Show Summary Details

Page of

 PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, CRIMINOLOGY AND CRIMINAL JUSTICE ( (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited. Please see applicable Privacy Policy and Legal Notice (for details see Privacy Policy).

date: 24 January 2018

Psychopathy and the Media

Summary and Keywords

The term “psychopath” has come in popular use to be understood as a description of an individual who seems to have a clear and rational understanding of the world around them; they are not deluded or suffering from hallucinations and yet they seem to be able to act with great cruelty or with recklessness towards the safety of others and themselves. The medical and legal professions have been struggling for over 200 hundred years to reach agreement on whether there might be appropriate psychiatric diagnoses that might helpfully describe such individuals. Various terms such as moral insanity, monomania, psychopathy, and antisocial personality disorder have been used. The term “psychopath” is the one that has become most firmly fixed in the public imagination. The violence and harm that people with these kinds of problems might do can raise a great deal of public anxiety. This anxiety has often played out and been amplified in various forms of the media. This article traces some of the ways that various forms of popular media have been of crucial importance to shaping our understanding of “psychopathy” and the related diagnoses of moral insanity, monomania, and antisocial personality disorder. From the medical treatises and press reporting of notorious trails, and the explorations of dangerous forms of consciousness in the 19th century, to the way that the mass media, including films, have presented such problems, they have often had a key influence on the legal and medical formulations.

Keywords: moral insanity, antisocial personality disorder, psychopath, legal responsibility


The diagnosis of “psychopath” is the most popular term that refers to an individual who appears to have a rational understanding of the world around them, such a person appears not to be suffering from delusions or hallucinations and yet they behave in cruel and reckless ways, often with apparently no remorse. Other terms used have been moral insanity, various forms of monomania (such as homicidal monomania), and antisocial personality disorder (as favored by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual). Debates over the existence, and nature, of such disorders have been troubling criminal justice systems for over 200 hundred years. Whilst the understanding that insanity should be allowed to excuse an offender from the full weight of criminal responsibility has been accepted by criminal justice systems for many centuries (Porter, 2002), insanity has historically been understood to be marked by the complete absence of reason (e.g., Hale, 1739). The notion that there might be forms of insanity that caused antisocial acts, whilst leaving the capacity to reason intact, was challenging when considered within judicial systems and when discussed within the public sphere. Media representations of this set of difficulties have therefore proven to be often crucial to understanding how these problems have been understood. There have been a number of historical landmarks when popular concerns about these diagnoses have had significant impact on the way that medical professionals and the criminal justice systems have responded to them. There have been substantial interactions between the worlds of fictional literature, the popular press, cinema, and medical literature that have shaped our understanding and responses to the diagnoses.

Whilst the diagnoses and debates were to become global, they were taken up most clearly, albeit in rather different ways, in Germany, France, and Britain (Augstein, 1996; Goldstein, 1987; Werlinder, 1978), as well as in the United States (Ray, 1853). Section 1 of this article traces the beginning of the story of the diagnosis of psychopathy (in its various forms) in the medical texts of Philipe Pinel (1806) and its emergence into public awareness, through press interest in spectacular crime in the early decades of the 19th century. Section 2 examines the way that the diagnoses were debated in the public sphere through a series of very public crimes and public trials. It becomes clear that ideas of psychopathy have been fundamentally shaped by public responses to media representations of this set of problems. As discussed in Section 3, the ideas emerging from the courts and medical texts were taken up with enthusiasm in the wider culture, notably in novel of the 19th century. This wider cultural interest was often framed by anxiety, however. The public anxiety has often meant that fear and anxiety have pushed people to find rather simplistic solutions to complex problems, viewing dangerousness as existing only within particular individuals or types of individual, for example. Section 4 discusses some key events from the middle of the 20th century that have seen the mass media play an ever larger role in shaping understanding of the problem—in the United States and the United Kingdom.

The Emergence of Psychopathy: Manie Sans Delire and the Monomanias

Whilst there is evidence that courts were exploring ideas of insanity towards the end of the 18th century (see Jones, 2016), the diagnoses only began to be formalized in the 19th century. An important milestone was the work of Philippe Pinel (1754–1826), a French trained physician who rose to prominence in the story of the birth of the psychiatric profession through his appointment to the Bicêtre and then Salpêtiètre asylums in Paris. He was to become particularly famous through his association with the idea of the “moral treatment” of insanity. This was arguably a landmark in establishing a systematic and formal mode of psychological treatment. “Moral treatment” supposed that the inmates of asylums were more likely to be restored to sanity if they were freed from the chains and treated with respect and kindness in pleasant environments rather than by systems of punishment, bleedings, and purges (Gerard, 1997; Rimke & Hunt, 2002). His interest in close observation led to the publication of his theories of insanity as Traité médico-philosophique sur l’aliénation mentale ou la manie published in 1801 (and published as Treatise on Insanity in English in 1806). This consisted of a ground-breaking nosology which included the category of manie sans délire. This translates roughly as “madness without delirium or delusion” and stood in contrast to “manie avec delirium,” which was the more traditionally recognized form of madness that was characterized by the sufferer losing their capacity to reason. The victim of manie sans delire by contrast suffered “no sensible change in the functions of the understanding,” but instead their “active faculties” would be effected “marked by sanguinary fury, with a blind propensity to acts of violence” (Pinel, 1806, p. 151). This formulation carries considerable historical consequence as it, for the first time, defined a form of insanity that might leave the reason and understanding intact, but somehow damaged the individual’s capacity to control their violence. The model of the mind that Pinel was promoting here was also of some historical significance. Fundamental to the distinction that Pinel was making was the idea that the mind could be divided into functional units or faculties (Berrios, 1993). So the capacity to reason could be viewed as quite distinct from the capacity to feel or to be able to control actions. It was through this paradigm that ideas in medicine were not only to challenge long-held beliefs in the courts, but were to prove stimulating amidst a wider culture, hungry for ideas about psychology. Not only were the theories about complex and dangerous minds to prove fascinating to a public interested in press acounts of murder trials, but novelists were also to explore these different ways of understanding the mind and its afflictions.

Pinel’s influence on the development of psychiatry was immense not only in France but in Britain, Germany, and the United States (Augstein, 1996; Hansen, 1998). Within France, Pinel very directly created a school of aliénistes initially led by Jean Etienne Esquirol, which was to have unparalleled influence on psychiatry and its place in the courtroom until the middle of the 19th century (Werlinder, 1978, p. 31). The chief vehicle for the move into the courtroom was through the promotion of the diagnosis of “monomania” (Goldstein, 1987), which drew on Pinel’s work that suggested that particular forms of insanity might have only circumscribed impact on “the mind,” but might drive an individual to commit serious crime.

The Case of Henriette Cornier (1825)

There was always great public interest in crime, and the growing press was keen to meet the demand for stories. Thus, as the theoretical advances were taken into the courts they were to receive very public airings. Whilst there were a number of cases, that of Antoine Léger, for example, accused of murdering a young girl and drinking her blood (Goldstein, 1987), perhaps the most prominent was that of 25-year-old Henriette Cornier in 1825 (During, 1988; Foucault, 2003). This case was played out on stage lit by “the full glare of publicity” as its sensational nature was good material for the expanding popular press (During, 1988, p. 87). The newly established Gazette des tribunaux, for example, gave the case a full account (Appignanesi, 2009), and its infamy led to considerable coverage in British medical journals. Cornier decapitated the 19-month-year old daughter of the local grocer, who Cornier had offered to look after for a few hours. Instead she took the child straight to her rooms where she cut her head off with a large kitchen knife. When the child’s mother arrives to pick her up, Henriette tells her simply that her child is dead, and as her mother takes in the scene of devastation Henriette throws the head out of the window. To the exasperated demands of investigators for an explanation, Henriette would only say was “J’ai voulu le tuer!” (“I meant to kill him [the child]”). As the British Medico-Chirugical Review reported:

All this time the murderer was coolly seated on a chair in the room near the body of the child, and making no attempt to escape . . . She denied no part of the act, but detailed all the circumstances—even the premeditation of the murder, and the arts, which she had used to lull the suspicions of the mother, and enviegle from her the devoted victim of her bloody design (The Medico-Chirurgical Review, 1827, p. 484).

