British State Assassins and the Defense of Insanity
THE tragedy of the 2d of July last suddenly revived public interest in an old topic, — the defense of insanity in capital cases. It is a well-worn theme, much discussed, and always with an unsatisfactory result. What is moral insanity ? What is legal insanity ? Conclusive answers to both these questions have often been attempted, but never given with such definiteness and decisiveness as to shut off debate. Every day the controversy is resumed in our courts, and apparently will go on to the end of time. It is settled one day, and the day after we find it is not settled at all. “ What,” said the late Dr. Forbes Winslow, “ is my test of insanity ? I have none. I know of no unerring, infallible, and safe rule or standard applicable to all cases.” So, too, the British judges, whose effort to define the undefinable we shall presently examine at length, after all their elaboration of statement touching what does and what does not constitute legal insanity, finally confessed that “ the facts of each particular case must of necessity present themselves with endless diversity, and with every shade of difference in each case.” But if it be difficult to define what is legal insanity, which is a mere matter of human law, how much more difficult is it to determine and define what is moral insanity ? Dr. Sam Johnson declares that “ all power of fancy over reason is a degree of insanity,” and Montaigne asserts that between genius and madness there is but “a half turn of the toe.” M. Taine concurs in this dictum, and philosophically avers that “ insanity is not a distinct and separate empire ; our ordinary life borders upon it, and we cross the frontier in some part of our nature.”
It has been the periodic mission of the assassin to revive this moot question. One day the world stands and shudders with an unanimous horror, and the next divides upon the old issue, — Was he insane ? It is oppressively monotonous, in looking back over these historical tragedies, to find how invariably the modern imitator of Brutus comes dowm to the footlights with a pistol in one hand and a plea of insanity in the other. In American history, so far, we have had only two creatures corresponding to what, in the vocabulary of Europe, would be called regicides. In the first case there was no opportunity offered to the assassin to plead insanity. A vast amount of legal lore and medical metaphysics was forestalled by the summary shooting of Wilkes Booth in the barn where he was brought to bay.
The mother country has had a far greater familiarity with such criminals within the current century, and a glance at her records in this regard would seem to have a timely interest.
The initial year of the century witnessed the first of a series of attempted and successful assassinations of British sovereigns and statesmen. It was the evening of the 15th of May, 1800. Fashionable London was in the height of the season, and Drury Lane Theatre was packed from pit to gallery for a performance at which the king was expected to be present. Sheridan was the manager of Drury Lane at that time. The house was brilliantly lighted, and there was not a suggestion of tragedy in the air. The royal box at the side of the stage was eagerly watched for the appearance of the king. Suddenly there was a quick movement among the audience, and as one man it sprang to its feet, in accordance with the custom that obtained whenever royalty appeared. The portly form of King George the Third was seen advancing to the front of the box, bowing in recognition of the popular salute. As the king bowed the second time the house was startled by the report of a pistol, and as a puff of smoke curled upwards from the pit, directly in front of the royal box, the cry went up, “ Secure the villain ! ”
The aim of the would-be assassin was bad; the king was unhurt; and a few minutes later, the villain having been meantime secured, Mrs. Jordan came down to the footlights, and amid frantic cheering sung the national anthem with this impromptu addition, composed on the spur of the moment by the brilliant Sheridan: —
From the assassin’s blow,
God shield the king!
O’er him thine arm extend;
For Britain’s sake defend
Our father, prince, and friend!
God save the king! ”
Such was the abortive attempt of James Hadfield (or Hatfield, as some authorities have it) upon the life of George the Third. As soon as he had fired he dropped his pistol on the floor of the pit. A score of stout arms assisted to drag him over the orchestra railing and into the music-room, under the stage. Sheridan and the Duke of York, who was one of the royal party that evening, came in to see him immediately afterwards. The duke instantly recognized in the king’s assailant one of his old orderlies, who had served him in the French war with great fidelity and gallantry. Turning to the duke, Hadfield said, “ God bless your royal highness, I like you very well ; you are a good fellow ! ” It turned out that the pistol was loaded with two slugs, one of which was found in Lady Milner’s box, directly under the king’s, and the other in the orchestra. Hadfield affected to have no malice against the king. “ I was tired of life,” he said, “and my plan was to get rid of it by other means. I did not mean anything against the life of the king; I knew the attempt alone would answer my purpose.”
