay Understandings of Imbecility in Ingram v Wyatt, 1824- 1832’, Social History of Medicine, 11 (1998)
  • Jill Newton Ainsley, '"Some mysterious agency": Women, Violent Crime, and the Insanity Acquittal in the Victorian Courtroom', Canadian Journal of History 35.1 (2000)
Further reading:



Jonathan Andrews, 'From stack-firing to pyromania: medico-legal concepts of insane arson in British, US and European contexts, 1800-1913', History of Psychiatry, vols 21, numbers 3 & 4 (two part article) 2010

Catherine Cox and Hilary Marland, Mental Breakdown and the Prison System in England and Ireland, 1840-1900.

Joel Peter Eigen, ‘”I answer as a physician”: Opinion as Fact in Pre-McNaughtan Insanity Trials’, in Michael Clark and Catherine Crawford (eds), Legal Medicine in History
-------, Unconscious Crime: Mental Absence and Criminal Responsibility in Victorian London

Ruth Harris, Murders and Madness: Medicine, Law, and Society in the fin de siecle

Mark Jackson, ‘”It Begins with the Goose and Ends with the Goose”: Medical, Legal, and Lay Understandings of Imbecility in Ingram v Wyatt, 1824- 1832’, Social History of Medicine, 11 (1998)

Dominic Janes, 'Oscar Wilde, Sodomy, and Mental Illness in Late Victorian England', Journal of the History of Sexuality (2014).

Brenden D. Kelly, ‘Poverty, Crime and Mental Illness: Female Forensic Psychiatric Committal in Ireland, 1910- 1948’, Social History of Medicine, 21 (2008)

Hilary Marland, ‘Getting away with Murder? Puerperal Insanity, Infanticide and the Defence Plea’, in Mark Jackson (ed.), Infanticide: Historical Perspectives on Child Murder and Concealment, 1550-2000

Pauline Prior, Gender, Crime and Mental Disorder in Nineteenth-Century Ireland

Daniel N. Robinson, Wild Beasts and Idle Humours: The Insanity Defence from Antiquity to the Present

Vieda Skultans, Madness and Morals: Ideas on Insanity in the Nineteenth Century, ch. 9 ‘Idiocy, Criminal Lunacy and Pauper Lunacy’

Jade Shepherd, 'One of the best fathers until he went out of his mind: Paternal Child murder', Journal of Victorian Culture, 2013

Roger Smith, ‘The Boundary Between Insanity and Criminal Responsibility in Nineteenth-Century England’, in Joel Peter Eigen, Madhouses, Mad-Doctors, and Madmen

----------, Trial by Medicine: Insanity and Responsibility in Victorian Trials

Chantal Stebbings, 'Protecting the Property of the Mentally Ill: The Judicial Solution in Nineteenth Century Lunacy Law', The Cambridge Law Journal (2012)

Janet A. Tighe, ‘The Legal Art of Psychiatric Diagnosis: Searching for Reliability’, in Charles E. Rosenberg and Janet Golden (eds), Framing Disease: Studies in Cultural History

Nigel Walker, Crime and Insanity in England, vols. 1 and 11