03 Apr 2014 09:56:57
Unhinged lovers and tainted chocolates, pistols, rapes and floggings – Lisa Appignanesi's history of crimes of passion offers plenty of lurid detail to beguile her readers. She is a novelist as well as a historian of ideas, and her relish for a good story sometimes gets the better of her analytical purpose. But her subject is serious, and its implications are far-reaching. Lawyers have never found it easy to draw the line between madness and badness. How should a justice system designed on logical principles respond to those who are beyond reason? If an offender suffers from hallucinations or violent delusions, the problem may be solved by a straightforward medical diagnosis. But matters are not always so simple. An apparently sane individual may be so overwhelmed by anger, erotic obsession or the hunger for vengeance that rationality is lost, temporarily or permanently. Deranged lawbreakers make for troubled justice.This intriguing book explores the uneasiness generated by such dilemmas. Covering the era between 1870 and 1914, when psychological theory and psychiatric practice began to transform our understanding of the mind's hidden workings, Appignanesi leads us through a range of exemplary cases, focusing particularly on three high-profile trials – one in England, one in France, one in America. Each of the dramas she describes turns on an explosive combination of madness, murder and sex, and each raises issues of gendered identities in the context of criminal culpability. Women and men move between vulnerability and aggression in these narratives, often in unexpected ways, as women sidestep their supposedly passive identities to impose their wills on a recalcitrant world. Men continue to dominate proceedings in the home and in the courtroom, but their primacy doesn't always mean that they emerge unscathed from the exposure of private misbehaviour in a public hearing.
Appignanesi's first case turns on thwarted love. Christiana Edmunds, a respectable unmarried woman living in Brighton, fell for her doctor, Charles Beard. Perhaps he initially responded to her affections. If so, he soon began to distance himself from her disconcerting fervour. Rejection was more than she could cope with, and she tried to remove Beard's inconvenient wife with a poisoned chocolate, diverting suspicion by distributing other contaminated treats among the unsuspecting population of Brighton. One of the unlucky recipients of her largesse was a small boy called Sidney, who died. The crime was soon traced back to Edmunds, who had not been especially careful to cover her tracks. In January 1872, she was brought to trial for murder.
The case attracted intense public interest, as such cases still do. Since no one doubted that Edmunds had killed Sidney, what was to be decided was the extent of her responsibility for the crime. The trial revealed that her outwardly orderly life had already been disrupted by periods of mental instability, and that there was a family history of such difficulties. Nevertheless, she was convicted. Her subsequent reprieve was justified on the grounds of her insanity. This was not a pardon, and Henry Bruce, home secretary at the time, had no inclination to save Edmunds from a life in custody. Nor was it universally welcomed by those who had commented on the trial with such freedom. Could it be right to allow the medical profession to direct the outcome of the judicial process? Some argued that well-meaning acts of compassion would "destroy respect for the law by placing the mad-doctors above it, and to liberate an immensely numerous class (those insane by descent) from all fear of legal retribution for crime".
The Victorians were preoccupied by all forms of inheritance, and they had a deep fear of inherited madness. To be declared a dangerous lunatic, whether through a family taint or acquired disease, meant that liberty was gone for ever. No cure was thought possible. Other national cultures viewed these questions differently. Appignanesi's second test case took place in France, in 1880. Marie Bière was a young professional singer who was courted by the wealthy man about town Robert Gentien. Their association seems to have been based on some degree of mutual misunderstanding. Romantic and naive, Bière thought she was embarking on a genuine affair of the heart, perhaps with marriage in prospect. Gentien just wanted a good time, and assumed that his money and status would buy Bière's compliance. She gave birth to Gentien's daughter, who was sent to a wet nurse, and quickly died. Bière soon found that, like Edmunds, she was no longer wanted. Her reaction was extreme. Armed with a revolver and disguised with a large hat and lorgnon, she secretly followed Gentien and his new mistress. As soon as she saw her chance, she took out her gun and shot him.
Gentien survived – though not without significant injury – and Bière was charged with attempted murder. Her case was subject to the kind of frenzied publicity that had surrounded Edmunds's trial, but it was conducted on very different principles. Bière was given far more opportunity to speak for herself, which she did with what seems to have been remarkable self-possession, openly admitting that she had intended to kill her lover. Surprisingly, she was permitted to intervene in his questioning, and repeatedly accused him of treacherous cruelty. Her situation was evidently viewed with a good deal of sympathy in the courtroom, and she was unanimously acquitted. She was seen as a wronged woman, understandably swayed by feminine emotion after her abandonment and the death of her child, and her attack on Gentien was interpreted as something close to an expression of natural justice. Had she succeeded in killing him, the verdict might have been different.
The last of the cases that Appignanesi examines is also the ugliest. In 1906, Harry Kendall Thaw, rich and erratic, shot the celebrated architect Stanford White in Madison Square Garden, killing him instantly. Thaw had been drinking heavily, but that was not why he pulled the trigger. He was married to Evelyn Nesbit, a celebrated young beauty who had been among the many victims of White's ruthless pursuit of young girls, and he had become consumed by his craving for revenge. The fact that he had himself treated Nesbit equally badly before their marriage seemed to him irrelevant. White had fallen foul of a code of honour that counted for more than the rule of law, and Thaw felt himself entitled to take matters into his own hands. As Appignanesi describes the case, it is hard to say whether the victim or the murderer emerges as the most repellent character. Thaw had a history of sexual brutality. He had been shielded from the consequences of his grotesque taste for flogging and rape by his huge fortune, and by his irresponsibly indulgent mother. A plea of insanity sent him to an asylum. He escaped and in a further trial was acquitted, on the doubtful grounds that he was not guilty and no longer insane. He immediately returned to his sadistic ways and was returned to an asylum for a number of years. But a well-funded campaign for his release was eventually successful, and he ended his life a free man. Thaw's case raises many disturbing questions, but they have less to do with the role of psychiatry in the American criminal justice system than its susceptibility to the eloquence of money.
Appignanesi's study highlights sweeping changes in social, legal and medical definitions of mental illness, as courts struggled to decide the limits of personal accountability. Her book is enlightening on the differences in the national legal processes underlying the sensational trials she describes. It is not, however, Appignanesi's sober investigation of the context of these cases that the reader is likely to remember. What lingers in the mind is a series of desperate images: Edmunds trying to force a poisoned sweet into the mouth of her supposed rival in love; Bière lurking in the shadows, watching her lover with revolver loaded and ready; Stanford White lying in the rooftop garden he had designed with half his face blown away. Our interest in these horrors may be prurient, but it grows from a genuine need to confront the extremes of human behaviour – if only to test the boundaries of our own cherished sense of balanced normality.
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