He was soon after put on his trial, and Mr. Erskine undertook his defense. Insanity was the plea which he elected to put in. Nor can it be denied that he made out a plausible case. The evidence submitted in Hadfield’s behalf may be summarized thus : that at twenty-two years of age he had enlisted as a soldier, and was at once sent into active service in France; that in an action near Lisle, in 1794, he had exhibited rare bravery, receiving several sabre wounds in the head, and being left for dead upon the field ; that these wounds had permanently injured the texture of his brain, and deranged his mind; that he had acted insanely, at intervals, ever since; that he had, shortly before making his attempt on the king’s life, tried to destroy the life of his own infant child, aged eight months, under the delusion that his time was come, and that he must not leave it behind him ; that he had long held the hallucination that his death would somehow benefit mankind, and had gone to the Drury Lane Theatre with the absurd notion that he must immolate himself in imitation of the Saviour ; that he had some time prior to this entertained the idea of firing over the king’s coach, but that he abandoned this project on reflecting that a mob might tear him to pieces. In this lastmentioned whim he vividly reminds us of Guiteau’s nervous anxiety at the Baltimore and Potomac depot, and after his arrest, lest a mob should seize and rend him.
Mr. Erskine proceeded to call witnesses to prove these facts. Major Ryan testified that the prisoner, in a paroxysm of madness, came near stabbing him with a bayonet at the Croydon barracks in 1796. John Laine, a private, deposed that Hadfield, in the hospital at Brussels, imagined himself to be King George, and, calling for a looking-glass, felt about his head for his crown of gold. Three doctors testified to the fearful nature of his wounds, and that the resulting injuries had, in their opinion, affected his brain. Several of Hadfield’s relatives deposed that he had, at different times, fancied himself to be Jesus Christ and God. On the morning of the day on which he attempted the king’s life, as they testified, he said he had seen God in the night, and that he (Hadfield) had been dining with the king.
The jury, without leaving the box, found a verdict of “ Not guilty, on the ground of insanity,” and he was thereupon committed to Bedlam “ during his majesty’s pleasure.” This escape of Hadfield through the loop-hole of insanity was strongly resented by the public opinion of the day, and the resentment found voice in Parliament. Some changes in the law followed, of which more hereafter.
Eleven years later came an assassin for whom the plea of insanity was raised in vain; indeed, it was scarcely permitted to he raised at all. This was John Bellingham, between whose crime and that of Guiteau not a few American writers have drawn a somewhat fanciful parallel. It was on the evening of Monday, the 11th of May, 1811, that Bellingham suddenly threw London into a state of consternation and horror by the assassination of Mr. Spencer Perceval, the prime minister of the day, on the very threshold of the House of Commons. The shadows were deepening around Palace Yard, and, the hour for the assembling of Parliament having arrived, honorable members were hurrying, singly and in groups, through the lobby to their several places. Leaning on the arm of Lord Osborne, the prime minister reached the entrance to the lobby, and was in the act of passing in, when a tall, raw-boned man, with a thin, long visage, aquiline nose, and short brown hair, who had been observed loitering in the vicinity for an hour past, drew a pistol and fired upon him at nearly point-blank range. Mr. Perceval staggered, and exclaiming, “ Oh, I am murdered ! ” fell to the ground, and expired before the gentlemen who rushed to his assistance could carry him into the speaker’s private room. As the body was being lifted from the floor of the lobby the cry was raised, “ Where is the rascal who fired ? ” “I am the unfortunate man,” said Bellingham, coolly stepping forward, and quietly submitting to arrest. He was hurried into one of the antechambers of the House of Commons, and a magistrate was sent for. Meantime, the news spread rapidly. On the floor of the House the report passed from mouth to mouth, " Mr. Perceval has been killed ! ” and, upon the hasty conclusion that it was the work of a secret political conspiracy, it was suggested that the doors of Parliament he closed and locked. Bellingham, however, had no accomplices. General Gascoyne, the member for Liverpool, went into the apartment where the assassin was detained, and at once recognized him as a man who had long and persistently pestered him with petitions and memorials respecting some alleged claims which he had upon the government for compensation for services rendered to it in Russia, — a fact which doubtless suggested the parallel instituted between his act and that which has so recently horrified the