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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🥳Release Day Blitz for A Wordless Death!🥳

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Title: A Wordless Death

Series: Adele Gossling Mysteries: Book 2

Author: Tam May

Genres: Historical Cozy Mystery

Release Date: July 30, 2022

Adele Gossling is adjusting well to small-town life after the hustle and bustle of San Francisco. Despite her progressive ideas about women and her unladylike business acumen, even Arrojo’s most prominent citizens are beginning to accept her. Provided she sticks with the business of fountain pens and letter paper and stays out of crime investigation, that is…

But that’s just what she can’t do when Millie Gibb, the new teacher at the local girl’s school, is found dead and everybody in town assumes the homely, unmarried spinster committed suicide. After all, what enemies could a harmless, middle-aged woman have?

Adele and her clairvoyant friend Nin intend to find out. But can they prove Millie’s death was foul play based on a cigar stub, a letter fragment, and a cigarette lighter before the case is closed for good?

You’ll love this turn-of-the-century whodunit where a sassy and smart New Woman gives the police a run for their money!

“The characters are true to life, and the early methods used in criminal detection are fun to read.” – Amazon reviewer

You can get your copy of the book at a special promotional price at the following online retailers.


Excerpt

After the men had left, both her brother and the sheriff rose, brushing coal dust from their clothes. 

“No glass, I take it,” said Adele.

“No, but something much more interest,” said her brother. “Something in your line of work, Del.”

He showed her what looked like a fragment of a written document. The edges were crisp and charred and written on it was a small dark print she could barely read.

“That explains why there was a fire burning last night even though it’s been rather mild these past few days except for the wind,” he remarked.

“A discouraging lover, you think?” Hatfield raised an eye.

“It wouldn’t be uncommon,” said Jackson. “Though perhaps a little surprising.”

Adele did not fail to catch his meaning. “Miss Gibb might not have been a beauty, Jack, but many men appreciate intelligence and education more than giggles and curls.”

She was rewarded by Hatfield’s deep chuckle of approval.

“Love doesn’t usually go with money, though, does it?” Jackson said. “Whatever this letter contained, it had to do with a lot of money.” He showed the sheriff what he meant.

Here, the croak sounded from Mrs. Taylor and they all looked at her.

“Begging your pardon, sir,” said the woman. “I don’t get into the business of my guests unless —”

“Unless?” Hatfield head went up.

“It’s necessary, of course,” was her resolute answer.

“You know something about this?” he asked.

“Well, no, sir, not that in particular,” said Mrs. Taylor. “But more than once Millie had to ask to delay her payment here. Had a cousin who was rather in a bad way financially.” She looked embarrassed. “I don’t like to go ‘round telling the private business of my guests but —”

“That’s all right, ma’am,” said Jackson. “We’re police, not gossips.”

“Well, now that I see everything is all right —” But she still hesitated and Adele understood the woman’s concern. Her sense of decorum had gotten a jolt at the idea a room she only rented to women boarders was now being trampled over my male footsteps.

“I’ll make sure everything is all right, Mrs. Taylor,” she said in a low voice.

The woman rewarded her with one of her gummy smiles and departed without ceremony.

“Could be this cousin was asking for money again,” Jackson said.

“Why throw the letter in the fire, then?” asked Hatfield. “I’ve had more than one of Ma’s uncles write us for a few gold coins and even when I refused, I never threw the letter out.”

“Perhaps she didn’t want other people in the house to know she had a mercenary cousin,” Adele said.

“A relative that keeps asking for money is not a favorite relative,” Jackson agreed.

“The question is, could he be a relative that kills?” Adele murmured.

About the Author

As soon as Tam May started her first novel at the age of fourteen, writing became her voice. She writes engaging, fun-to-solve historical cozy mysteries featuring sassy suffragist Adele Gossling. Tam is the author of the Adele Gossling Mysteries which take place in the early 20th century and feature amateur sleuth and epistolary expert Adele Gossling, a forward-thinking young woman whose talent for solving crimes doesn’t sit well with her town’s Victorian ideas about women’s place in society. Tam has also written historical women’s fiction. Her post-World War II short story collection, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, debuted at #1 in its category on Amazon, and the first book of her Gilded Age family saga, the Waxwood Series, The Specter, remains in the top 10 in its category. Although Tam left her heart in San Francisco, she lives in Texas because it’s cheaper. When she’s not writing, she’s devouring everything classic (books, films, art, music) and concocting vegetarian dishes in her kitchen.

Social Media Links

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/tammayauthor/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/tammayauthor/

Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/tammayauthor/ 

Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/Tam-May/e/B01N7BQZ9Y/ 

BookBub Author Page: https://www.bookbub.com/authors/tam-may

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Technology, Railroads, and Women: Sacramento During the Progressive Era

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If you’ve been reading my books, you know my fiction is set in San Francisco and the Bay Area. I mention a little about my story with San Francisco in my author biography (which you can find by clicking on the About Pages on the menu bar above). San Francisco was the place of both my psychological and literary maturity back in the 1990s.