When the case came to trial, the medical experts (Esquirol, Adelon, and Léveillé) could only express their uncertainty and the need for closer examination, and so Cornier was sent to the Salpétrière asylum for further observation. At the second trial in June 1826, a pattern emerged that was to prove typical of trials involving the diagnosis of “psychopathy”; the prosecution argued that the planning of the killing was evidence of Cornier’s guilt, whilst the defense countered that her own detailed confession of the plan to kill the child, alongside a lack of motive or any appearance of remorse was actually evidence of the existence of some kind of insanity. This was summarized by Georget: “Une acte atroce, si contraire à la nature humaine, commis sans motif, sans intérêt, sans passion, opposé au caractere naturael d’un individu, est evidemment un acte de demence1” (The Medico-Chirurgical Review, 1827, p. 486).

Psychopathy and the MediaClick to view larger

Figure 1. Graphic representation of Henriette Cornier’s crime

The court found her guilty of murder, but not of premeditated murder, and thus she was sentenced, not to death, but to a lifetime of hard labor. This bizarre and apparently motiveless crime was, as Foucault (2003) argued, perfectly placed to propel the newly emerging profession of psychiatry into the public eye. Here they could claim an expertise on “criminal madness” crucial for the profession’s claim to knowledge and “the justification of its power” (Foucault, 2003, p. 121). Certainly its influence was felt beyond France. The British publication the Quarterly Periscope section of The Medico-Chirurgical Review2 in 1827 provided a four-page discussion of the case and concluded that:

The jury ought to have acquitted her on the plea of insanity—and the punishment should have been imprisonment, not hard labour, for life. We are convinced that this would have been the case had the prisoner been tried in an English court (The Medico-Chirurgical Review, 1827, p. 486).

Similarly Isaac Ray in the United States gave Georget’s accounts of the case considerable space in the various editions of his A treatise on the medical jurisprudence of insanity (first published in 1838, see Ray, 1853). Ray approvingly quoted Georget’s condemnation of the verdict’s failure to properly decide the issue of criminal responsibility: “if the accused was mad she ought to have been acquitted; and if not mad she acted from premeditation, and should have suffered the punishment of death” (Ray, 1853, p. 223). Georget himself would do a great deal of work to promote various forms of monomania. In addition to his writing (e.g., Georget, 1826), he also commissioned the artist Géricault to create a series of portraits of “monomaniacs.” The idea was perhaps to demonstrate the apparent normality of the appearance of the monomaniacs, and thus also to demonstrate the professional expertise of the medics who could detect such disorders (Browne, 2004).

Psychopathy and the MediaClick to view larger

Figure 2. Portrait of a Kleptomaniac by Théodore Géricault (1822). In the Public domain.

The crime of Henriette Cornier, was “to leave traces across nineteenth-century society and culture” (During, 1988, p. 86). To Foucault, the case was symbolic, as it marked a beginning of a process that was to enable “psychiatric power . . . to exercise a general jurisdiction, both within and outside the asylum, not over madness, but over the abnormal and all abnormal conduct” (Foucault, 2003, p. 134).

Public Trials of Public Violence

It was not only in France that public interest in crime and justice was manifest in the attention paid to crime in the emergent press of the 19th century (May, 2003). In England the courtroom was to provide the nascent profession of psychiatry with a perfect stage for it to establish its credentials as a body with useful expertise. There were a series of trials over the 19th century that provided just such opportunities for the new ideas about monomania and insanity to be put on public display. In Britain in particular these ideas had some notable success in a number of rather dramatic and high-profile trials. In 1800, even before the age of the “psychiatric expert,” the verdict of “not guilty” on James Hadfield’s public attempt to assassinate King George III had helped to usher in the acceptance of more subtle kinds of insanity in the courts and the special verdict of “not guilty on the grounds of insanity” that required the accused to be confined “at his Majesty’s Pleasure” (Eigen, 1991; Moran, 1985). The trial of Edward Oxford at the Old Bailey (in London, 1840) for his attempt to kill Queen Victoria featured the leading lights of the new profession of psychiatry. Using the categories of moral insanity and monomania the experts were successful in convincing the court that Oxford should be found “not guilty, being insane,” despite the fact that he still seemed to have his reason and that delusions were absent (Jones, 2016). Just three years later, the trial of Daniel M’Naghten at the Old Bailey was to prove a watershed for the legal understanding of insanity. It was not so much the verdict of “not guilty by reason of insanity” for the attempted murder of the Prime Minister Robert Peel and the murder of Edward Drummond (his secretary) but the press and public response to the verdict that was to have long-lasting influence on legal systems across the globe (Moran, 1981).

The Trial of Daniel M’Nghten (1843)

Daniel M’Naghten was put on trial at the Old Bailey in London in 1843 for the murder of Edward Drummond, whom he shot by mistake instead of the Prime Minister Robert Peel. This was to become one of the most famous trials in legal history (Walker, 1968, p. 84). M’Naghten was far from the raving lunatic, who lacked all reason and who might have benefited from the historically accepted threshold of insanity. As the prosecution argued, he was evidently in control of his mind and senses. They called witnesses who could attest that M’Naghten had been able to organize the affairs of his life. He attended night classes, borrowed books, paid his rent, took on jobs, and delivered invoices. Upon his arrest, he appeared to know very well that he had planned to assassinate the Prime Minister. Whilst he might have been somewhat eccentric, here was a man clearly in possession of his reasonable mind.

The defense put the case that although M’Naghten was capable of managing his daily affairs, he was suffering from a “monomania” or “partial delusion” which had driven his violent acts. Edward Munro (chief medic at Bethlem Hospital) had been part of an expert group who had interviewed M’Naghten in prison and argued that this was a recognized and distinct form of insanity that could leave the reason of an individual intact. Indeed, while “the monomaniac” might “exhibit all the appearance of sanity” and be “the acutest reasoners on many points, good arithmeticians, good artists, and good architects,” the disorder would impair and destroy their ability to control themselves (Jones, 2016, p. 72). Various other medics took a similar line of argument. At the end of the trial Lord Justice Tindall summed up the arguments rather briefly. The prosecution had argued that if the prisoner had been “capable of distinguishing right and wrong, then he was a responsible agent and liable to all the penalties the law imposes.” The judge did not review the defense case as it was based entirely on medical evidence and had all consistently emphasized insanity (Walker, 1968, p. 95). With little apparent hesitation the jury brought in the special verdict, “not guilty, being insane,” and M’Naghten was taken directly to Bethlem hospital.

The Press Storm and the M’Naghten Rules

Although, as we have seen, the verdict on Daniel M’Naghten was not unique, the very heated public debate fueled a major shift in legal practice toward the insanity defense. The press response to the verdict reflected widespread public disquiet. A leading article in the The Standard (March 6) was as contemptuous of the new profession as it was alarmed by its rise to power:

The mad doctors, who attended in the modest character of witnesses, were really the persons who charged the Court and the jury, laying down the law of moral responsibility to both, and the judge it was who returned the verdict, under the direction of the mad doctors . . . If the mad doctor’s evidence upon the existence and degree of insanity is to be received with suspicion, we respectfully submit that upon the question of responsibility, his evidence is not received at all. That is a question for the law, and the law was clear until the verdict of Saturday.

The Morning Post on March 14, 1843 continued the attack upon the claims of “the quacks” of “the madhouses” and denounced the whole notion of “partial insanity”:

. . . partial madness (considering madness as an active physical disease) is impossible. Since the creation, there has not been an instance of it, whatever the quack keepers of madhouses, who, of course, try to exalt their craft, may say upon the subject; and even supposing such as thing as partial madness to exist in M’Naughten’s case, what connection was there between the surmised partial madness and the murderous act of the villain.3

An editorial in The Times on March 6th dripped with sarcasm as it “begged leave” to ask:

. . . in a spirit of humble and honest earnestness, of hesitating and admiring uncertainty, and of almost painful dubitation, [to] ask those learned and philosophic gentlemen to define, for the edification of common place people like ourselves, where sanity ends and madness begins, and what are the outward and palpable signs of the one or the other . . . (Walker, 1968, p. 95).