people of the United States. The parallel is continued by Bellingham’s confession that for a fortnight he had been watching for an opportunity to kill his victim. When asked his motive for the act he replied, “ My name is Bellingham; it is a private injury ; I know what I have done; it was a denial of justice on the part of the government.” The fatal ball was of an unusually large size, and the post-mortem examination disclosed the fact that it had penetrated the very centre of the heart, passing completely through it. On the person of the murderer was found a steel pistol, about seven inches in length, the fellow of the one he had used upon Mr. Perceval, and loaded in like manner. It appeared that, to make sure of his work, he had, before going to the lobby entrance, practiced with both pistols. He had repeatedly applied at different department offices to have his alleged claims allowed. “ They ordered me to go and do my worst,” he said, “ and now I have done my worst, and I rejoice in my deed.” He was committed to the Old Bailey, and escorted thither by a strong military guard ; a necessary precaution, seeing that Palace Yard and all the approaches thereto were blocked by an angry multitude of people, who would otherwise have dealt with him more swiftly than the courts. He had no reason to complain, however, of needless delay. Justice was fleet of foot in this instance. There is much ground for believing that the plea of insanity was as plausible in his case as in any. His crime was indeed premeditated, and apparently “ of malice aforethought,” but there were not a few circumstances attending its commission that pointed to the probability that he was a victim of mental unsoundness. His bravado, and the stolid self-satisfaction with which he spoke of the deed on his arrest; the utter indifference to the consequences which he exhibited throughout; his conduct after arrest, and finally upon the scaffold, all favor the presumption that he was the most irresponsible of the group of criminals reviewed in this article. On the Tuesday morning following his arrest he wrote a letter to Mrs. Roberts, the woman at whose house he had lodged, at No. 9 New Milman Street, which ran as follows : —
DEAR MADAM : Yesterday midnight I was escorted to this neighborhood by a noble troop of light - horse, and delivered into the care of Mr. Newman (by Mr. Taylor, magistrate and M. P.) as a state prisoner of the first class. For eight years I have never found my mind so tranquil as since this melancholy but necessary catastrophe, as the merits or demerits of my peculiar case must be regularly unfolded in a criminal court of justice, to ascertain the guilty party, by a jury of my country. I have to request the favor of you to send me three or four shirts, some cravats, handkerchiefs, night-caps, stockings, etc., out of my drawers, together with comb, soap, tooth-brush, with any other trifle that presents itself which you think I may have occasion for, and inclose them in my leather trunk, and the key please to send sealed by bearer; also my greatcoat, flannel gown, and black waistcoat, which will much oblige, dear madam,
Your very obedient servant,
To the above please to add the PrayerBook.
To MRS. ROBERTS.
Two days later, on Thursday, the grand jury found a true bill against him; on Friday he was tried; and on the Monday following, within less than a week from the time of the assassination, his dead body was on the surgeon’s dissecting-table. At his trial he conducted himself in an incoherent fashion. On being asked what he had to say in his own defense, he began by complaining that the papers necessary to his defense were taken out of his pocket when he was arrested, and had not been returned to him. He then expressed his “great obligation to the attorney-general for the objection which he has made to the plea of insanity,” and made a rambling speech, of which the following extract is a fair specimen: —
“ I think it is far more fortunate that such a plea as that should have been unfounded than it should have existed in fact. That I am or have been insane is a circumstance of which I have not been apprised, except in the single instance of my having been confined in Russia; how far that may be considered as affecting my present situation it is not for me to determine. I beg to assure you that the crime which I have committed has arisen from compulsion rather than from any hatred of the man whom it has been my fate to destroy. Considering the amiable character and the universally admitted virtues of Mr. Perceval, I feel if I could murder him in a cool and unjustifiable manner I should not deserve to live another moment in this world. Conscious, however, that I shall be able to justify everything which I have done, I feel some degree of confidence in meeting the storm which assails me, and shall now proceed to unfold a catalogue of circumstances which, while they harrow up my own soul, will, I am sure, tend to the extenuation of my conduct in this honorable court.”
