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Madness, Murder and Mayhem (Hardback)

Criminal Insanity in Victorian and Edwardian Britain

British History True Crime Social History

By Dr John Burt, Kathryn Burtinshaw
Imprint: Pen & Sword History
Pages: 182
ISBN: 9781526734556
Published: 2nd October 2018



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Following an assassination attempt on George III in 1800, new legislation significantly altered the way the criminally insane were treated by the judicial system in Britain. This book explores these changes and explains the rationale for purpose-built criminal lunatic asylums in the Victorian era.

Specific case studies are used to illustrate and describe some of the earliest patients at Broadmoor Hospital – the Criminal Lunatic Asylum for England and Wales and the Criminal Lunatic Department at Perth Prison in Scotland. Chapters examine the mental and social problems that led to crime alongside individuals considered to be weak-minded, imbeciles or idiots. Family murders are explored as well as individuals who killed for gain. An examination of psychiatric evidence is provided to illustrate how often an insanity defence was used in court and the outcome if the judge and jury did not believe these claims. Two cases are discussed where medical experts gave evidence that individuals were mentally irresponsible for their crimes but they were led to the gallows.

Written by genealogists and historians, this book examines and identifies individuals who committed heinous crimes and researches the impact crime had on themselves, their families and their victims.

It is an interesting read and, although there is no specific advice for family historians, it provides a good introduction to many of the issues relating to mental health and criminality in the Victorian era.

WDYTYA? February 2019 – reviewed by Angela Buckley

⭐⭐⭐⭐ Recommended

The book describes the background of various institutions, how mental health has been veiwed and how patients were treated in the past though a number of different cases a number of cases. These cases are mostly based around acts of violence or cases of murder where the perpetrator has been found incapable of making a plea to the charges against them therefore they have been declared insane and sent to various institutions to be detained at Her Majesty's pleasure.

The book was written in a clear and uncomplicated manner I enjoyed it till the last few chapters when I found it started to become repetitive. This is only my opinion and does not mean to say that somebody else would not find in it interesting and enjoyable read.

Amazon Customer

⭐⭐⭐⭐ Interesting read

The book takes a look at the development of mental illness, crime, and the law in Victorian & Edwardian Britain. With sections including parricide, infanticide, and children killing children (in a case strangely reminiscent of the James Bulger case), it was a fascinating read and it has made me interested in learning more about the subject.

It was especially interesting to read a different narrative about Victorian asylums. Too often the vision of the horrors portrayed in films and TV programmes takes over, whereas it seems from the evidence presented here, that there was a conscious effort by many to treat those with mental illness in a more compassionate way.

Amazon Customer

I’m interested in the history of mental health issues and how the mentally ill were treated historically.

During the nineteenth century changes in attitudes towards the mentally ill, and disabled people generally, started to change, and the nascent psychiatric and psychological disciplines of medicine emurged with the ‘alienist’ and the ‘mad doctor’. At a time when viable treatments was non-existent, families, institutions and communities had the burden of care for the sick.

But what about those who committed crimes while mentally ill? This book covers the subject, using biographies of ‘criminal lunatics’ and those detained at the monarch’s pleasure because they were found not guilty by reason of insanity but were also considered too dangerous to be out in society. It was during this time that Broadmoor was opened and its medical superintendents were considered to be experts in mental illness and the care of their patients/prisoners. During the nineteenth century doctors started to be called on as expert witnesses in trials where possible insanity was a cause. Many deemed insane were locked up, either for a fixed term, until deemed well or for life. Some were let out on licence only to kill because they were not cured, and some were still hanged, despite evidence of insanity.

The biographies of those covered in this book were interesting and sympathetically written, using contemporary sources and the change in attitudes from 1812 to 1912 are obvious. Medical care changed from manacles to keeping busy in a calm environment, although treatment and understanding of the causes was still lacking, awaiting scientific advances.

Such a pity that sanism and ableism is still alive and well over a century later.

A good book for those with an interest in the 19th century and its social attitudes, and those interested in the history of mental illness in Britain.

Rosie Writes... Blog

I really enjoyed reading this book and I would definitely look into reading more books by this author.

NetGalley, reviewed by A D

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is a a thorough and interesting account of the origins of secure hospitals in the UK. I did have some reservations about this book, only because the cover made it look a little like those 'cut and paste' regional crime books. It is broken into categories that make it a much more clear read - other books on the subject can wander around a little.

NetGalley, reviewed by Emma Vine

It was a fascinating read and it has made me interested in learning more about the subject.

NetGalley, reviewed by Gayle Noble

The book was written in a clear and uncomplicated manner I enjoyed it till the last few chapters when I found it started to become repetitive. This is only my opinion and does not mean to say that somebody else would not find it an interesting and enjoyable read.

NetGalley, reviewed by S Ballinger

A cohesive and useful account of the history of mental health treatment.

NetGalley, reviewed by Gemma Allen

About Dr John Burt

Dr John Burt is a professional genealogist and family historian based in Edinburgh. A retired general medical practitioner, he has held a lifelong fascination in Scottish social history. He graduated in Medicine in 1983 and holds a M.Sc. in Genealogical, Palaeographic and Heraldic Studies from the University of Strathclyde. John was an honorary clinical tutor to the School of Medicine, University of St Andrews, 2010-2013. John specialises in medieval, military and medical records.

About Kathryn Burtinshaw

Kathryn Burtinshaw is an experienced researcher who holds an Advanced Diploma in Local History from Oxford University and a M.Sc. in Genealogy, Palaeography and Heraldry from the University of Strathclyde. Kathryn runs her own genealogy company, Pinpoint Ancestry, and lives in North Wales.

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