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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Death Outside the Battlefield: Lida Beecher

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Last month, I posted a tribute to World War I veterans. The war made people realize death can come too easily in the 20th century. However, not all deaths in 1914 took place on the battlefield. Some, in fact, happened in the backwaters of America and were just as, if not more, shocking than those happening in Europe. 

I’m fascinated by classic true crime, especially crimes that shifted people’s perspectives about the true capacity of human nature for evil (and good). I love giving my newsletter subscribers an inside look at a classic true crime and picking it apart to see its effect on the 21st century. 

Book 2 of the Adele Gossling Mysteries, coming out next month, is about the death of a schoolteacher. During my research, I stumbled upon the case of Lida Beecher which both horrified and intrigued me. I wasn’t the only one. Residents of Herkimer County, New York where the murder took place were so devastated by the crime that a history of the area written in the 1970s completely excludes any mention of it. 

The story involves many complex angles. To begin, there is the victim: Lida Beecher, a young and lovely schoolteacher whose eagerness to help her students usurped her experience in dealing with troubled students. Then there is the perpetrator: Jean Gianini, a sixteen-year-old who came from a very troubled and unstable family that included alcoholism, mental disabilities, and physical abuse. Gianini lured Beecher into the woods, hit her with a monkey wrench, and then stabbed her to death, hiding her body in the brush. 

The case is an example of the limitations of education and medicine in the early 20th century. Often, schools at this time, especially in rural towns, were a one-room affair (think: Little House on the Prairie). Students of all ages attended and the teacher had to accommodate different learning levels, from the six-year-olds to the fifteen and sixteen-year-olds. Teachers were then, as they are now, grossly underpaid and they were also undertrained, especially in dealing with special needs children or children with disabilities. 

Photo Credit: Herkimer County Courthouse where the trail of Lida Beecher’s murder took place, Herkimer, NY, 19 September 2009, taken by Doug Kerr: Pubdog/Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY SA 2.0

All the sources on the case agree Gianini was both intellectually and mentally below average. During the trial, he went through several intelligence tests, including the Binet Test, which was used at the time to assess the mental age of children, and was found to have the intellectual capacity of a ten-year-old even though he was sixteen. He also showed signs of mental disabilities and some have said if Gianini were examined today, he would probably be diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Accounts of his time at school clearly showed neither his teachers nor the principal was equipped to understand or help him. Beecher tried but when he misbehaved, she called in the principal, who resorted to the same kind of humiliation and violence Gianini experienced at home. This set off feelings of resentment in Gianini and vows of revenge and, indeed, he gave his reason for killing Beecher as vengeance. 

There’s a lot more to this case, including a surprising ending and precedence that set the stage for the insanity plea later on. I’ll be talking about the Beecher murder case in detail in the next month up to the release of A Wordless Death in my newsletter. So if you haven’t signed up yet, I encourage you to do so here, as you’ll not only get the fascinating story of the Lida Beecher murder but you’ll also get a free Adele Gossling Mysteries novella not available anywhere else.

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All This, and Heaven Too (1940): A Classic True Crime Murder

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Warning: Some spoilers

I’ve always been fascinated by classic true crime. Let’s face it, in the 21st century, we’re used to hearing about murder, rape, and theft in the news so there’s a “been there, done that” kind of feeling to them. But past crimes happened at a time when people just didn’t fathom such horrific things could ever happen. When I first read about the Leopold and Loeb trial in the 1920s (which I’ll blog about at some point), what struck me the most was not that two prominent young men killed an innocent boy but that they did it without a motive. This is something we’re familiar with today from the news, TV, and movies. But in the early 20th century, people just couldn’t understand how someone could kill another person without a motive. 

Films based on true crimes are common these days, but during the Golden Age of Hollywood, they were rare. The 1940 film All This, and Heaven Too sounds like it should be a romance, and, in fact, it is. But it’s also based on a true crime. It has all the salacious details many of us love in a crime story: a beautiful but difficult noblewoman, an accomplished and morally questionable duke, an illicit romance, and murder.

The film has some heavy hitters in terms of stars from the 1940s. None other than Bette Davis stars as the governess Henriette Deluzy and leading man Charles Boyer as the Duke de Praslin. I must confess, these are not my favorite characters in this film. Though I love Davis, her Henriette is a watered-down version of some of her juicier roles from around that time (think: Jezebel and The Little Foxes). Her character is a little too sacrificial for my taste. Boyer, though charming, has, in my opinion, one of the least sexy voices in the world. His role is a little too much the “she doesn’t understand me” type of adultor.

Photo Credit: Cropped screenshot of Barbara O’Neil from All This, And Heaven Too, 1940: Wedg/Wikimedia Commons/PD US no notice

The stand-out for me in this film is Barbara O’Neil. If you’re not familiar with her name, you’ll doubtless know who she is when I tell you she was Scarlett’s mother. The year before this film, O’Neil played her best-known role, that of Ellen O’Hara in 1939’s Gone With The Wind. If you recall, her character is a martyr who loses her life helping the poor. 

But O’Neil’s role in this film is entirely different and much more intricate. She plays the Duchess de Praslin and is, frankly, not the most pleasant of women. On the face of it, she resembles the stereotypical noblewoman of the separate spheres: fragile, always crying, and easily flying into hysterical fits. But she is tougher and sharper than everyone thinks. She notices immediately her husband’s growing affection for their children’s governess and isn’t afraid to confront both the Duke and Henriette about her suspicions. And she’s not afraid to take action about them either. 