He then proceeded to read a long petition about his visit to Russia : what he had done there for the government; how he had left his wife there in great distress ; and how, since his return, he had applied to the departments in vain for relief. At no point in his statement did he connect Mr. Perceval with his grievances, or appear to recognize any logical necessity for so doing, He sat down at last, and his doom was speedily fixed. His counsel rose, read a number of affidavits, and asked for a brief postponement of the trial, in order to bring witnesses from various parts of the country to prove that the prisoner had long been of unsound mind. This application was refused peremptorily, and the trial was, in fact, an entirely one-sided affair. Committed, tried, convicted, sentenced, and executed all within one week, it could not be otherwise. It was simply mob law judicially administered. Bellingham’s conduct at the scaffold, where certainly he no longer had any motive to play the madman, strongly savored of insanity. Standing on the drop, with a vacant stare, he put out one of his hands, as if to feel if it were raining, and calmly remarked to the chaplain, “ I think we shall have rain to-day.” There was nothing relevant in this remark to the fate with which he was face to face, nor was it pertinent to the state of the weather.
Sir Alexander Cockburn, in conducting his defense of McNaughten, whose case is hereafter reviewed, remarked that “ few will read the report of Bellingham’s trial without being forced to the conclusion that he was either really mad, or, at the very least, the little evidence which alone he was permitted to adduce relative to the state of his mind was strong enough to have entitled him to a deliberate and thorough investigation of his case,” — which he never had.
The case of Edward Oxford, aged nineteen, who, on the 10th of June, 1 840, fired two pistols at Queen Victoria, without wounding her, is the next of the series. The facts of the shooting are briefly these: The queen and the late prince consort were driving up Constitution Hill in a low open carriage, when Oxford, who had been awaiting its approach, pacing to and fro with his arms folded, suddenly turned, nodded, drew a pistol from his breast-pocket, and discharged it, at short range, at the carriage. Looking quickly around to see if he were observed, he then drew a second pistol, and leveled it across the first at the queen, who stooped to avoid the fire, which was delivered this time at only six or seven yards’ distance. The fellow at once surrendered himself, and on being taken to the police office eagerly inquired, “Is the queen hurt?” —a question which he repeatedly put afterwards to those who visited him in his cell.
Oxford was placed on trial at the Old Bailey on the 9th of July following. The trial lasted three days ; Lord Denman, Baron Alderson, and Justice Maule on the bench, and the array of counsel including the attorney-general and solicitor-general (Sir John Campbell and Sir Thomas Wilde), Sir Frederick Pollock, Mr. Wightman, Mr. Adolphus, and Mr. Gurney for the Crown, and Mr. Sydney Taylor and Mr. Bodkin for the prisoner. Again, as in the case of Hadfield, the defense set up was that of insanity. Oxford’s counsel called witnesses to prove that his grandfather and father had both been insane. His mother was a principal witness, and testified that she had married the would-be regicide’s father because he had threatened self-destruction if she should refuse ; that while she was enceinte her husband was in the habit of terrifying her with hideous grimaces and horrible gesticulations, so that one of her children was born, and after three years died, an idiot. As to the prisoner, she deposed that he had always been an erratic, vicious youth, extravagantly vain and ambitious ; begging as a boy to be sent to sea, where he believed he would have nothing to do but strut along the deck, give orders, and become Admiral Sir Edward Oxford. A short time previous to her confinement with the prisoner, as she further made oath, her husband had pointed a gun at her head. This was the main substance of the evidence in support of the theory of insanity.
On the other hand, the Crown established the facts that the prisoner had purchased the pistols some days before the shooting, and had practiced with them upon a target; that he had never at any time, by any one, been treated as insane; and that the attempt was made with all possible method and deliberation. Five doctors, however, who had examined Oxford in his cell, testified their belief that he was insane. The bench instructed the jury with a heavy leaning against this medical testimony, but, after an hour’s deliberation, they, following the example of their predecessors who tried Hadfield, brought in a verdict of acquittal on the ground of insanity. Oxford was thereupon committed to Bedlam for life.
