Mad or Bad: Crime and Insanity in Victorian Britain…

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It’s time to classy things up a bit round the shelf with some nonfiction.  I requested Mad or Bad: Crime and Insanity in Victorian Britain by David J. Vaughan for review due to the fact that last year I read two books on a similar theme: The Secret Poisoner by Linda Stratmann and The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale, both of which have a bit of crossover content with Mad or Bad.  Before I get into dissecting the book, I should say that we received a copy for review from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

In a violent 19th century, desperate attempts by the alienists – a new wave of ‘mad-doctor’ – brought the insanity plea into Victorian courts. Defining psychological conditions in an attempt at acquittal, they faced ridicule, obstruction – even professional ruin – as they strived for acceptance and struggled for change. It left ‘mad people’ hanged for offences they could not remember, and ‘bad’ people freed on unscrupulous pleas.
Written in accessible language, this book – unlike any before it – retells twenty-five cases, from the renowned to obscure, including an attempt to murder a bemused Queen Victoria; the poisoner Dove and the much-feared magician; the king’s former wet-nurse who slaughtered six children; the worst serial killer in Britain…and more.

Having read the two aforementioned tomes about crime in Victorian Britain, and having digested the above blurb thoroughly enough, I expected that Mad or Bad would be a similarly accessible foray into the vagaries of the insanity plea in capital crimes, with case studies that illuminate the atmosphere of the time and give an insight into the human elements of each case.

Mad or Bad is a lot drier than that.

Although the case studies aim for an accessible tone, the complexities of the laws surrounding the insanity plea and the brevity of description of each case meant that by the end of the book I just felt confused and ready to put the whole topic to bed.  It seemed to me that in trying to highlight the seemingly random nature and chaotic legal background of the insanity plea, the author has been drawn into the chaos, resulting in a collection of case studies that seem disconnected and lacking in context.

Having said that, there are some extremely interesting points raised about the use of the insanity plea, particularly with regards to women committing crimes.  I was hoping for a more narrative tone to the case studies, rather than dry information, but regardless, there are certainly some studies that boggle the mind in terms of evidence that was acceptable at the time and evidence that was overlooked or counted as irrelevant to the proceedings.

The biggest problem I had with this book was in its organisation and format.  Bear in mind that I was reading an uncorrected proof and certain of my criticisms may have been ironed out before publication, or in subsequent editions, but I would have preferred to have seen the case studies grouped under relevant headings rather than placed one after the other.  As a couple of the case studies reference previous (or subsequent) studies mentioned, it would have been helpful to have a mental framework, in the form of similar studies collected together, on which to hang (pun unintended) the information.  I suspect I would have got more out of this book had I been able to, at a glance, look over and compare all the cases in which the prisoners received a reprieve for instance.

As ever, pictures would also have been helpful!

On the whole, if you are looking for a book about crime in Victorian Britain, I would probably plump for either the Stratmann or Summerscale tomes that I mentioned at the beginning of this post before going to this one, but if you are specifically looking for some background to the treatment of the “insane”, you should find what you’re looking for here, even if it takes a little while to find it.

I’m submitting this book for the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 and you can see my progress here.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

The Radium Girls: A “Five Things I’ve Learned” Review….

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If you are into historical nonfiction stories that will leave you gobsmacked at the levels to which people will stoop to avoid paying compensation to someone they’ve hurt, then today’s book will be right up your street.  We received The Radium Girls from Simon & Schuster Australia for review and by gum is it a cracker of a read!  Check out the blurb from Goodreads and then tell me that you’re not interested in finding out more…go on, I dare you!

Ordinary women in 1920s America.

All they wanted was the chance to shine.

Be careful what you wish for.
 
‘The first thing we asked was, “Does this stuff hurt you?” And they said, “No.” The company said that it wasn’t dangerous, that we didn’t need to be afraid.’

1917. As a war raged across the world, young American women flocked to work, painting watches, clocks and military dials with a special luminous substance made from radium. It was a fun job, lucrative and glamorous – the girls themselves shone brightly in the dark, covered head to toe in the dust from the paint. They were the radium girls.
  As the years passed, the women began to suffer from mysterious and crippling illnesses. The very thing that had made them feel alive – their work – was in fact slowly killing them: they had been poisoned by the radium paint. Yet their employers denied all responsibility. And so, in the face of unimaginable suffering – in the face of death – these courageous women refused to accept their fate quietly, and instead became determined to fight for justice.
Drawing on previously unpublished sources – including diaries, letters and court transcripts, as well as original interviews with the women’s relatives  – The Radium Girls is an intimate narrative account of an unforgettable true story. It is the powerful tale of a group of ordinary women from the Roaring Twenties, who themselves learned how to roar.

