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The Criminal and the Community
Part I - Chapter III - Insanity and Crime


THERE seems to be a widespread opinion that all criminals and offenders are more or less insane, but those who hold it have nothing to say in support of their view save that they cannot understand how certain crimes could be committed by any sane person. This is to beg the whole question, which is, how many persons who are charged with committing offences are found on examination to be unsound mentally?

Insanity has never been satisfactorily defined, but it is a term which in the legal sense connotes irresponsibility. Yet if all insane persons had no sense of responsibility it is difficult to imagine how they could be suffered to live. Even in lunatic asylums the great majority of the inmates can be induced to behave in such a way as to make it unnecessary to tie them up. They have a very large amount of liberty conceded to them without serious inconvenience to their neighbours and greatly to their own advantage. If they simply did what any stray notion impelled them to do this would not be possible. Their affliction frees them from responsibility to the law for their actions; but in practice they have to show by their conduct that they can and will obey the rules of the institution in which they are placed before it is safe or reasonable to let them go freely about in it. The physician does not demand from them better conduct than their mental condition warrants him in expecting; but they learn, in so far as they are capable of learning, that their own actions will determine the degree to which they will be free from interference, and that the necessary result of misconduct will be increased restraint. Only in so far as they show a sense of responsibility is it safe to allow them to be free from supervision. A person may suffer from such a degree of mental unsoundness as will free him from responsibility for his actions in the eyes of the law, and yet be able to conform to the rules laid down for the guidance of his life by an asylum superintendent.

A very small proportion of prisoners are persons of unsound mind, and in most cases the mental unsoundness is the result of their own misconduct. In Scotland there is no difficulty in freeing insane persons from prison. By section 6 of the Criminal and Dangerous Lunatics (Scotland) Amendment Act, 1871, it is provided that “When in relation to any person confined in a local prison in terms of the Prisons (Scotland) Administration Act, 1860, it is certified on soul and conscience by two medical persons that they have visited and examined such prisoner, and that in their opinion he is insane, it shall be lawful for the sheriff, on summary application at the instance of the administrators of such Prison, by a warrant under his hand, to order such prisoner to be removed to a lunatic asylum.” The matter practically rests with the prison surgeon, for the prison commissioners on his report never raise any objection to the transfer of a convicted prisoner who is found to be insane. Yet the same persons return again and yet again.

The warrant for detention in an asylum expires with the period of the sentence of imprisonment, and the asylum authorities must obtain new certificates before they can continue to keep the patient. When the degree and kind of mental unsoundness is very marked there is no difficulty in getting the necessary documents ; but when the patient has been benefited to the extent of being able to behave and speak no worse than many of his fellow-criminals, it is different. He is sent for examination to a man who is not acquainted with him. The doctor has to state facts observed by himself as a ground for certification ; quite properly he is not permitted to ensure the detention of anybody on evidence that is second-hand. The patient is quiet and on his guard, and his examiner can make nothing of him. Accordingly he goes back to his haunts and his vices, impatient of restraint, and is soon in the-hands of the police again. Clearly there is need of some modification in the law or its administration to permit of such persons being dealt with.

Insane offenders may be divided into two classes : those whose wrongdoing is the result of their insanity; and those who have been sound enough to begin with, but who have become insane, just as they have contracted physical diseases, as a result of vicious indulgence and its treatment. Of the first-named class there may be one in about a thousand admissions. The crimes charged are of all kinds and degrees of gravity, as the following examples will show :—

X 1.—A man is brought to prison for the first time charged with a series of petty thefts committed while under the influence of drink. He shows signs of alcoholism, and is too dazed to give any account of himself. In a day or two the alcoholic symptoms have passed off and his general condition suggests enquiry. He has signs of mental disease which cannot now be confused with drink. It is found that, until a year before, he had been in business in an industrial town ; that he had been a reputable citizen, quiet, peaceable, and abstemious in his habits; that he began to take to drink, and sold off his business, which realised several thousand pounds ; and that he had since been lost to the knowledge of his friends. What happened in the interval I do not know. He was taken in charge by the police for stealing glasses from a public-house, weights from a shop-counter, and such-like things, which were certainly of no use to him and which he could not sell. The charge was dropped and he was sent to a lunatic asylum.

