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,