The next attempt on the life of Queen Victoria was made on the 30th of May, 1842, by John Francis, aged twenty. Francis discharged at the queen a pistol loaded with powder and, to quote the language of the indictment, “ certain other destructive materials and substances unknown.” lie did not plead insanity, but was convicted, and sentence of death was passed upon him in the ancient form prescribed for prisoners condemned for high treason. This form is curious in its antique barbarity, and runs as follows: “The court now declares the last sentence of the law, which is that you, John Francis, be taken hence to the place whence you came, and be thence drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution; and that you be there hanged by the neck until you be dead ; and that afterwards your head shall be severed from your body, and your body, divided into four quarters, shall be disposed of as her majesty shall think fit. And may God Almighty have mercy on your soul.” It is perhaps needless to say that no such revolting outrage was enacted upon the body of Francis. In deference to the humane wish of the queen herself, his sentence was, in fact, commuted to transportation for life.
Within five weeks from the date of this act of royal clemency, the queen was once more assailed by one John William Bean, a deformed stripling, aged seventeen. On Suuday, the 3d of July, 1842, as her majesty was going to the chapel royal, Bean presented a pistol at her, and snapped the trigger, but failed to discharge the weapon. He was promptly seized, and on the pistol being examined it was found to be loaded only with powder, wadding, and minute fragments of a clay pipe. Bean was tried for simple misdemeanor ; the defense of insanity was not offered; and he was sentenced to eighteen months’ imprisonment, with hard labor. In spite of the burlesque character of this assault, the national feeling was by this time excited to a high pitch of indignation by these repeated outrages, and the result was the passing of the Act of Parliament (5 and 6 Vict., chap. 51) entitled “ An act for providing for the further security and protection of her majesty’s person.” This is the statute to which the late British minister at Washington, Sir Edward Thornton, referred in his comments upon Guiteau’s crime, intimating his opinion that a like provision of law would have a salutary effect in this country. It provides that whoever “ shall discharge or attempt to discharge, or point, aim, or present, at or near to the person of the queen,” any fire-arm, whether the same shall be loaded or not, or shall “ strike or attempt to strike, or strike at, the queen’s person with any offensive weapon,” shall be guilty of a high misdemeanor, and be “ liable, at the discretion of the court, to be transported for seven years, or imprisoned, with or without hard labor, for any period not exceeding three years; and during such imprisonment to be publicly or privately whipped as often and in such manner and form as the court shall direct, not exceeding thrice.”
It was the whipping clause upon which Sir Edward Thornton laid stress. It seems to have had a deterrent influence upon British Guiteaus, as for seven years after its enactment the queen was not again molested. Then, on the 19th of May, 1849, as she was enjoying an afternoon drive in an open carriage with three of her children, a pistol was discharged at her by William Hamilton, an Irish bricklayer. The shot was fired point-blank at the person of General Wemyss, one of her majesty’s attendant equerries, who happened to be in the line of her person. Hamilton was tried on the 14th of June following, pleading guilty, and receiving a sentence of seven years’ penal servitude.
We now come to the most remarkable trial in the series under review, that of Daniel McNaughten, who was tried on the 3d and 4th of March, 1843, for the murder of Mr. Drummond, the private secretary of the late Sir Robert Peel. Again the defense offered was that of insanity. The facts of the tragedy may be briefly narrated: Secretary Drummond was returning alone, on foot, to his residence in Downing Street, on the afternoon of Friday the 20th of January, 1843, when McNaughten came close behind him and deliberately shot him in the back with a pistol. While Mr. Drummond was staggering from the effect of the ball, which inflicted a mortal wound, McNaughten drew a second pistol, and was about to fire upon his victim a second time, when he was seized by a police officer, who tripped him up, and, after a desperate struggle upon the ground, secured him. Mr. Drummond died five days later, after great suffering.
