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Book Review: Mad or Bad: Crime and Insanity in Victorian Britain by David Vaughn

***This book was reviewed for the Manhattan and Seattle Book Reviews

Vaughn’s Mad or Bad looks at the rise of the insanity plea in regards to crime, thanks to efforts of the alienists (precursor to psychologists), specifically in regards to Victorian Britain. There are five parts, discussing notables of the time, the qualifications of ‘insanity’, important terms, a brief look at insanity in regards to women, and lastly, a series of case studies. There is a sheaf of pictures round abouts the middle of the book, with photos and sketches pertaining to the cases.

Part Five, Case Studies, is the longest, and looks at twenty-five cases, both men and women, young and old alike, detailing their crimes, whether they were ultimately judged insane, and the final verdict. While many of these disorders, most especially those conditions believed unique to the fairer sex, seem ludicrous by today’s standards, nevertheless, many of these cases shaped how we think of criminal insanity today. It was, and still is, an evolving process.

As a person interested in both history and criminalistics, I found this book quite fascinating. Most of the cases dealt with murder most foul. Some, such as Edwin Bates, who attempted extortion on Prince Albert, bordered on the truly absurd. Many would likely have different verdicts today. I think, for one, of the case of Mary Brixey, who murdered her employer’s infant son.  

The cases within are laid out to the point, with no sensationalising of the facts. They all have quotes pulled from newspapers and court records of the time. Despite the relative brevity, many of the cases are still quite chilling. It always is, in cases where people think they’ve done nothing wrong in killing another…

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