So why is this blog post about Sacramento? First, parts of Book 2 of the Adele Gossling Mysteries take place in Sacramento. And second, I became interested in Sacramento’s history unexpectedly.

Back when I was writing my Gilded Age family saga, the Waxwood Series, I had a chance to visit Benicia, California, a small coastal town not far from San Francisco. I was so fascinated by the lovely surroundings and the way Benicians took their history seriously that it became an inspiration for the town of Waxwood. I wrote about that here

What does Benicia have to do with Sacramento? In my research, I found out Benicia was, for a very short time, the state capital before legislators settled on Sacramento. In fact, Sacramento had to fight five cities for the honor of state capital, including Monterey, San Jose, and Benicia. 

Photo Credit: Sacramento State Capital building, 1910, postcard, Goeggel & Weidner, Publishers, San Francisco: greghenderson2006/Wikimedia Commons/PD US expired

What Sacramento had to offer might not seem like competition with the charm of coastal towns like Monterey and Benicia. And, in fact, the choice of Sacramento as the state capital was almost incidental and certainly very practical. After moving the capital around five cities within five years, legislators accepted Sacramento’s offer to use their home ground as a state capital — and it stayed there. Not a very exciting story but history is filled with stories that aren’t all that exciting.

What Sacramento had going for it at the turn of the 20th century, however, was something else. It took the Progressive Era ball and ran with it. For example, people were slow to embrace the automobile since its inception in the late 19th century, but in 1900, the first car appeared in Sacramento (for comparison, people started buying cars only when the 1908 Ford Model T made them more affordable.) The first automobile race took place during the California state fair in Sacramento in 1903 (the year the Adele Gossling Mysteries begins). People who have read Book 1 are familiar with the opening of Adele roaring down the main street in her Beaton Roundabout (a fictional car manufacturer) and causing a shock among the town’s Victorian-minded residents. You can bet if it had been Sacramento instead of Arrojo, people wouldn’t have turned a hair!

Another area of progress Sacramento embraced was worker’s rights and free commerce. Tired of the Southern Pacific Railroad domination (a company run by San Francisco giants like Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker), Sacramento politicians allowed the Western Pacific Railroad to build tracks in the city, giving many workers jobs and helping to put a halt to the SPR’s cartel over railroad transportation in the West.

And let’s not forget the women! We know women’s suffrage was a big issue for the progressives and women fought to gain the vote, which they did in 1920. But in Sacramento, as in all of California, women already had the right to vote in 1911. In the years following before the ratification of the 19th Amendment, women in California were already making strides with their vote, such as encouraging Chinese-American women to go to the polls (with the first going in 1912) and putting Native American suffragism on the political agenda. 

Sacramento may not be as famous as San Francisco, but if you want to read a bit about life in that city, take a look at A Wordless Death coming out at the end of this month. You can pick up a copy at a special price for preorder here. And how about Book 1? That’s on sale too! Get all the information here

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, you’ll enjoy my novella The Missing Ruby Necklace! It’s available exclusively to my newsletter subscribers and you can get it here. By signing up, you’ll also get news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history, classic true-crime tidbits, and more!

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Release Day Blitz for The Carnation Murder!

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Title: The Carnation Murder

Series: Adele Gossling Mysteries (Book 1)

Author: Tam May

Genres: Historical Cozy Mystery

Release Date: April 30, 2022

California, 1903: Smart, inquisitive, and a firm believer in the new progressive reforms, Adele Gossling seeks a new life after the devastating death of her father. She flees San Francisco for the small town of Arrojo, planning a life of peace and small pleasures with nothing more exciting than selling fountain pens to the locals in her stationery shop and partaking in the town’s favorite pastime: gossip.

Peace is exactly what she doesn’t get when she discovers her neighbor’s dead body 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 are sure he’s innocent. In spite of the raised eyebrows from Arrojo’s Victorian-minded citizens, they set out to prove the young man didn’t do it. But if he didn’t, who did?

Can Adele and Nin solve this puzzling case involving a striped carnation, a diamond ring, a note, a muddy pair of boots, and a broken promise? 

You can get your copy of the book at a special promotional price from your favorite online book retailer here.

Excerpt

James showed them into the ballroom. 

“I can’t imagine what you think you’ll find, Sheriff,” Adele remarked. “The servants cleared every morsel of the party ages ago.”

“One can never tell.” He examined the floor. “We already know the body was dragged from somewhere. It could have easily been from some hidden corner in this house.”

“In a house this size, it’s entirely possible,” Jackson agreed.

“I beg your pardon, sir.” James cleared his throat. “Mr. Blackstone was most particular about people straying too far from the ballroom. For young Mickey’s sake.”

“Young boys are always afraid of missing all the excitement,” Jackson said ruefully.

“He particularly asked the servants to redirect anyone who wandered past the hallway,” James continued.

“But Mr. and Miss Gossling said they saw some people going out the back door.”

“Yes, sir,” said the man. “It leads to the veranda. Mr. Blackstone had no objection to guests going out for a bit of fresh air.”