X 2.—A young man is imprisoned on a charge of fire-raising. He is brisk, talkative, and cheerful, and laughs at the charge as ridiculous. Beyond showing a high appreciation of his own qualities he does not do or say anything to attract attention, and as he is really “bright” his conceit only provokes a smile. He has no physical symptoms of brain disease, and it is not suggested on his behalf that he is mentally unsound. A decent workman who was interested in him called to say how well-behaved he had always been, and to ascertain what ought to be done by way of assisting his defence; and some things he said suggested the need for special enquiry. It was found that prisoner had always been energetic and bright at his work, and that he had good reason for boasting of his skill. His fellow-workers admitted that, though they disapproved of his bounce. He had been a teetotaler all his life and was a prominent member of a militant temperance society. He was very industrious and thrifty. He married a quiet, reputable girl who shared his opinions and ideals. He had saved some money and he suddenly made up his mind to start in business for himself. His wife did not approve of his doing so, as she did not like the risk and was quite content to go on in their accustomed ways. He persisted, and she yielded the point, but only when she saw her opposition was causing domestic strife. He rented a small workshop and furnished it. He got as much work as he could undertake—not a great amount—but before he had time to see how his venture would prosper, he conceived the idea of removing to a larger house. His wife was unable to see how he could safely do this, as she did not think he had money sufficient to justify such a course. Her opposition only made him more insistent, and on one occasion he lost his temper so completely that she became alarmed. He threatened to kill her, and looked as though he meant it. When she spoke to him about this afterwards, he apologised and laughed it off ; and as he had always been a most affectionate and dutiful husband she dropped the subject. Things went on as before till one day there was a fire in his workshop. It was not got under till some damage was done, and it might have resulted in serious loss of life and property, as there were dwelling-houses adjoining. It was quite obviously the work of an incendiary, and he was arrested on a charge of fire-raising, as he could give no satisfactory account of his movements. On closer investigation it became quite apparent that he was a person of unsound mind. Little things that had passed as peculiarities, receiving only a passing comment, when dovetailed into the story as I have related it left no room for doubt. The charge was dropped, he was sent to an asylum, and there he died two years later from general paralysis of the insane.

In his case his fellow-workmen, seeing him from day to day, failed to observe more than a slight accentuation of the qualities they had been accustomed to see in him. He talked a lot about what he could do ; he always did that. He offered to make certain articles for a man better than any other could; very likely he was able. He started business on an altogether inadequate capital; others have done the same thing. He wanted to set up in a higher style of living; he was always ambitious—and so on. Until he set fire to his workshop they had never known him do anything inconsistent with his character, and while they laughed at his boasting they did not doubt his sanity. It was the same with his wife. She distrusted his judgment but did not doubt his sanity. His sudden murderous threat she put down to his temper. His temper she attributed to his want of sleep ; for she admitted that he got up at night, and worked or moved about. On one occasion, she confessed, he had proposed that he should cut her throat and his own. He was quite quiet at the time and she thought it an ugly kind of joke, as he woke her to make the proposal; but she explained it to herself on the ground of overwork and sleeplessness. Those who are coming most in contact with persons afflicted like this man are the last to see the significance of the changes taking place before them, because the transition is so gradual. This is true of people in all social classes.

X 3 was a professional man in a very good line of business. Late in life he was arrested on a charge of embezzling large sums of money. When I saw him first he had a paralysis of the muscles of one hand, which was withered in consequence ; and he could not articulate owing to paralysis of the muscles of the mechanism of speech. He put or answered questions in writing. Enquiry showed that for many years he had been much respected and trusted. He had amassed a considerable fortune, and had been upright and honest in his dealings with others. He lived in the country and kept up a large establishment. His business was one which dealt in large sums of money. Some years before his arrest he married for the second time, and there was trouble between his second wife and his family by her predecessor. He had always been an open-handed man, but latterly his public gifts had excited comment by their number and character. His mental condition, however, was never suspected by his family. They assumed his ability to afford anything he chose to buy. His wife left him as a result of his conduct to her and in doubt as to his sanity, but these doubts were not shared by his family. She said he had become capricious and sometimes cruel to her, and quite different from his ordinary self. He would sometimes bring in parcels of costly jewellery for which there was no need. In the end she became frightened to stay with him; but though she feared he might injure her, as he seemed to have taken a dislike to her, she never suspected that he was frittering away his substance. When the crash came it was found that he had within a short period thrown away tens of thousands of his own, and as much belonging to others who had trusted him. He had bought and sold property in a reckless way and without any authority to do so, his reputation enabling him to do things which in another would have been questioned. He was sent to an asylum. In his case the paralysis from which he suffered, gradual as it was in its onset, had attracted attention to itself and had actually masked the mental condition which accompanied or followed it.