Responding to this public denigration of the verdict a debate in the House of Lords led to the questioning of a panel of judges on how issues of insanity should be considered in court. It was the result of these enquiries that led to the so-called “the M’Naghten rules” that suggested that in order “to establish a defence on the ground of insanity”:

it must be clearly proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was labouring 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

(Walker, 1968, p. 100).

Perhaps the rather dense phrasing here helps explain why it took some time for the implications of these guidelines to become fully apparent. Certainly in practice they came to be understood as meaning that if the accused knew and understood that they were doing an act that was wrong, then they were guilty. This severely narrowed the focus of the insanity defense. The far more subtle diagnoses of moral insanity and monomania that assumed that the knowing reason of an offender might be intact (thus they might know what they were doing and know that it was “wrong”) while still rendering them unable to control or fully comprehend their actions, were ruled out of court. In England one trial, fully occurring in the glare of press publicity was to leave the psychiatry in no doubt that its continuing promotion of such diagnoses in the courts had to be dropped. This was the trial of George Victor Townley.

The Townley Affair (1863) and the Turn to Biology

The extensive press coverage of the trial of George Victor Townley in 1863 was arguably to have considerable influence on the orientation of the developing psychiatric profession towards criminal insanity the later decades of the 19th century. It was a case that garnered almost as much public debate as that of Daniel M’Naghten trial (Walker, 1968, p. 208). Beyond the salacious details of the case there was a great deal of very critical attention aimed at the medics, who were keen to lose the label of “mad-doctors” but were to find themselves subject to highly derogatory discussions of their business and the abundant use of the label.

The 25-year-old Townly had been engaged to 22-year-old Miss Elizabeth Goodwin for four years. She was of a wealthy and respectable family in the northwest of England but was living at the time with her grandfather Captain Goodwin in Wigwell Hall, in Derbyshire. Townley was distraught on learning of her intention to break off their engagement and marry another man and insisted on visiting her in order to hear her views for himself. The story of what happened on August 22 shortly after his arrival at her grandfather’s house was reported widely by national and local newspapers even before the trial. No doubt the press were attracted to the salacious intrigue invoked by the story of how Townley had taken a knife to Betty’s throat and neck with such ferocity that her carotid vein and arteries were ruptured and she bled quickly to death. Such a merciless attack by a young member of the gentry on his lover would no doubt have been sufficient to pique public interest, but Townley’s behavior at the scene and in the following months could only add to the intrigue. Passersby came across the traumatic scene: the pitifully wounded Miss Goodwin and her attacker, who made no attempt to flee but instead helped to carry her back towards her grandfather’s house. He told everyone that he had “done it and that he would be hanged for it.” Meanwhile he kissed his victim several times saying “Poor Betsy.”4 Townley further explained to Miss Goodwin’s grandfather that: “She has deceived me and the woman that deceives me shall die . . . I told her I would kill her. She knew my temper.” On his way to custody, he told the accompanying policeman that “I feel far more happy now that I have done it than I was before, and I trust she is.” Aside from this, he chatted of inconsequential matters including the weather (Anonymous, 1864, p. 16).

Townley’s defense at trial was on the grounds of insanity. His case was put by Dr. Forbes Winslow, a prominent member of the new profession who had been elected President of the Association of Medical Officers of Asylums and Hospitals for the Insane in 1857–1858 and who claimed some expertise in this area as he had been an expert witness in the M’Naghten trial and had published The Plea of Insanity in Criminal Cases in 1843. Just like at the trials of Oxford and M’Naghten, Forbes Winslow’s key argument was that the very fact that Townley had so brazenly confessed his guilt and showed so little remorse was itself evidence of insanity. Indeed, Townley had persisted in declaring that he had been in the right, since Miss Goodwin was his property and no one could judge him. On the problematic issue of his knowing right from wrong, Forbes Wilson had to concede that “he knew he had done a thing contrary to law” but that:

His moral sense I found to be more vitiated than in any case I have ever met with. He had no ideas of duty either towards God or towards man. He was incapable of reasoning correctly or even at all on any subject. He did not believe in the existence of God or a future state, and he said he owed no allegiance to any power either in heaven or earth . . .5

After hearing the evidence, Judge Martin stressed some sympathy for Townley at the breakup of the relationship bringing “as much agony of mind as it was almost possible for any man to suffer,” but still firmly directed the attention of the jury to the M’Naghten rules on insanity:

If he knew that he was doing an act which was likely to cause death, and it did cause death, and he did for that purpose; and if he knew that it was contrary to the law of God expressed in His commandments—that it was also against the law of man, and that he should suffer for it—then it is murder, and it is your duty to find him guilty.6

Perhaps not surprisingly given such firm direction the jury returned a verdict of “guilty,” and Townley was duly sentenced to be executed. There seemed to be general support for this verdict, certainly as judged by the voluminous press coverage of the time. An editorial in The Telegraph is typical in approving of the way that the court had set aside of the medical evidence:

If Dr. Winslow’s theories had been accepted, and if this unhappy Townley had been spared, no one would have been safe . . . Dr Winslow’s name is widely and deservedly respected; but it is clear enough that his diagnosis of Townley’s mental condition was feeble and imperfect . . . Had the evidence of the eminent psychologist swayed the Court, one man might have been saved from the gibbet; but hundreds might have qualified for admission to the madhouse or the gaol.7

If this were not bad enough publicity for psychiatry, events over the following weeks were to pile on the agony. Judge Baron Martin wrote to the Home Secretary to express some reservations about Townley’s execution. Whist not suggesting the verdict was wrong, he noted that as Dr. Winslow had identified the presence of insanity at the time of his interviews with Townley, then perhaps it would be improper to execute an insane man? The Home Secretary suggested that the current state of Townley’s mind needed to be investigated, and thus he was examined by Lunacy Commissioners in Derby Gaol on December 28th. Their findings emphasized the division between the medico-psychological view on insanity and the legal view. They could not say that his mind was “sound,” as they agreed with Forbes Winslow that Townley had an “extraordinarily perverted moral sense,” but they also agreed that the verdict was in accord with “the law as laid down by Mr Baron Martin” (Anonymous, 1864, p. 52). The Home Secretary intervened again and ordered that Townley be sent to an asylum for further examination, rather than execution. The announcement of this respite was greeted by an outraged press response. Here, it was argued, was a scandalous example of the wealthy being allowed to buy their way out of justice. As Lloyds Weekly Newspaper argued bluntly: “Gentility shuddered at the idea of seeing ‘one of us’ hanged” and Townley’s wealthy supporters had “spared neither gold nor exertion in his behalf” and that “Medical evidence . . . was bought in hard cash.”8The Caledonian Mercury argued that the prosecution’s case was clear since Townley had not denied killing Miss Goodwin, and therefore Townley’s only hope was with the “mad doctors” such as Dr. Forbes Winslow, who was savagely mocked:

When in such circumstances, the worst comes to the worst, there are, thank goodness, the “mad doctors.” Accordingly, the attempt was made to prove Townley insane. With a felicitous ease only known to theorists, Dr Forbes Winslow proceeded to his demonstrations . . . Here is something like the Doctor’s allegation:- If, he says, a man kills another under the belief that he is responsible to the laws of neither God nor man, there is no murder, because a man who holds these opinions is insane.9

Meanwhile, Townley himself was examined by doctors (from Broadmoor and Bethlem; Walker, 1968, p. 208) who found him to be of sound mind and so he was transferred to Pentonville Prison to serve a life sentence of hard labor. It was here that Townley himself tried to “put an end to the tragic-comedy” by throwing himself to his death over the prison balcony (Walker, 1968, p. 208). This was not quite the final act, however, as the Coroner’s inquest found that he was “morally insane,” and the jury returned the verdict that he killed himself “whilst in an unsound state of mind”10.

The very public denigration in the press drew a quick response from the profession. The first edition of The Journal of Mental Science in 1864, and an associated pamphlet, was devoted to the Townley case. Leading members of the profession distanced themselves from the legal significance of these psychological portrayals of “moral insanity,” “partial insanity,” or monomania. The use of such diagnoses in court were judged to be “ill chosen and objectionable” (Editors, 1864, p. 25). Dr. John Hitchman took up 13 pages to describe his own interview with Townley when he had been invited by the defense to intervene. Hitchman acknowledged that although Townley’s behavior was consistent with a diagnosis of “moral insanity,” he could not agree that he was “insane in the eyes of the law” as he was a “rational and responsible person” (Hitchman, 1864, p. 28), and thus Forbes Winslow had been in error (Smith, 1981).

