Mad-Doctors in the Dock

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Legal sentencing in England in the mid-eighteenth century considered the death penalty appropriate punishment for two hundred categories of crime, while anyone deemed insane was simply acquitted. This take-off point in Eigen’s study discusses two parallel tracks, referencing primarily the records of London’s Old Bailey court from 1760-1913. Court procedures we assume to have been set in stone for centuries have morphed. Prior to about this time, the judge in criminal cases brought before the court heard only from witnesses with firsthand perception of the crime. Doctors, surgeons, and apothecaries were later asked to testify, but not until 1836 when defense lawyers were admitted was a defendant’s legal representation.

Eigen has explored the Old Bailey Sessions Papers for some twenty years, addressing the definition and diagnosis of forms of madness, in particular homicidal mania. He cites a devoted mother who decapitated her newborn infant: was she delusional, capable of knowing the difference between right and wrong, suffering epilepsy, a lapse of consciousness? As he describes multiple cases of homicidal mania, one recognizes the challenges faced by “mad-doctors” confronted by defendants whose reputations as law-abiding citizens changes sharply.

An unlikely subject for vacation or bedtime reading? On the contrary, the “mad-doctors’” task is unequivocally compelling. Eigen translates his extensive research clearly as a scientific rather than sensational exposition. Readers interested in criminal jurisprudence, the complexities of temporary insanity, and contemporary criminal procedure in light of the historical background will be fascinated.


Reviewed By:

Author Joel Peter Eigen
Star Count 5/5
Format Hard
Page Count 224 pages
Publisher John Hopkins University Press
Publish Date 2016-Nov-28
ISBN 9781421420486
Amazon Buy this Book
Issue March 2017
Category History
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