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And here are Five Things I’ve Learned From The Radium Girls by Kate Moore:

1. Exhibiting a “glow” is not always an indicator of good health.  

2. When addressing someone who has recently lost an arm due to industrial poisoning, it is inadvisable to assert that they “look like they have nothing wrong with them”.

3. If the company for which you work takes out full page ads in all the major papers proclaiming how safe their working environment is, it’s probably a good time to consider getting the WH&S people in.

4. People will lie blatantly, repeatedly and to one’s face if they fear having to pay compensation to a wounded party.

5. It’s okay to pretend to be a doctor and carry out medical tests for which you are woefully unqualified provided you (a) are a man and (b) are being well paid by a dodgy company boss.

What a fantastically absorbing read! I suspected that the story of the “Radium Girls” as they became known would be a pretty interesting one, but the pacing and informative style adopted by Moore really set this book apart. The book begins by introducing the reader to the young women who gained work at a factory painting luminous clock dials with radium paint in New Jersey in 1917. Some as young as fourteen, the workers fought hard to bag these painting jobs because the pay was above average for similar positions, and came with the added benefit of a “healthy” glow – the radium residue on the girls’ clothing, skin and hair literally made them glow when they left the factory. As we meet each of the girls in turn and soon become privy to the horrifying sicknesses that begin to plague them, Moore brings in a second set of dial-painters, this time from Ottawa, so we are able to see the whole shocking pattern played out simultaneously in two different cities.

Two scenes in the book stood out particularly for me, but for different reasons.  The first, quite early on in the piece, recounts how one of the women’s dentists, Dr Knef, was working inside his patient’s mouth and ended up lifting out her entire jawbone.  Let that sink in for a moment.  He pulled out HER ENTIRE JAWBONE.  Talk about developing a healthy fear of dentists.  Not satisfied that this was an extraordinary enough experience, he then decided to keep the jawbone in his desk drawer because he didn’t know what else to do with it.  I can’t help but feel he might have at least offered it back to the woman out of whom it came.

The second scene that stood out for me came toward the very end of the book, during which a foreman who was well known as a company man for many years in Ottawa and oversaw the dial painters, blatantly lies while under oath in one of the compensation hearings, stating (in front of the women he worked with, no less!) that he never even worked for the company. Ever.  This might be a good tactic to keep in the back pocket for the next time you find yourself in a sticky situation – just pretend that obvious, long-held facts that can be corroborated by any number of pieces of evidence is simply untrue.  After reading this bizarre attempt to avoid trouble, I myself felt like leaping through the pages and punching this bloke in the face, so I can’t imagine how the women at the hearing felt having to actually hear it themselves.
The descriptions of the suffering of these women can be quite harrowing at times – gazing over a photograph of one of the women, I assumed she had adopted a stylish, cross-legged pose for the camera, but the author reveals that her hip bones actually became fused that way, so that the woman was unable to uncross her legs at any time – but by the end of the epic journey to justice, one can’t help but feel admiration for these two separate groups of women who fought not only against blatant lies and injustice from the company that employed them, but from gender bias that placed mens’ health above women’s. More frustrating still is the fact that similar stories of corporations valuing profit over the safety and health of their workers are still ridiculously common today.  While I felt quite moved by the women’s stories and the courage and determination they showed under enormous misfortune, I couldn’t take away any lasting satisfaction because I could think of at least one major fight going on in the world against a company in South America for similar dastardly behaviour as well as the recent fight of victims of asbestos-related diseases against James Hardie here in Australia.
Moore has done a good job of dividing the story into sections so as to avoid information overload. Each section is deeply engaging in its own right and the stories have been structured so that just as the New Jersey women begin to pursue (and in some cases, achieve) some sort of recompense, the Ottawa women seem to begin the process anew, with all the same frustrations and rather more sinister misdirection from their employer.

The book contains some photographs of the women and other major players in a section in the middle. While this was an interesting addition, I would have also have liked to see a “cast of characters” as it were, at the beginning – this might have added a whole new dimension to the story if we could see who suffered what and in what timeframe.

I thoroughly recommend this book as an eye-opening jaunt into the lives of some incredibly inspirational women and their supporters.

Until next time,

Bruce