Unsurprisingly, given such a firm steer from the top, professional interest in diagnoses such as “moral insanity” declined in the following decades. It was notable that just three years later the highly publicized trial of Frederick Baker for the murder of 8-year-old Fanny Adams involved no serious proposal for an insanity defense. It seems that the 24-year-old office clerk had, during a break from his work, kidnapped and brutally dismembered the girl. He then made no attempt to escape or change his bloody clothes and had written in his own diary: “Killed a little girl; it was fine and hot.” The judge’s argument that the magnitude of the crime could not itself be taken as evidence of insanity was not contradicted by a comment piece in the Journal of Mental Science that suggested that: “It is not possible, we fear, to call him actually insane, unless we are to content to give up all exact notions of insanity.” It is easy to imagine that the trial and the claims for insanity would have been very different if it had taken place before the M’Naghten rules. Indeed, a few years later the influential psychiatrist Henry Maudsley invoked ideas of homicidal insanity (as a form of monomania or affective insanity) in order to explain the particular crime:

the impulsive character of the crime, the quiet and determined ferocity of it, the savage mutilation, his equanimity immediately afterwards, and his complete indifference to his fate—all these indicated an insane organisation

(Maudsley, 1874, p. 163).

By the latter decades of the 19th century, pushed by the press response to the M’Naghten trial and the subsequent “rules” and the ridicule that the Townley trial drew, psychiatry had turned away from the investigation and promotion of quite subtle notions of moral insanity that might exist in the minds of offenders. There was instead a turn back towards the medical roots of psychiatry and efforts made to identify propensities towards criminality in the body of offenders.

Fiction: The Gothic, Eugenics, and Degeneracy

It was not only in the courts and the newspapers that notions such as monomania, moral insanity, and psychopathy have been discussed or promoted. The novel was also beginning its ascent as an important cultural force through the early decades of the 19th century, and debates about the nature of humanity, society, and psychology loomed large (Watt, 1987). Thought-provoking ideas about the nature of mind emerging from the young psychiatric profession were being picked up by novelists (Kearns, 1987; Shuttleworth, 1996). For example, the idea of a murderous monomania seems to have informed the English novelist George Eliot’s use of deliberate monomaniacal killing in her novels Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda. The event in the latter that is perhaps most significant to the plot, although the link with the Henriette Cornier case (see Section 2) seems most clear within the relatively minor plot concerning the young doctor Lydgate, who is startled to find that his lover Laure had, as an actor, actually killed her husband during a scene on stage when she was supposed merely to pretend to stab him. Lydgate is even more discomfited to hear her telling him that this was not some terrible accident. She explains in words that During (1988) argues consciously echo those of the Henriette Cornier case:

. . . Laure paused a little and then said, slowly, “I meant to do it”

Lydgate, strong man as he was, turned pale and trembled: moments seemed to pass before he rose and stood at a distance from her.

“There was a secret, then,” he said at last, even vehemently. “He was brutal to you: you hated him,”

“No! he wearied me; he was too fond: he would live in Paris, and not in my country; that was not agreeable to me.”

“Great God!” said Lydgate, in a groan of horror. “And you planned to murder him?”

“I did not plan: it came to me in the play—I meant to do it”

(Eliot, Middlemarch, 1847, p. 146)

This might seem a none too significant curiosity were it not for the fact that Eliot uses a similar device to enable Gwendoline, one of the central characters in her last novel Daniel Deronda, to escape a loveless marriage. She has married the wealthy but cold, aloof, and controlling Grandcourt out of sheer financial and social insecurity and thus finds herself locked in a loveless marriage until she witnessed his death in a boating accident. She reflects later that she might have saved him:

. . . I had the rope in my hand—no, there he was again—his face was above the water—and he cried again—and I held my hand, and my heart said, “Die!”—and he sank; and I felt “it is done—I am wicked, I am lost!”—and I had the rope in my hand—I don’t know what I thought . . . (Daniel Deronda, book vii, p. 273).

It might be argued that Eliot was anticipating Freud in suggesting that unknown unconscious forces might drive acts of violence (Rodensky, 2003), although During (1988) suggests that Eliot’s interest in this violent monomania was as a social phenomenon that perhaps represented women’s responses to violent patriarchy. The idea of destructive monomania was to make appearance in other literary classics of the 19th century. Captain Ahab the antihero of Melville’s Moby Dick is vividly described as having a monomaniacal obsession with the whale (Smith, 2007). Emily Bronte’s Heathcliffe in Wuthering Heights is also described as having a monomaniacal, and equally destructive, love for Cathy Hearnshaw (Shuttleworth, 1996; Symmington, 1980). Toward the end of the 19th century Joseph Conrad was to make a relatively detailed study of moral insanity in his novella Heart of Darkness. The story is imbued with a sense of grim foreboding stemming from Conrad’s observations of the collapse of the European colonialism into moral disgrace. It is also written with an eye on the psychiatric theories of the day. Marlowe, the book’s narrator is subject to “psychiatric examination” before his voyage to Africa and up the Congo River. Here he becomes increasingly anxious about the brutal methods being used by Kurtz, a very successful colonial trader. While Marlowe is horrified, he is also fascinated by Kurtz when he meets him. There is little doubt that Conrad is referring to moral insanity in describing someone who was perfectly sane and of clear intelligence, and yet:

He had kicked himself loose of the earth. Confound the man! He had kicked the very earth to pieces. He was alone, and I before him did not know whether I stood on the ground or floated in the air . . . Soul! If anybody has ever struggled with a soul, I am the man. And I wasn’t arguing with a lunatic either. Believe me or not, his intelligence was perfectly clear—concentrated it is true, upon himself with horrible intensity, yet clear, . . . But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and by heavens! I tell you it had gone mad . . . I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself (Conrad, The Heart of Darkness, 1899/1933, p. 374).

Conrad is using a social understanding of “moral insanity” here, as Kurtz’s soul has gone “mad” in the wilderness, away from everyday restraint (Walcutt, 1968) but thoroughly exposed to the moral depravity of the colonial project (Arata, 1996). Conrad’s later work The Secret Agent was also another engagement with the issue of “moral insanity,” this time a full-on (and very skeptical) engagement with the ideas about the biological roots of forms of degenerate moral insanity that were to become a major cultural force and an important influence on some of the catastrophic events of the first half of the 20th century (Jones, 2016).

Eugenics and the Gothic

By the latter decades of the 19th century the interplay between fictional literature and ideas in science and medicine was now overt and dynamic. The publication, and the debates surrounding the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859 inspired a great deal of anguished debate about the possibility that human beings were just another species of animal. The prospect that human violence and destructive behavior might somehow be associated with our biological heritage gave energy to theories about the biological root of human behavior. As discussed in Section 2, the psychiatric profession, which, in England at least, had been sympathetic to the relatively subtle psychological models of monomania and moral insanity, turned decisively back towards its medical roots in studies of the body. Rather than hunting for hidden forms of insanity in the minds of offenders, there was instead a move towards the classification of whole groups of offender who might be biologically impelled towards offending (Davie, 2010b; Thomson, 1869). In France also, there was a similar turn towards biological explanation. Bénédict-Augustin Morel emerged from Esquirol’s French school of psychiatry and his thesis on degeneracy was to inspire a generation of medics, writers, and theorists (Pick, 1989). His thesis was that humankind was enduring a process of decline and degeneration. Based on a Lamarkian view of evolution he theorized that the constant interaction between the evident squalor and chaos of the cities of the industrial revolution had already weakened the bodies of the masses, meaning that their offspring were born weaker and prone to the habits of drunkenness and vice of their parents. The idea that criminality might emerge in degenerate individuals or in primitive versions of humanity was to hold a grip on significant aspects of both the criminological and literary imagination in the closing decades of the 19th and the early decades of the 20th century. The publication of Robert Louis Stephenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was a “literary sensation,” selling over 40,000 copies in the six months following its publication in 1866 (Lacey, 2009, p. 2). Clearly influenced by ideas of evolution and degeneracy and their relation to violent transgression, it painted a relatively sophisticated picture of how primitive forms of earlier versions of humanity might exist even within the most respectable forms of Victorian manhood. The hard-working and largely virtuous hero of the book, Dr. Jekyll, invents a potion that turns him into the evil Mr. Hyde who indulges all his violent and lustful desires as much as he pleases. The description of Hyde as “hardly human,” with a “troglodytic” appearance and an “ape-like fury,” appear to be born from theories of degeneracy. The provocative horror of the novel, however, was that not only did the good Dr. Jekyll rather enjoy becoming Hyde, but Hyde was also a part of Jekyll, so the reader is invited to accept that man is not simply a creature with one unitary consciousness but was made up of at least two different kinds of beings, and that perhaps “man will be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous and independent denizens” (Jekyll and Hyde: Henry Jekyll’s Full Statement of the Case).