At the same time, we get insights into the miserable life she’s living. She’s terribly in love with her husband and only wants to share her life with him. But he rebuffs her again and again. He doesn’t hide the fact that he’s clearly bored with her and doesn’t love her. It also becomes clear no one in the house, including the children, has much respect for the duchess because they’re following the Duke’s lead. The Duchess’s attempts to reconcile with her husband fall by the wayside.

O’Neil plays the role to show us the duchess is both a victim and perpetrator. We can see how she drives her husband away with her suspicions and hysterics, but at the same time, we can also see how she wants to be a good wife to him and a good mother to her children if only he and others will let her.

Is the Duchess de Praslin a shrew or a woman scorned? You be the judge! On Friday, I’ll be starting a month-long series in my newsletter talking about the crime upon which All This and Heaven Too was based. To sign up, you can go to this link.

And if you’re hungry for more crime, you can check out The Carnation Murder, the first book of my Adele Gossling Mysteries coming out on April 30! It’s available for preorder right now at a special price, so check it out here

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Immigration, Riots, and Murder: A Look at America in 1892

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This is the original immigration station on Ellis Island that was built in 1892. It was destroyed by fire in 1897 so a new one was built in its place.

Photo Credit: First Ellis Island immigration station, 1896, personal image of old stereo photograph, author unknown: Charvex/Wikimedia Commons/PD Mark 1.0

The Specter, the first book of my Waxwood Series, takes place in the year of 1892. I’ve already discussed my fascination for the last quarter of the 19th century in two blog posts about the Gilded Age, which you can read here and here. But I thought it would be fun to look at some of what was going on in the year 1892 from a social, political, and psychological standpoint. In The Specter, much of this is not touched upon because I chose to focus on a more generalized sense of what it was like to live in 1892 in relation to how it affected the Alderdice family. But there was also a lot going on externally in the United States at this time.

America went through some milestones in 1892 as a nation. For example, the now infamous immigration station, Ellis Island, first opened its doors in January of that year. While there were other immigration stations in the United States (not the least of which was Angel Island in San Francisco), Ellis Island was the first and largest and the most significant. Many of us will probably remember the scene in The Godfather II that recreates the Ellis Island experience, showing us the crowds and the mustiness of the building in which immigrants were received right off the boat, the indifference of the officials receiving them, and the fear, apprehension, humiliation, and anger it invoked for those arriving in the United States during this time. You can read more about Ellis Island and its history here.

But just as American was welcoming some immigrants in 1892, it was also taking pains to shut out others. In this year, the Geary Act was proposed and passed as legislation, preventing new Chinese immigrants from entering the country and requiring those already in the country to carry identification papers to be produced at any time upon request. The act was an extension of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and did not go without protest from the Chinese communities in the United States (and rightly so) for causing strife and humiliation to Chinese citizens of the United States. You can read a little about that and see images of these certificates of residency here.

I talk in my blog post on the Progressive Era about reforms that were to fall into place in the first few decades of the 20th century. But much of the groundwork was already laid out in the last few decades of the 19th century, at least as far as labor relations were concerned. Nothing epitomizes this more than The Homestead Massacre in 1892. A bloody battle broke out between skilled labor union workers and security guards in the Homestead Steel Works. When the union could not reach an agreement with management regarding contract terms, management locked these workers out of the mill and a strike ensued that was followed by a violent outbreak between the workers and the Pinkerton Detective agents who had been sent to protect non-union workers who were coming in to replace them. Although the strikers lost in the end and the union disbanded, the mill management (especially financial giant Andrew Carnegie) were not shown in a very good light, and this kind of criticism of business management would have effects in the turn of the century with more awareness of worker’s rights and the easing of some of the rigid rules of big business, such as long work hours and inhuman conditions. If you’d like to find out more about the Homestead Strike, you can do so here.   

Photo Credit: Portrait of Lizzie Borden, 1892 author unknown: Wikilug/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

One of my future projects is a historical mystery series called The Paper Chase Mysteries. I love classic mystery stories and I also love classic true crimes, especially those involving women. Probably one of the most famous happened in 1892 with the discovery of the dead bodies of Lizzie Borden’s parents in their home in Massachusetts and their daughter, Lizzie becoming the prime (and only) suspect. I deal a lot with family dynamics and dysfunction in my fiction, so a murder case from the past that involves family always catches my attention. Lots of information on the Borden case focuses on the trial and the fact that Borden was acquitted, but I’m more interested in the “why” of the murders and the family dynamics that might have driven Borden to commit this heinous crime. Money has been suggested as the motivator (Borden’s father was well off but a cheapskate) and also the fact that Borden was controlled by him and wanted autonomy. You can read about that here.

And speaking of crime, here’s an interesting tidbit. Also in 1892, one of the most infamous world’s fairs was supposed to take place, the Columbian Exposition (also known as the Chicago World’s Fair). I say infamous because America’s first serial killer, H. H. Holmes, emerged as the first serial killer in the American during the fair. But the exhibition date got delayed because of a battle between Thomas Edison and Nicholas Tesla over electricity (which was to be one of the main displays of innovation and technology at the fair). Thus, the exhibition was moved to 1893.

To find out more about how the Alderdice family lived and their world in 1892, you can go here. To find out about the series itself, I have a page for that here

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