Impulses and Madness: The History of the Insanity Plea

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This last month, in honor of the release of my book, A Wordless Death, I wrote a series of newsletters for my newsletter subscribers about the 1914 murder of a New York schoolteacher named Lida Beecher. You can read a little about that case here

One of the fascinating things about this case is that it brought to the forefront the insanity defense in court cases in the 20th century. The insanity defense is when the defense lawyers claim the defendant was insane at the time he or she committed the crime. The caveat is the defense has to prove the accused had no conception of what he or she was doing when he or she committed the crime and had no concept of the moral or legal consequences of that behavior. To put it simply: They have to prove the defendant didn’t know what he or she was doing at the time of the crime and that what he or she was doing was morally wrong with legal consequences.

The insanity plea has actually been around since the mid-19th century. It was first used in Britain when a man standing trial for attempting to shoot the Prime Minister was acquitted when the jury decided he was psychotic and acting under the belief that the Prime Minister was conspiring against him. The insanity plea was used rarely throughout the years until the Leda Beecher case brought it back. In that case, the plea that Jean Gianini was innocent due to criminal imbecility (based partly on his results on the Binet test which found him to have the mental capacity of a ten-year-old even though he was sixteen) was accepted by the jury and Gianini was saved from the electric chair. Not that his fate was much better, as he was confined to a mental institution until his death in the 1980s. 

Photo Credit: Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where Jean Gianini spent most of his days after his trial, ariel view, 1926, War Department, Army Air Forces, National Archives at College Park: Ooligan/Wikimedia Commons/PD US Government

The difficulty of the insanity plea is obvious: Is the defendant really insane with no concept of right or wrong or that he or she had even committed a crime? Or is the defendant just putting on a good show? The controversy over the insanity defense stems from this, as many people believe most are shamming. Take the film Anatomy of a Murder (1959), which was based on a real case that occurred in 1952. In the film, an army lieutenant is accused of shooting a man who had raped the lieutenant’s wife. The defense uses the plea of “irresistible impulse,” a variation of the insanity plea. In the film, we see the defense attorney constantly coaching the defendant on what to say and how to behave to convince the jury of his insanity. And it ends up working. Like Gianini, the lieutenant is saved from the electric chair. 

We see the insanity plea used so much on TV and in films (because it makes for great drama) that we might think it’s used very often. In the early 20th century, when my Adele Gossling Mysteries takes place, it was used quite a bit in court cases. But in the 21st century, we’ve gotten wiser and perhaps more cynical. In fact, the insanity plea or a variation of it is used in less than one percent of court cases. And of those one percent, only about a quarter are accepted. It all boils down to whether juries are buying that someone, even if they are mentally ill or emotionally unstable, could really not comprehend either what he or she is doing or that what he or she is doing is wrong. Those cases where the plea is accepted usually show the defendant as having a long history of severe mental illness. 

Does mental illness or the insanity plea play a role in A Wordless Death? You can find out by getting your hands on a copy of the book. It’s still on sale at a special launch price, but not for long! All the details and links to book vendors are here

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, sign up for my newsletter to receive a free book, plus news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history and mystery, and more freebies! You can sign up here

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Cover Reveal/Release Day Announcement: The Carnation Murder

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Every year, I choose a word and/or phrase to define how I want to improve myself. This year, my phrase is “let it go”. I even have a card stuck on my bulletin board to remind me to let things go.

After five years of writing historical women’s fiction, I’m letting it go and turning to something new: historical cozy mysteries. Why? Because I realized who I am now is not who I was five years ago. Historical women’s fiction served me well at that time, and I loved writing the Waxwood Series. But now all I want to give readers is a sense of comfort and a little bit of fun. Nothing spells comfort and fun more than cozy mysteries. 

This is why I’m thrilled to present the cover for The Carnation Murder, the first book of my Adele Gossling Mysteries, and tell you when the book is coming out.

So, without further ado…

historical mystery, cozy mystery, women sleuth, new release, ebook, murder mystery, small town mystery

So, y’all probably notice there’s a lot of purple in there, right? There’s a reason for that. The color purple plays a role in helping Adele Gossling solve the mystery of the dead debutante in her gazebo. On a carnation, purple is about whimsy and freedom. How do these qualities appear in the book? You’ll have to read it to find out!

You’ll also notice the gold frame on the book. Originally, the fabulous designer who made the cover went for more of an Art Deco look, using geometric shapes and clean lines and spheres. A great example of Art Deco is these stills from the 1927 silent masterpiece Metropolis

As much as I love Art Deco, we associate it more with the 1920s and 1930s. The Adele Gossling Mysteries takes place at the turn of the 20th century, some twenty years earlier. So the designer and I went back and forth, and we finally decided on a more Art Nouveau style for the frame. Art Nouveau was sort of the precursor to the Art Deco movement, combining the favored lines and spheres with a more decorative and florid style. One of the defining artists of this period was Alphonse Mucha, whose work you can see here

Here’s more about The Carnation Murder:

Smart inquisitive, and a firm believer in the new progressive reforms, Adele Gossling seeks a new life after the devastating death of her father. So she flees the big city of San Francisco for the small town of Arrojo. She plans a life of peace and small pleasures running her own stationery shop and living in her own house. But peace is exactly what she doesn’t get when she discovers her neighbor dead in her gazebo. The police think they have a firm suspect: the young man who was secretly engaged to the victim. But Adele and her clairvoyant new friend Nin Branch suspect the young man is innocent. In spite of the raised eyebrows from Arrojo’s Victorian-minded citizens, she and Nin set out to prove Richard Tanning didn’t do it. But if he didn’t, who did?

What early reviewers are saying:

“Really well paced and researched appropriately for the era.”

“The story comes alive.”

Release Date: April 30, 2022

I’m equally excited to let you know the book is now on preorder at a very special price. So come check it out and get your copy at your favorite online bookstore here

Happy reading!

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