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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Author: tammayauthor

Writing has been Tam May’s voice since the age of fourteen. She writes stories set in the past that feature sassy and sensitive women characters. Tam is the author of the Adele Gossling Mysteries which take place in the early 20th century and features suffragist and epistolary expert Adele Gossling whose talent for solving crimes doesn’t sit well with the town’s more conventional ideas about women’s place. She has also written historical fiction about women breaking loose from the social and psychological expectations of their era. Although Tam left her heart in San Francisco, she lives in the Midwest because it’s cheaper. When she’s not writing, she’s devouring everything classic (books, films, art, music) and concocting yummy plant-based dishes.