McNaughten was the natural son of a Glasgow turner, and had come from that city to London a few months before, bringing with him a considerable sum of money, and leading a life of leisure, He had cultivated a strong dislike of Sir Robert Peel, and had determined to kill him. His killing of Mr. Drummond instead was an accident, due to his mistaken identity. McNaughten undoubtedly fired the fatal shot in the belief that his victim was Sir Robert Peel himself, to whom Mr. Drummond bore a strong personal resemblance. On the morning after the shooting, when it was demanded of him if he knew whom he had shot, he answered, ‘‘ It is Sir Robert Peel, is it not ? ” In view of the plea of insanity afterwards set up for him, it is curious to note that this admission was followed by the shrewd remark, “ But you won’t use this against me.” The animus of the fellow against Peel was found in a wild, political antipathy against the Tories generally. They had, he alleged, persecuted him bitterly and persistently. In the month of November preceding the tragedy, he had exclaimed with fury to a companion, on passing Sir Robert’s house in Whitehall, “ D———n him ! Sink him! ” and used other violent language of like purport. Otherwise his conduct had not attracted attention, and no one who knew him had ever regarded him as anything more than an eccentric character. His habits were temperate and exceedingly economical. The landlady of the house in which he boarded testified to these facts, and also that she had never supposed him to be a man of disordered mind.
On his trial, McNaughten was defended by Mr. Cockburn, Q. C., afterwards Lord Chief-Justice of England, and well-remembered in this country as the arbitrator representing Great Britain upon the tribunal, at Geneva, which settled the Alabama claims. The acquittal of McNaughten was certainly one of his greatest achievements. The theory which he urged upon the jury was “ that the prisoner was laboring, at the time of committing the act, under a morbid insanity, which took away from him all power of self-control, so that he was not responsible for his acts.” Mr. Cockburn was careful to mention that he “ did not put this case forward as one of total insanity, but as a case of delusion.” In support of this theory, the statement signed by the prisoner at his preliminary examination at the Bow Street Police Court was put in evidence. This statement ran as follows :
“ The Tories in my native city have compelled me to do this. They follow and persecute me wherever I go, and have entirely destroyed my peace of mind. They followed me into France, into Scotland, and all over England ; in fact, they follow me wherever I go. I cannot get no rest for them night nor day. I cannot sleep at night, in consequence of the course they pursue towards me. I believe they have driven me into a consumption. I am sure I shall never be the man I formerly was. I used to have good health and strength, but I have not now. They have accused me of crimes of which I am not guilty. They do everything in their power to harass and persecute me ; in fact, they wish to murder me. It can be proved by evidence. That’s all I have to say.” When formally arraigned at the Old Bailey for trial, and called upon to plead, he repeated this rambling statement in condensed form, saying, “ I was driven to desperation by persecution.” A number of witnesses from his native town, Glasgow, were put upon the stand to show that he had for a long time past held the delusion that he was being vindictively pursued by the Tories. A landlord of whom he had hired lodgings some seven years prior to the assassination testified that he had got rid of him because of the infidel doctrines he maintained. Other witnesses had heard him say that he was “ haunted by a parcel of devils,” and that “ the police, the Jesuits, the Catholic priests, and Tories, were all leagued against him.” A cloud of medical experts then took the stand, and testified their belief in the insanity and irresponsibility of the prisoner. At the close of their testimony Chief-Justice Tindal asked the counsel for the Crown (Sir William Follett) whether he was prepared to offer medical evidence in rebuttal, and on receiving a reply in the negative announced the determination of the court to stop the case. The jury, thus guided by the bench, promptly found a verdict of “ Not guilty, on the ground of insanity.” McNaughten was thereupon committed to Bedlam “ during her majesty’s pleasure.”
Public feeling was deeply aroused by this verdict, and the general disappointment and dissatisfaction over the escape of the assassin from the scaffold found expression within, as well as without, the walls of Parliament.
Dr. Alfred Swaine Taylor, in his standard work on Medical Jurisprudence, held as an authority on both sides of the Atlantic, comments upon the failure to convict in this case as follows : “ When we find a man, not showing any previous intellectual disturbance, lurking for many days in a particular locality ; having about him a loaded weapon ; watching a particular person who frequents that locality ; not facing the individual and shooting him, but coolly waiting until he has an opportunity of discharging the weapon unobserved by his victim or others, the circumstances appear to show such a perfect adaptation of means to ends, and such a power of controlling actions, that it is difficult to understand on what principle an acquittal on the ground of insanity could have been allowed. I refer here to the case of McNaughten, tried for the murder of Mr. Drummond, January, 1843. The acquittal in this case was the more remarkable because there was no proof of general insanity, and the crime was committed for a supposed injury. According to the rules laid down by the fifteen judges, from questions submitted to them in connection with this case, this man should certainly have been convicted.”