It was the work of the Italian medic Cesare Lombroso that was to provide the most memorable and influential images of the relationship between biology and psychopathic tendencies. He and his colleagues’ work was packed with drawings and photographs of deviant and dangerous offenders who, they argued, could be identified by their physical features, which represented evolutionary throwbacks to more primitive forms of humanity: their thick brow ridges, protruding ears, or unusual facial deformities. Rafter and Ystehede (2010) drew attention to the mutual influences between the work of those such as Lombroso and the Gothic fiction writers of the late 19th century. Indeed, the interaction becomes entirely overt in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), the story of the monstrous blood sucking Count from Transylvania, who is described in the book as “a criminal type” as would be classified by Nordau and Lombroso (Dracula, p. 542). Lombroso’s own work was arguably distinctly influenced by the gothic as in an often-quoted paragraph (e.g., Pick, 1989, p. 122; Wolfgang, 1961, p. 369) he recalls the moment that he felt inspired to understand the causes of dangerous criminality during a post-mortem examination of a notorious criminal:

This was not merely an idea, but a revelation. At the sight of that skull, I seemed to see all of a sudden, lighted up as a vast plain under a flaming sky, the problem of the nature of the criminal—an atavistic being who reproduces in his person the ferocious instincts of primitive humanity and the inferior animals. Thus were explained anatomically the enormous jaws, high cheek-bones, prominent superciliary arches, solitary lines in the palms, extreme size of the orbits, handle-shaped or sessile ears found in criminals, savages, and apes, insensibility to pain, extremely acute sight, tattooing, excessive idleness, love of orgies, and the irresistible craving for evil for its own sake, the desire not only to extinguish life in the victim, but to mutilate the corpse, tear its flesh, and drink its blood

(Lombroso, 1876, pp. xiv–xv).

The idea that the modern world was threatened by “degenerate” forms of humanity was to become highly pervasive and influential by the end of the 19th century. Max Nordeau, dedicated his book Degeneration (or Entartung in German) in 1895 to Lombroso as he presented a popular version of the degeneracy thesis as he dissected what he saw as degenerate cultural forms of expression and art. The idea that cultural forms themselves might themselves be degenerate was taken very seriously by Hitler’s Nazi government, as they organized an exhibition of “degenerate art” in Munich in 1937 (Zalampas, 1990). Here what is now viewed as some of the most remarkable art of the 20th century (including work by Ernst, Grosz, Klee, and Beckmann) was mocked. Of course, this was but one aspect of the influence of notions of degeneracy on the Nazi regime. The eugenic notion that “bad genes” needed to be removed from the population directly fueled the holocaust. This thinking was developed directly in relation to notions of the psychopathic criminal, and some of the groundwork took place in the United States.

Eugenics and the Psychopathic Clinic in Chicago, Illinois

In the early decades of the 20th century the idea that individuals could be determined by biology to be prone to criminality energized quite systematic eugenic policies across the United States (Rafter, 1997; Willrich, 1998). Whilst the state of Indiana passed the very first legislation in the world in 1907 that allowed the forced sterilization of “confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists” (Sharp, 1908, pp. 1–2), the most notable experiment took place in Chicago, Illinois. The city of Chicago had expanded at a virtually an unprecedented rate towards the end of the 19th century and into the 20th. Anxiety about crime in the emerging urban spaces loomed large. The wholesale reorganization of the court system opened up the space for the creation of the Psychopathic Clinic (also known as the Psychopathic Laboratory) to be attached to the court system. Here eugenic ideologies were applied to the disposal of young people who were accused of crime. They were offered the chance of opting out of the traditional court and sentencing structures. They could instead be assessed in the “Psychopathic Clinic,” which was organized around eugenic principles (Wilrich, 2003). Putting together ideas from eugenic theory that had emerged from the work of Francis Galton (e.g., Galton, 1904) in London, ideas of constitutional psychopathy from German psychiatry (e.g., Koch, 1891), and the work of the Eugenical Record Office based in Long Island, New York (Goddard, 1920), the delinquents were to find themselves facing life-term commitment to institutional care, the main purpose of which was to deny them the right of parenthood. Mutual support and dialogue between psychiatric supporters of eugenics in the United States and Germany was very much evident in the early 1930s and helped lay the ground for use of eugenic ideas during the Holocaust (Breggin, 1993). Nevertheless, the events of the Second World War would bring about a sea change in attitudes towards the link between mental disorder, delinquency, and biology. The view that emerged about the nature of psychopathy was to be considerably shaped by media-motivated interest in sexuality and its links to dangerousness.

The 20th Century and Beyond

The Sexualization of the Psychopath

For a number of reasons the Second World War brought about a major shift in thinking about the problem of “psychopathy.” The catastrophe of the Holocaust had revealed the full horror of the logic of eugenics and the perils of locating evil within individuals. Public opinion had been gathering against eugenic solutions to social problems since the First World War (Stone, 2004). Newspapers had been providing articles for some years on the terrible consequences of “shell shock” and battle trauma on the mental health of otherwise healthy individuals (Bogacz, 1989). Any simple equation between insanity and hereditary weakness was no longer sustainable. Psychoanalytic ideas, driven by the work of Sigmund Freud, had become more popular since the end of the 19th century assumed that personal history was crucial to psychological development. These ideas had already made considerable inroads into American and European psychiatry, and they were turned to with enthusiasm as disgust with eugenic ideas grew. It was not only the fact that psychoanalysis provided psychological explanations for people’s propensities and mental states; it also provided something of a framework that reinforced the widespread interest in, and anxiety about, sexuality. This interest was manifest very significantly in a series of laws that were enacted mainly in the United States (but also in Australia and New Zealand, McCallum, 2001), which became known in the United States as the “sexual psychopath” laws. Beginning in 1937 a series of legislative initiatives were brought forward that had the shared purpose of identifying those who were viewed as presenting a danger to others through their sexually aggressive behavior. In reality it was the postwar period that saw the bulk of legislative activity, as 25 states enacted sexual psychopath laws between 1947 and 1957 (Denno, 1998). This was a period of considerable interest, not to say fascination with gender and sexual relationships. The Second World War had created something of a tumult in gender relations. The mass military mobilization of men had created large-scale changes in the employment of women, high rates of divorce, and changes in assumptions about sexual relationships (Costello, 1986). These changes also prompted anxiety about “uncontrolled desires” (Freedman, 1987, p. 87), and it has been argued there was something of a media-orchestrated panic about sexual predators in the later 1940s. There were a number of unpleasant attacks on young children that occurred within a single week in 1949, the “gruesome details” of which were, as Chauncey (1993, p. 161) put it, telegraphed into the homes of ordinary Americans. A six-year-old girl was sexually assaulted before being murdered; a seven-year-old was assumed to have been abducted, attacked, and then thrown in a canal; and a 17-month-old was assaulted and murdered outside a dancehall. Although it is clear that these unpleasant attacks did not signal an actual epidemic (Denno, 1998), the coincidence of their timing, along with the press attention, meant that anxiety was promoted amongst a public who was presented with evidence about the danger posed by dangerous sexually aggressive men. A range of popular and serious news publications presented stories on the dangers of “The Psychopathic Sex Menace” and carried headlines that asked “What can we do about sex crime?” (Chauncey, 1993). Most famously J. Edgar Hoover himself penned an article in The American Magazine in 1947 rhetorically entitled “How safe is your daughter?” implying that she was not at all safe, as “degenerate sex offenders . . . depraved human beings, more savage than beasts, are permitted to rove America almost at will” (quoted in Rice Lave, 2009). As Chauncey (1993, p. 163) argues, “sex deviation” and the dangers it might pose became widely debated, and state governments felt obliged to respond and bring forward legislation. While there might be some debate about whether there was an orchestrated campaign to create a climate of fear about sexual aggression, it is apparent that most psychiatrists were skeptical about the new laws (Freedman, 1987) and that the legislation was highly politically shaped. Guttmacher and Weihofen (1952, p. 153) argued even while the legislative initiatives were taking place, the laws were:

founded primarily upon emotional reactions. A child is sexually abused and murdered and the community calls loudly for blood and for action. Bills are impulsively rushed through the legislature with new and dire regulatory provisions dealing with the widest variety of sexual behaviour.