“Can you show us?” 

James led them to the hall and opened the back door. The lace curtains seemed limper than they had been a few nights before. Japanese paper lanterns were still strung up, though not lit.

“It must have been quite a spectacle out here,” The sheriff remarked, eyeing them.

“We wouldn’t know,” said Jackson. “Neither Adele nor I ventured outside.”

“Quite content to watch the intrigues going on inside, eh?” Hatfield eyed him.

“Quite.” Jackson’s voice was guarded. “If Lucy was killed out here and dragged, there would be a mark somewhere.”

“I scarcely think it’s possible that she was killed here, Sheriff,” said Adele. 

“And why is that?”

“The lights.” She steadied a swinging lantern with her parasol. “They would have illuminated even the slightest movement. The curtains were drawn in the ballroom and as you can see, that room overlooks this part of the veranda.”

“I see you and your brother both inherited strong powers of observation,” said Hatfield with a gleam in his eye.

About the Author

As soon as Tam May started writing when she was fourteen, writing became her voice. She writes engaging, fun-to-solve historical cozy mysteries. Her mysteries empower readers with detailed plots and a sense of “justice is done” at the end. Her fiction is set in and around the San Francisco Bay Area because she adores sourdough bread, Ghirardelli chocolate, and the area’s rich history. Tam’s current project is the Adele Gossling Mysteries. The series takes place in Northern California in the early 20th century and features amateur sleuth and epistolary expert Adele Gossling. Together with her clairvoyant friend, Nin Branch, they ensure justice is served for women, both living and dead. Tam lives in Texas but calls San Francisco and the Bay Area “home”. When she’s not writing, she’s reading classic literature, watching classic films, reading self-help books, or cooking yummy vegetarian dishes.

Social Media Links

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/tammayauthor/

Instragram: https://www.instagram.com/tammayauthor/

Goodreads Author Page: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/16111197.Tam_May

Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/Tam-May/e/B01N7BQZ9Y/ 

BookBub Author Page: https://www.bookbub.com/authors/tam-may

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This Month’s Woman in History: Nannie Helen Burroughs

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Photo Credit: Nannie Helen Burroughs, 1909, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division: FloNight/Wikimedia Commons/PD US 

For women to take on the entrepreneurial spirit in the 21st century is not only accepted but supported. Women business owners have a lot of resources online and in their communities these days to help them build and grow their businesses in whatever field they choose. When they can’t get the job they want, they create it.

But in the early 20th century, this wasn’t the case. In spite of the rise of the suffragist movement during this period, ideas about women’s place were still hampered by the previous century’s separate spheres. Even progressive women like Adele Gossling, the protagonist of my new series, The Adele Gossling Mysteries, is looked down upon by the inhabitants of her new home because she prefers running her stationery store and helping the police solve crimes over marriage and children.

One woman who took the entrepreneurial spirit to new heights and opened many doors for African-American women at the turn of the century was Nannie Helen Burroughs. The daughter of former slaves, Burroughs took her high scholastic achievements and applied for a job with the Washington D.C. public school system. She didn’t get it. So, like many women entrepreneurs, she decided to create the job she wanted. Her dream was to open her own school for girls that would teach them how to make their own living and give them the courage, strength, and education to fight for the rights of their people. 

Burroughs began putting her plan into action by doing what many women entrepreneurs do: She worked at odd jobs to save up money to build her school. She solicited all the funds she could from the African-American community, refusing to accept donations from whites so she could dictate the curriculum of her school in her way. When she bought the buildings and land for her school, she did much of the work herself. She opened the doors to the National Training School for Women And Girls in 1909 and from the get-go, it was a huge success.

Photo Credit: Trades Hall, National Training School for Women and Girls, now the headquarters of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, taken by Farragutful on 8 July 2017: Farragutful/Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY SA 4.0 

Burroughs’ ideas of women’s education were progressive for her time. Like many New Women, she believed the sky was the limit to what girls could and should learn. At the same time, her school emphasized the importance of practical training so her girls would graduate with the skills to support themselves. The curriculum included courses in dressmaking and handicrafts along with literature and science. Like many New Women, Burroughs also believed in physical activity for girls, abhorring the previous century’s “delicate woman” and the school had its own basketball team. 

Burroughs’ school evolved with the times, such as teaching skills relevant to women seeking work in factories during World War II. Upon her death in 1961, the National Training School for Women and Girls was renamed the Nannie Helen Burroughs School. Today, the six-acre complex houses several facilities, including the headquarters of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, a group that works for civil rights and social justice, and a private high school.

Let’s celebrate this amazing woman educator, suffragist/feminist, and civil rights activist during this Black History Month!

Is the life of a Gilded Age debutante all parties and flirtations? Read “The Rose Debutante” to find out! It’s FREE! Plus, you’ll get to know about life in the past and about the resilient women the history books forgot. And how about fun historical facts, great deals on historical fiction books, and a cool monthly freebie thrown in just because? Here’s where you can sign up.

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