In the 19th century there was a growing awareness and scientific interest in the human mind. These first steps into what later would be called ‘psychology’ also changed the way people – judges, politicians and the general public – viewed criminal cases involving madness.
This is what David J. Vaughan’s book Mad or Bad: Crime And Insanity In Victorian Britain is about: the difficulty of defining and understanding lunacy in some of 19th century Britain’s most horrifying and gruesome cases of murder and manslaughter. Defining any form of madness in the suspect could mean the difference between a death sentence and walking free.
The author has chosen to pick 25 cases from 1831 to 1896 – though 18 of those are limited to the 1840’s and 1850’s. It was not entirely clear to me why he chose to pick exactly these cases. Some of them are clearly very sensational and well-known even through this day, like ‘maker of angels’ Amelia Dyer (“Britain’s Worst Serial Killer”), who may have killed up to 400 babies, Roderick Maclean, who tried to shoot Queen Victoria, and Edwin Bates, who tried to blackmail Prince Albert.
But other than taking these very interesting cases, I fail to see why some of the other examples were chosen to relate the story of the growing understanding of ‘diminished responsibility’ in the Victorian era. Instead of structuring the cases in a chronological or maybe thematic order, the cases are listed alphabetically. By giving his book this structure, the author misses the important, even necessary opportunity to create a fluent narrative out of his material. I really missed some sort of overview; general remarks on the development of the insanity plea during the century. For example, in how many cases was an insanity plea actually attempted – and how many of those were considered valid? How is this reflected in the 25 cases that lie before the reader?
I also would really have enjoyed a more thematic approach, for example by focusing on the cases of women. Chapter 4 does make an attempt to point out the difficulties of trying female murderers, but is too short to really make a well-researched point.
At first glance, Mad or Bad has got everything a good non-fiction read needs: an interesting subject, lots of interesting facts and a very enthusiastic writer. Unfortunately in large parts, the style is staccato and lacks a pleasant rhythm. The first part of the book is hardly more than a very long glossary of who’s who and a legal what’s what. Though useful, I would have preferred this information to have been presented either in more of a narrative structure, or as an addition at the end of the book. This bumpy start might put off readers too soon, so that they might miss out on the most interesting stuff that only comes in chapter 5 with the 25 criminal cases in alphabetical order.
The main part of the book provides some very interesting content. Though, here too the author’s voice remains loudly absent. Admittedly, the author did mention in his introduction that he would “offer no diagnoses or opinion on fact”. Apart from the fact that occasionally he does exactly that, I would have liked to have heard his analysis more often. Primary source material alone doesn’t make for an informative read. Considering the fact that the 25 cases are immediately followed by a number of appendices, the main thing this book lacks is an overall reflection on crime and madness in the Victorian era.