Introducing: Sane or Insane? Tracking the Insanity Defense through History

At the heart of the case of Josephine McCarty is an inescapable contradiction: in January 1872 Mrs. McCarty shot and killed a man in broad daylight, on a streetcar full of passengers, and by June she was acquitted, free once again to ride the streetcar like any other Utican, to travel at will, and to go about her business as though nothing happened.

True, she had technically killed Henry Hall by accident. And, true, she had a tragic story, a persuasive voice, and a skilled legal team. But an important key to understanding this surprising result lies in the medical testimony given at trial, and the argument of the defense that McCarty suffered from a kind of “paroxysmal” insanity–a temporary disorder, possibly arising from menstrual or menopausal causes, which rendered her legally irresponsible for her actions at the moment of the crime.

This defense, we can assume, would not work today–what jury would accept menopause as sufficient reason to release a woman who fired a pistol on public transit? So why did it work in 1872? What was special about that time, or about Josephine McCarty, that convinced a jury of twelve men to acquit the street-car murderess of Utica of her crime?

To search for answers to this question, I am tracing the history of the insanity defense in the United States: looking for its earliest uses, its changing functions, the responses it produced in the public and its interactions with variables like age, gender, race, etc. I will publish episodes from this research as a series of blog posts focusing on key cases, figures, and terms in the history of forensic psychiatry and the insanity defense in the United States. Stay tuned!

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