Whilst the “sexualisation of the psychopath” (Denno, 1998, p. 1341) in this legislation can be viewed as a response to anxiety about sexuality, it was also influenced by the relative popularity of psychoanalysis amongst society as a whole. Covey (2009), for example, notes how Freudian ideas started to influence Hollywood film narratives as early as the 1940s. Not only was madness linked to dangerous forms of sexuality, but they were also presented as treatable conditions. Hitchcock’s films portrayed characters who might appear normal on the surface but were actually driven by inner conflict. The Norman Bates, the murderous antagonist of the film Psycho (released in 1960) is perhaps the most overtly Freudian character. Ultimately, the acceptance of more complex, psychological understanding of insanity was to lead to more sympathetic responses to those deemed to be suffering from various forms of insanity.

The following decades were thus witness to very considerable liberalization of the insanity defense laws in the United States. Milestones were the “Durham rule” of 1954, which was spelt out by the Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia in response to the appeal brought by Monte Durham against his prison sentence for housebreaking. At the original trial his defense of insanity, based on an earlier diagnosis of “personality disorder” was ignored. In finding in favor of the appeal, the Court of Appeals argued that the legal system needed to take into account new scientific knowledge and value psychiatric testimony that could identify forms of insanity that impacted on criminal responsibility whilst leaving the ability of the offender to reason (and “know right from wrong”) intact (Arens, 1967; Jones, 2016). Whilst the Durham rule had some impact, it was the later Model Penal Code produced by the American Law Institute (ALI) that included guidelines on the insanity defense that would have considerable effect on court decisions (Lockey & Bloom, 2007). By the early 1980s a majority of states in the U.S. had adopted key aspects of the Code that very broadly loosened the grounds for accepting an insanity defense, allowing a defense if an individual lacked “substantial capacity . . . to appreciate the criminality of his conduct.” While practice varied quite considerably and there might be some debate about the impact on rates of acquittal (Lockey & Bloom), there is little doubt that professional judgments on insanity were informing debate in the courts more frequently. This was very evident during the trial of John Hinckley, who was accused of the attempted murder of President Reagan and his entourage in 1982, the response to which was to have a huge impact on the insanity defense in the United States.

Hollywood, Hinckley, and the Demise of the Insanity Defense

There were significant echoes from the trial of Daniel M’Naghten, when John Hinckley was found not guilty on the grounds of insanity in Washington, DC in 1982. He had been filmed by television cameras shooting at the President and his entourage, made no secret of his intention, and made no claims to be acting out any delusional beliefs. He had evidently planned what he did, bought the guns and the bullets, and written about his intentions. The public furor at the “not guilty by the reason of insanity” verdict was to have a massive impact not only on how courts would treat notions of psychopathy and personality disorder, but on the insanity defense itself in the courts in the United States.

Just like the M’Naghten trial, the most modern diagnoses of the psychiatric experts were used in the court, in this case the personality disorders featured prominently. Hinckley’s eccentric behavior was brought as evidence. This prominently included his identification with the character Travis Bickle, the “psychopathic” antihero in the film Taxi-Driver (directed by Martin Scorcese; Yates, 2011, p. 208), which was shown in its entirety to the court. Hinckley—the court was informed—had seen the film many times, and his identification with Bickle extended to an obsession with the young actor Jodie Foster, who appeared as Iris (a child prostitute) whose abuse stirs Bickle to murderous rage. Bickle plans to kill the presidential candidate whose campaign is supported by a woman who he has very unsuccessfully attempted to woo. His attempt to shoot the Presidential candidate is not successful and he instead vents his rage on the men directly involved with Iris’s abuse. Hinckley’s obsession with Jodie Foster leads to him stalking her in real life. He comes to believe that killing Ronald Reagan will gain her attention and love (Caplan, 1987).

As the judge pointed the jury towards the ALI Model Penal Code and they returned the verdict of “not guilty by reason of insanity,” a major public backlash was unleashed. There was widespread dismay that someone who appeared to have knowingly tried to kill the president had been allowed “get away” with this. In response to the furor there were a series of congressional hearings held over a two-year period that led to the Insanity Defense Reform Act that has had the effect of severely limiting the criteria for the use of a defense of insanity (Kim, 2010).

Britain: Watching Crime and “Dangerous and Severe Personality Disorder”

In Britain the issue of the relationship between personality disorder and violence received considerable media attention in the aftermath of a notorious murder case. In this case, the subsequent political debate put the issue of “psychopathy” right at the heart of government debate about serious crime as they became concerned that the psychiatric profession was simply not doing enough. The triggering event occurred on a sunny day in July 1996 when Lin Russell and her two young daughters were savagely attacked as they walked home along a country lane in rural Kent, England. Lin and her daughter Megan were killed and six-year-old Josie was left for dead. In the following days the attack was a major news story on television and in print. The popular tabloid the Daily Mirror ran a story under the headline PICTURES OF HAPPINESS SHATTERED BY CRAZED HAMMER MANIAC, and a photograph of a happy smiling family, the lead Detective was quoted:

This is the most horrific, terrible murder I have had the misfortune to come across . . . this attack was utterly, utterly frenzied. The post mortem was the worst I have ever attended. This man could strike again (The Daily Mirror, Saturday, July 12).

As more details of case emerged in the following months, the narrative shifted from the “frenzied” and “deranged” nature of the attack and instead moved to focus on its cool viciousness. As the Daily Mail (March 6, 1997) explained, the victims had been carefully bound and gagged before being battered with something like a hammer. Meanwhile the police found themselves with no leads to follow, so, 12 months later, they used the popular BBC television program Crimewatch (which involves the police presenting information about real unsolved crimes) to appeal to the public for information. Amongst the audience was a psychiatrist who contacted the police to suggest that one of his former patients, Michael Strone, might be the killer. This information led to Stone’s arrest, and he was eventually tried and convicted twice.11 At his second trial Stone was found guilty of two counts of murder and one of attempted murder, and he received three life sentences.

During, and following, the trial Stone’s long history of violence and contact with an array of state and welfare services including prisons and psychiatric hospitals emerged (Jones, 2012). In the year before the murders he had been discharged from psychiatric hospital despite the awareness of psychiatrists that he was psychologically disturbed and prone to serious violence. His diagnosis of “antisocial personality disorder” and the view that he was untreatable led to the belief that he should not be detained in hospital. The press picked up on this issue in Britain, and some of the coverage was very critical of psychiatry for failing to engage with people suffering from such disorders. Notably, the journalist Melanie Philips writing under the headline “Forget psychiatry, stop psychopaths,” in the national newspaper The Sunday Times was scathing in her view that the psychiatric profession had failed everyone by adopting the stance that Stone was “Not our problem, guv!” She fumed at psychiatry’s failure to treat personality disorder, declaring it “the black hole” at the very “heart” of the profession. They viewed it as merely a label to use when they knew that something was wrong with someone, but did not know what was wrong. They did not “bother to find out” what was wrong, since:

If it doesn’t fit any of the categories of illness they can treat with drugs, they say it’s merely a problem of containment and shunt the (non-)patient in the direction of the prison system (Melanie Philips, The Sunday Times, October 25, 2001).

