Liberty and Mens Rea: Insanity Trials in England (1760-1885)

The nineteenth century was not only about large asylums, institutional psychiatry, and welfare provisions. It was also the century that reshaped the way law professionals approached the subject of insanity. Influential and controversial notions such as certificates of lunacy, the MacNaughtan Rules, and “monomania” profoundly changed the relationship between law and madness in many Western jurisdictions.

The following Table provides a list of some of the major cases –civil and criminal– decided in England between 1760 and 1885. Click on the Reference Link to access a transcription of the original trial and judgement. Original sources are also available on JustisOne (with subscription).

Year Case Reference
1760 Earl Ferrers Case 1760 Case of Earl Ferrers 168 ER 69
1761 R v Turlington 1761 R v Turlington 97 ER 741
1762 R v William Clarke 1762 R v William Clarke 97 ER 875
1800 James Hadfield Case 1800 Hadfield 27 St Tr 1281
1840 Edward Oxford Case 1840 R v Edward Oxford 4 St Tr NS 497
1843 Daniel McNaughtan Case and

McMaughten Rules

1843 R v McNaughten 8 ER 718
1843 Selby v Jackson 1843 Selby v Jackson 49 ER 799
1844 Dyce Sombre 1844 Dyce Sombre 41 ER 697
1846 Duncombe v Nelson 1846 Duncombe v Nelson 50 ER 323
1846 Martha Shuttleworth 1846 Shuttleworth 115 ER 1423
1847 Joanna Gordon 1847 Joanna Gordon, Otherwise Countess of Stair 41 ER 935
1849 Norris v Seed 1849 Norris v Seed 154 ER 1061
1852 Hill v Philp 1852 Hill v Philp 155 ER 929
1862 Hall v Semple 1862 Hall v Semple 176 ER 151
1862 Scott v Wakem 1862 Scott v Wakem 176 ER 147
1865 Gore v Walpole 1865 Gore v Walpole 176 ER 751
1868 Mackintosh v Arkley 1868 Mackintosh v Arkley 6 MHL 141
1885 R v Whitfield 1885 R v Whitfield 15 QBD 122

Secondary Readings on Civil and Criminal Lunacy Cases

Charles E. Rosenberg, The Trial of the Assassin Guiteau: Psychiatry and the Law in the Gilded Age (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1968)

Dan Degerman, “‘Am I mad?’: The Windham case and Victorian resistance to psychiatry,” History of Psychiatry (2019), 30: 4, 457–468

John Carson, “‘Every expression is watched’: Mind, medical expertise and display in the nineteenth-century English courtroom,” Social Studies of Science (2018), 48: 6, 891–918

Roger Smith, Trial by Medicine: Insanity and Responsibility in Victorian Trials(Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1981)

Joel Peter Eigen, Witnessing Insanity: Madness and Mad-Doctors in the English Court (New Haven, NJ: Yale University Press, 1995)

Joel Peter Eigen, Mad-Doctors in the Dock: Defending the Diagnosis, 1760–1913 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016)

Katherine D. Watson, Forensic Medicine in Western Society: A History (New York, NY: Routledge, 2011)


2 thoughts on “Liberty and Mens Rea: Insanity Trials in England (1760-1885)”

  1. This is a great resource. It will be very useful to students, researchers, psychiatrists, and legal scholars who need to know more about the dramatic developments that reshaped the interconnected worlds of the asylum, the law, social welfare, and ideas about insantity in the late 18th and 19th centuries.


    Liked by 1 person

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