In the House of Commons Sir Valentine Blake moved for leave to bring in a bill to abolish the plea of insanity in cases of murder, except where it could be proven that the person accused was publicly known and reputed to be a maniac. The motion had no seconder, doubtless because it was seen to be an impracticable proposition. On the same day, however, the House of Lords took up the subject, and a debate of much interest followed, in which law lords of the eminence of Lords Brougham, Lyndhurst, Campbell, Cottenham, and Denman took part. “ It is monstrous,” said Lord Campbell, “ to think that society should be exposed to the dreadful dangers to which it is at present liable from persons in that state of mind going at large.” This but feebly expressed the indignation of the country at large. The debate had the practical result, however, of drawing from the fifteen judges of England an authoritative and explicit exposition of the criminal law touching this grave question.
It was agreed by the Lords to submit to the British justices a series of five questions, to which the latter, after careful deliberation, replied. The answers have ever since been accepted and quoted as the standard enunciation of English law upon the subject of insanity as a defense in cases of murder. They are therefore of opportune interest to American readers. These memorable questions and answers read as follows : —
Question I. : “ What is the law respecting alleged crimes committed by persons afflicted with insane delusion in respect of one or more particular subjects or persons ? — as, for instance, where, at the time of the commission of the alleged crime, the accused knew he was acting contrary to law, but did the act complained of with a view, under the influence of insane delusion, of redressing or revenging some supposed grievance or injury, or of producing some public benefit.”
Answer : “ Assuming that your lordships’ inquiries are confined to those persons who labor under such partial delusions only, and are not in other respects insane, we are of opinion that, notwithstanding the party did the act complained of with a view, under the influence of insane delusion, of redressing or revenging some supposed grievance or injury, or of producing some public benefit, he is nevertheless punishable according to the nature of the crime committed, if he knew, at the time of committing such crime, that he was acting contrary to law; by which expression we understand your lordships to mean the law of the land.”
Questions II. and III. : (1.) “ What are the proper questions to be submitted to the jury when a person alleged to be afflicted with insane delusion respecting one or more particular subjects or persons is charged with the commission of a crime (murder, for example), and insanity is set up as a defense ?
(2.) “ In what terms ought the question to be left to the jury as to the prisoner’s state of mind at the time when the act was committed ? ”
Answers: “ The jury ought to be told, in all cases, that every man is presumed to be sane, and to possess a sufficient degree of reason to be responsible for His crimes, until the contrary be proved to their satisfaction; and that, to establish a defense on the ground of insanity, it must he clearly proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was laboring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing ; or, if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong. The mode of putting the latter part of the question to the jury, on these occasions, has generally been whether the accused, at the time of doing the act, knew the difference between right and wrong, — which mode, though rarely, if ever, leading to any mistake with the jury, is not, as we conceive, so accurate when put generally and in the abstract as when put to the party’s knowledge of right and wrong with respect to the very act with which he is charged. If the question were to be put as to the knowledge of the accused, solely and exclusively with reference to the law of the land, it might tend to confound the jury, by inducing them to believe that an actual knowledge of the law of the land was essential in order to lead to a conviction; whereas the law is administered upon the principle that every one must be taken conclusively to know it, without proof that he does know it. If the accused was conscious that the act was one which he ought not to do, and if that act was at the same time contrary to the law of the land, he is punishable ; and the usual course, therefore, has been to leave the question to the jury, whether the party accused had a sufficient degree of reason to know that he was doing an act that was wrong; and this course, we think, is correct, accompanied with such observations and explanations as the circumstances of each particular case may require.”
Question IV. : “If a person, under an insane delusion as to the existing facts, commits an offense in consequence thereof, is he thereby excused ? ”
Answer: “The answer must of course depend on the nature of the delusion ; but making the same assumption as we did before, — that he labors under such partial delusion only, and is not in other respects insane, — we think he must be considered in the same situation, as to responsibility, as if the facts with respect to which the delusion exists were real. For example, if, under the influence of his delusion, he supposes another man to be in the act of attempting to take away his life, and he kills that man, as he supposes, in self-defense, he would be exempt from punishment. If his delusion were that the deceased had inflicted a serious injury to his character and fortune, and he killed him in revenge for such supposed injury, he would be liable to punishment.”