The then Home Secretary Jack Straw, responded to the furor with a series of initiatives that aimed to push both the National Health Service and the criminal justice system to fully engage with the problem of personality disorder. The most prominent Government response was to set up the Dangerous People with Severe Personality Disorder (DSPD) program, which brought elements of the Home Office, the Department of Health, and Prison Service together in order to explore and provide viable forms of treatment (Home Office, 2005; Taylor, 2011). Meanwhile, the Department of Health published Personality disorder: No longer a diagnosis of exclusion (Department of Health, 2003), which sought to push the NHS towards engaging and treating the problem. Government interest in the importance of “personality disorder” was to be an important driver to the drafting of a new Mental Health Act in England and Wales.


It would be stating the obvious to make the point that our responses to the problems of “psychopathy” (or the related diagnoses) have been shaped by the needs and practices of both the mental health systems and those of criminal justice. There has, however, always been an important third force—that of the public sphere where “public opinion” intermingles with the media. Crime and dangerousness are obvious instigators of anxiety and it is therefore no surprise that anxiety, often stimulated by the media has actively shaped government responses. Awareness of the complex, shifting, and often socially determined molding of these notions should help us guard against over-simplistic ideas of the nature of the challenges that are faced. The wish to find simple explanations that perhaps locate dangerousness within particular individuals or types of individuals is often very alluring. Awareness of the complex history of the diagnosis should help us avoid such dangerous over simplification.


To the memory of Nicole Rafter who commissioned this piece and whose cross-disciplinary endeavors have been so important in this area.

There is a wealth of material relating to the way that crime and criminals were being thought about and debated in the Old Bailey Session Papers, which were published between 1674–1913. The entire collection has been digitized and made available online. Very detailed accounts of the trials of Edward Oxford and Daniel M’Naghten (discussed in Section 2) are available here:

There is some very interesting material relating to the trial of John Hinckley (discussed in Section 4):

Further Reading

History of Insanity

For a good and concise overview of the history of ideas and practices towards insanity:

Porter, R. (2002). Madness: A brief history. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

And on the 18th-century roots specifically:

Porter, R. (1987). Mind forg’d manacles. London: Athlone Press.Find this resource:

On the 19th-century era of asylum building:


Scull, A. (1979). Museums of madness: The social organization of insanity in 19th century England. London: Allen Lane.Find this resource:

United States

Rothman, D. (1971). The discovery of the asylum. Toronto: Little Brown.Find this resource:


Doerner, K. (1981). Madmen and the bourgeoisie: A social history of insanity and psychiatry. Oxford: Blackwell.Find this resource:


Goldstein, J. (1987). Console and classify: The French psychiatric profession in the nineteenth century. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

History of Psychopathy

Given the period covered it does not include the many developments in thinking about ‘personality disorders’ that have occurred since the 1970s.

Werlinder, H. (1978). Psychopathy: A history of the concepts analysis of the origin and development of a family of concepts in psychopathology. Upsala, Sweden: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis.Find this resource:

For an overview of the history of the diagnoses and their social context that includes quite a lot on media influences:

Jones, D. W. (2016). Disordered personalities and crime: An analysis of the history of moral insanity. Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge.Find this resource:

An important paper that drew attention to the significance of the issue of psychopathy to the discipline of criminology:

Rafter, N. (2004). The unrepentant horse-slasher: Moral insanity and the origins of criminological thought. Criminology, 42(4), 979–1008.Find this resource:

The Media and Mental Health

Morris, G. (2006). Mental health issues & the media: An introduction for health professionals. Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge.Find this resource:

Philo, G. (1996). Media and mental distress. Harlow, U.K.: Longman.Find this resource:

For a historical perspective on the significance of the media on ideas of mental illness:

MacDonald, M. (1988). Suicide and the rise of the popular press in England. Representations, 22, 36–55.Find this resource:


Anonymous (1864). The trial and respite of George Victor Townley for wilful murder: With original documents and correspondence. Derby, U.K.: Bemrose.Find this resource:

Appignanesi, L. (2009). Mad, bad and sad: A history of women and the mind doctors from 1800. London: Virago.Find this resource:

Arata, S. (1996). Fictions of loss in the Victorian fin de siècle: Identity and empire. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Arens, R. (1967). The Durham Rule in action: Judicial psychiatry and psychiatric justice. Law & Society Review, 1(2), 41–80.Find this resource:

Augstein, H. F. (1996). J. C. Prichard’s concept of moral insanity: A medical theory of the corruption of human nature. Medical History, 40, 311–343.Find this resource:

Berrios, G. E. (1993). European views on personality disorders: A conceptual history. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 34(1), 14–30.Find this resource:

Bogacz, T. (1989). War neurosis and cultural change in England, 1914–22: The work of the War Office committee of enquiry into “shell-shock.” Journal of Contemporary History, 24(2), Studies on War, 227–256.Find this resource:

Breggin, P. R. (1993). Psychiatry’s role in the holocaust. International Journal of Risk and Safety in Medicine, 4, 133–148.Find this resource:

Browne, J. (2004). Darwin and the face of madness. In W. F. Bynum, R. Porter, & M. Shepherd (Eds.), The anatomy of madness: Essays in the history of psychiatry (Vol. 1, People and ideas). London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Caplan, L. (1987). The insanity defence and the trial of John W. Hinkley, Jr. New York: Dell Publishing.Find this resource:

Chauncey, G. (1993). The postwar sex crime panic. In William Graebner (Ed.), True stories from the American past (Vol. 1, 160–178).Find this resource:

Costello, J. (1986). Love, sex and war: Changing values, 1939–45. Pan.Find this resource:

Covey, R, D. (2009), Criminal madness: Cultural iconography and insanity. Stanford Law Review, 61(6), 1375–1428.Find this resource:

Davie, N. (2010b). The role of medico-legal expertise in the emergence of criminology in Britain (1870–1918). Criminocorpus, revue hypermédia [En ligne], Histoire de la criminologie, 3. Criminologie et droit pénal. Available at this resource:

Denno, D. (1998). Life before the modern sex offender statutes. Northwestern University Law Review, 92(4), 1317–1387.Find this resource:

Department of Health (2003). Personality disorder: No longer a diagnosis of exclusion. London: HMSO.Find this resource:

During, S. (1988). The strange case of monomania: Patriarchy in literature, murder in Middlemarch, drowning in Daniel Deronda. Representations, 23, 86–104.Find this resource:

Editors (1864). Insanity and crime: A medico-legal commentary on the case of George Victor Townley. London: John Churchill.Find this resource:

Eigen, J. P. (1991). Delusion in the courtroom: The role of partial insanity in early forensic testimony. Medical History, 35, 25–49.Find this resource:

Eliot, G. (1847). Middlemarch: A study of provincial life. Edinburgh: William Blackwood.Find this resource:

Eliot, G. (1876/2013). Daniel Deronda. Manchester: Northern Grove.Find this resource:

Foucault, M. (2003). Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France 1974–1975 (Graham Burchell, Trans.). London: Verso.Find this resource:

Freedman, L. Z. (1983). The politics of insanity: Law, crime, and human responsibility. Political Psychology, 4(1), 171–179.Find this resource:

Freedman, E. B. (1987). Uncontrolled Desires: The Response to Sexual Psychopath, 1920–1960. The Journal of American History, 74(1), 83–106.Find this resource:

Galton, F. (1904). Eugenics: Its definition, scope, and aims. The American Journal of Sociology, X(1).Find this resource:

Georget, J, E. (1826). Discussion medico-légal sur la folie ou alienation mentale, suivie de l’examen du procès criminal d’Henriette Cornier. Paris.Find this resource:

Gerard, D. L. (1997). Chiarugi and Pinel considered: Soul’s brain/person’s mind. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 33(4), 381–403.Find this resource:

Goddard, H. (1920). Feeblemindedness: Its causes and consequences. New York: Macmillan.Find this resource:

Goldstein, J. (1987). Console and classify: The French psychiatric profession in the nineteenth century. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Guttmacher, M., & Weihofen, H. (1952). Sex offenses. The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science, 43(2), 153–175.Find this resource:

Hale, M. (1739). History of the pleas of the crown. London: Giles.Find this resource:

Hansen, Lee Ann (1998). Metaphors of mind and society: The origins of German psychiatry in the Revolutionary Era. Isis, 89(3), 387–409.Find this resource:

Hitchman (1864). Insanity and crime: A medico-legal commentary on the case of George Victor Townley. London: John Churchill.Find this resource:

Home Office (2005). Dangerous and Severe Personality Disordered (DSPD) Programme: key points. London: Home Office.Find this resource:

Jones, D. W. (2012). Psychosocial perspectives: Men, madness and violence. In S. Hall & S. Winlow (Eds.), New directions in criminological theory. Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge.Find this resource:

Jones, D. W. (2016). Disordered personalities and crime: An analysis of the history of moral insanity. Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge.Find this resource:

Kearns, M. S. (1987). Metaphors of mind in fiction and psychology. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.Find this resource:

Kim, J. K. (2010). The story of Clark v. Arizona: The incredible shrinking insanity defence. In R. Weisburg & D. Coker (Eds.), Criminal law stories. Marquette Law School Legal Studies Paper No. 10–20.Find this resource:

Koch, J. L. A. (1891). The psychopathic inferiorities. Ravensburg, Germany: Dorn.Find this resource:

Lacey, N. (2009). Psychologising Jekyll, demonising Hyde: The strange case of criminal responsibility. LSE Law, Society and Economy Working Papers, 18, 1–26.Find this resource:

Lave, T. R. (2009). Only yesterday: The rise and fall of twentieth century sexual psychopath laws. Louisiana Law Review, 69(3), 549–591.Find this resource:

Lockey, C. J., & Bloom, J. (2007). The evolution of the American Law Institute Test for Insanity in Oregon: Focus on diagnosis. The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 35, 325–329.Find this resource:

Lombroso, C. (1876). The criminal man. Translated and edited by Mary Gibson and Nicole Hahn Rafter, published 2006. Chesham, NC: Duke University Press.Find this resource:

Maudsley, H. (1874). Responsibility in mental disease. New York: Appleton.Find this resource:

May, A. (2003). The bar and the Old Bailey, 1750–1850. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.Find this resource:

McCallum, D. (2001). Personality and dangerousness: Genealogies of antisocial personality disorder. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Moran, R. (1981). Right from wrong: The insanity defence of Daniel McNaughtan. New York: Free Press.Find this resource:

Moran, R. (1985). The Origin of Insanity as a Special Verdict: The Trial for Treason of James Hadfield (1800). Law & Society Review, 19(3), 487–519.Find this resource:

Morel, B. (1857). Traité des dégénérescences physiques, intellectuelles et morales de l’espèce humaine et des causes qui produisent ces variétés maladives. Paris: Baillière.Find this resource:

Nordeau, M. (1892/1895). Degeneration. London: William Heinemann.Find this resource:

Pick, D. (1989). Faces of degeneration: A European disorder, c. 1848–1918. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Pinel, P. (1806). A treatise on insanity: In which are contained the principles of a new and more practical nosology of maniacal disorders than has yet been offered to the public (D. D. Davis, M.D., Trans.). London: Caddell and Davies.Find this resource:

Porter, R. (2002). Madness: A brief history. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Rafter, N. (1997). creating born criminals. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.Find this resource:

Rafter, N., & Ystehede, P. (2010). Here be dragons: Lombroso, the Gothic and social control. In M. Defelm (Eds.), Popular culture, crime and social control. Bingley, U.K.: Emerald Group.Find this resource:

Ray, I. (1853). A treatise on the medical jurisprudence of insanity (3rd edition, first publication 1838). Boston: Charles, Little and Brown.Find this resource:

Rimke, H., & Hunt, A. (2002). From sinners to de-generates: The medicalization of morality in the 19th century. History of the Human Sciences, 15(1), 59–88.Find this resource:

Rodensky, L. (2003). The crime in mind: Criminal responsibility and the Victorian novel. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Sharp, H. C. (1908). The sterilization of degenerates. Indiana Reformatory Hospital.Find this resource:

Shuttleworth, S. (1996). Charlotte Bronte and Victorian psychology. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Smith, H. N. (2007). The madness of Ahab. In H. Bloom (Ed.), Hermann Melville’s Moby Dick (pp. 117–132). New York: Info Base.Find this resource:

Smith, R. (1981). Trial by medicine: Insanity and responsibility in Victorian trials. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.Find this resource:

Stone, M. (2004). Shellshock and the psychologists. In W. F. Bynum, R. Porter, & M. Shepherd (Eds.), The anatomy of madness: Essays in the history of psychiatry (pp. 242–271). London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Symington, N. (1980). The Response Aroused by the Psychopath. International Review of Psychoanalysis, 7, 291–298.Find this resource:

Taylor, C. (2011). Nothing left to lose? Freedom and compulsion in the treatment of dangerous offenders. Psychodynamic Practice, 17(3), 291–306.Find this resource:

Thomson, J. B. (1869). The hereditary nature of crime. The Journal of Mental Science, 36, 487–498.Find this resource:

Walcutt. C. C. (1968). Man’s changing mask: Modes and methods of characterization in fiction. Minneapolis: Minnesota Paperback.Find this resource:

Walker, N. (1968). Crime and insanity in England, Volume 1: The historical perspectives. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.Find this resource:

Watt, I. (1957/1987). The rise of the novel. 1987 edition published by The Hogarth Press: London.Find this resource:

Werlinder, H. (1978). Psychopathy: A history of the concepts analysis of the origin and development of a family of concepts in psychopathology. Upsala, Sweden: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis.Find this resource:

Willrich, M. (1998). The two percent solution: Eugenic jurisprudence and the socialization of American law, 1900–1930. Law and History Review, 16(1), 63–111.Find this resource:

Willrich, M. (2003). City of Courts: Socializing Justice in Progressive Era Chicago. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Wolfgang, M. E. (1961). Pioneers in criminology: Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909). Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology and Police Science, 42(4), 361–391.Find this resource:

Yates, C. (2007). Masculine jealousy and contemporary cinema. London: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

Yates, C. (2011). “Reviews and their uses as affective texts: Viewing and re-viewing taxi driver.” Free Associations, 61, 96–115.Find this resource:

Zalampas, S. O. (1990). Adolf Hitler: A psychological interpretation of his views on architecture, art and music. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.Find this resource:


(1.) “An atrocious act, so contrary to human nature, commissioned without motive, without gain, without passion, opposed to the natural character of an individual, is evidently an act of madness.”

(2.) “Medical Jurisprudence: Homicide-suicide-infanticide: The trial of Harriet Cornier,” The Medico-Chirurgical Review, January 1, 1827, vol. vi (11), pp. 482–486.

(3.) The Morning Post (London, U.K.), Tuesday, March 14, 1843, issue 22512, p. 2.

(4.) There is a detailed account in various newspapers, e.g., “THE DREADFUL MURDER OF MISS GOODWIN, OF CHESTER,” Cheshire Observer and Chester, Birkenhead, Crewe and North Wales Times (Chester, U.K.), Friday, August 29, 1863, issue 430, p. 3. There is also a very full account in Anonymous (1864).

(5.) Derby Mercury, Wednesday, December 16, 1863, pp. 3–4.

(6.) Derby Mercury, Wednesday, December 16, 1863, pp. 3–4.

(7.) Derby Mercury, Wednesday, December 16, 1863, p. 8, column 2.

(8.) Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper (London, U.K.), Sunday, February 14, 1864, issue 1108.

(9.) The Caledonian Mercury, Friday, December 25, 1863.

(10.) “Suicide of Victor Townley, who was found guilty and sentenced to death for the murder of Miss Goodwin at Manchester,” printed by “Disley, printer, 57, High Street, St. Giles, [London],” ca. 186?,, “Suicide of George Victor Townley,” Wellington Independent, Rōrahi XX, Putanga 2207, 18 Haratua 1865, pp. 5.

(11.) See Joint agencies’ response to the recommendations of the Independent Inquiry report into the care and treatment of Michael Stone, South East Coast Strategic Health Authority, Kent County Council, Kent Probation Area, Medway Primary Care Trust, Kent and Medway NHS, and Social Care Partnership Trust, Medway Council. The first conviction in October 1998 was quashed at appeal in February 2001. The appeal was successful mainly because a prosecution witnesses confessed to having lied in evidence given at the initial trial.