Question V.: “ Can a medical man, conversant with the disease of insanity, who never saw the prisoner previously to the trial, but who was present during the whole trial and the examination of all the witnesses, be asked his opinion as to the state of the prisoner’s mind at the time of the commission of the alleged crime, or his opinion whether the prisoner was conscious, at the time of doing the act, that he was acting contrary to law, or whether he was laboring under any and what delusion at the time ? ”
Answer: “ We think the medical man, under the circumstances supposed, cannot in strictness he asked his opinion in the terms above stated ; because each of those questions involves the determination of the truth of the facts deposed to, which it is for the jury to decide, and the questions are not mere questions upon a matter of science, in which case such evidence is admissible. But where the facts are admitted, or not disputed, and the question becomes substantially one of science only, it may be convenient to allow the question to be put in that general form, though the same cannot be insisted on as a matter of right.”
These are the governing principles of English law in such cases, as declared by the highest judicial authority. Under these rules the case of one Robert Pate, who on the 27th of June, 1850, continued the series of assaults upon Queen Victoria, was tried. He had been an officer in the Tenth Hussars, and had retired from the service to live upon his fortune in London. It can scarcely be said that he attempted the life of the queen. The story of his assault is soon told. The old Duke of Cambridge lay dying in Cambridge House, and the queen, accompanied by her children, had made a call upon him. It was about six o’clock in the evening when the queen’s carriage turned out from the great gates of the ducal residence into the public road. As it slowly rounded the corner, Pate, who was well dressed and had been loitering some time in the vicinity of Cambridge House without exciting any suspicion, sprang forward to the side of the carriage, and struck the queen a smart blow across the face with a small cane which he carried. The skin of her forehead was broken, and blood flowed. Instantly the ruffian was seized by the bystanders, and the cane wrenched from his hand. The queen proceeded to Buckingham Palace, and her injuries were so trifling that she appeared at the opera the same evening, where she received a patriotic ovation.
Pate was put upon his trial, at the Central Criminal Court, on July 11th following, He was defended by Mr. Cockburn, whose success in obtaining McNaughten’s acquittal we have already seen. Insanity was again the plea relied upon. It was proved that, as an officer in the army, his behavior had been eccentric ; that on one occasion he had deserted, but had been allowed to rejoin the service without punishment, because his superior officers regarded him as in an unbalanced state of mind ; that in 1842, the loss of three fine horses and a favorite Newfoundland dog had thrown him into a morbid and hysterical condition, and that ever since he had acted strangely. A cabdriver was called to the witness-stand, who deposed that every day, at exactly a quarter past three o’clock in the afternoon, for many years, he had been hired by the prisoner to drive him over Putney Bridge to Putney Heath; always taking the same route, and stopping at the same spot. This and a few other strange habits were shown, and upon them Mr. Cockburn built the theory of “ uncontrollable impulse.” In summing up the case to the jury, Baron Alderson, addressing himself to this plea of uncontrollable impulse said : “ The law does not recognize such an impulse. If a person was aware that it was a wrong act he was about to commit, he was answerable for the consequences. A man might say that he picked a pocket from some uncontrollable impulse ; and in that case the law would have an uncontrollable impulse to punish him for it.” Pate was convicted, and sentenced to a term of seven years’ penal servitude.
Since that time, with the exception of the leveling at her of an unloaded pistol by the boy Arthur O'Connor on February 29, 1872, the queen has enjoyed immunity from assault. The case of O’Connor stands in the same minor category with those of Francis, Hamilton, and Bean, and extended notice of it is not to our purpose.
It is, perhaps, worthy of note that not one of the men who have of late murdered, or attempted to murder, czars or emperors, have offered the plea of insanity. In Great Britain and the United States it seems to be the assassin’s invariable defense. And in both countries counsel for the accused start with the advantage of being able to ask the jury, as Mr. Cockburn did in the cases both of Pate and McNaughten, — Could they believe that any sane man could have committed such an act ? And that is the question which the tragic event that has recently shocked and saddened both hemispheres once more invests with melancholy importance, and presents for decision to an American jury.
James W. Clarke.