There are some crimes which in themselves shock us to such an extent that we find it difficult to believe that any sane man would commit them. In a book such as this I can only refer to certain sexual offences without discussing them, but even in these cases the crime need not infer insanity. We are no more justified in saying that a man is mad if he does a mad-like thing than in calling him wise if he does a wise-like thing. A man’s criminal acts are only to be judged in relation to his other conduct if we would form a rational opinion as to his mental condition; and that again has to be considered in relation to the social condition in which he is placed before anything approaching a fair opinion as to its adequacy can be formed.

If a man’s criminal act were to be taken as sufficient to infer his insanity there are certain crimes for which we should never have anybody tried. Every murderer would straightway be sent to a lunatic asylum on the plea that he must have been mad or he would not have done it; and yet that is precisely one of the most important points that have to be examined in the course of a trial for murder in Scotland.

Murder is practically the only crime for which the death sentence is passed. Scottish jurymen have shown a strong repugnance to be parties to the death of a criminal. They may favour capital punishment in theory, but, no matter how bad he may be, they shrink from handing a culprit over to the hangman ; and they will seize any opportunity to escape from doing so if it is given them. They may be told they have nothing to do with results; that their duty is to find a verdict on the evidence ; but they might as well be told to pull the bolt. They know what will happen. They do not seem to believe that they are not responsible for the necessary consequence of their acts, and in spite of the assurance of the law the verdict is a worry to them. Few homicides are hanged in Scotland, and there are few verdicts of murder, mainly for this reason. If the death penalty were abolished —if it were even made only a possible penalty—brutal murders would have a chance of being called by that name and not by “Culpable Homicide.”

For a time it was almost a matter of routine to set up a defence of insanity in murder cases where the facts could not be seriously contested. Now in most assaults there is an element of accident. The assailant is in a state of rage and hits out wildly. The blow that will kill one man may only stun another. Blows inflicted on one part of the body may cause little more than inconvenience, but if the same amount of violence be applied to another part death may result. I have known cases where as a result of assault the victim seemed to have sustained injuries sufficient to kill him, even though he had the nine lives sometimes attributed to a cat, and yet he recovered—maimed and permanently unfitted to support himself. That was not murder; in some respects it was worse ; but there was no attempt to prove the assailant insane. If death had ended the suffering of the victim there would have been a plea of insanity set up. The determining factor in the plea was thus the physical condition of the assailed, not the mental condition of the assailant.

In Glasgow special care is taken in all cases of murder to enquire into the mental condition of the accused. From the time he is admitted to prison he is placed under observation with this purpose in view, and any evidence bearing on the subject is carefully examined. His conduct in prison may be perfectly sane, but if there is any reason to believe that, when at liberty, he showed signs of insanity, the medical officer personally makes an investigation and reports. The prisoner may be penniless, but he suffers no prejudice thereby, as the work is undertaken at the expense of the Crown ; and at the trial the necessary witnesses are usually produced on his behalf if the reports show that he is insane. This is true in other than murder cases to this extent, that the procurator fiscal informs the prison authorities of any allegation as to the prisoner’s mental condition and asks for a report. He also puts before the judge any statement by the prison doctor as to the health of a prisoner mental or physical, even although the report may not have been asked for.

Insanity may be a result as well as a cause of misconduct. A life of alternate indulgence and repression tends to unsoundness of mind; and I have seen men and women, who when first they fell into criminal courses were free from any suspicion of insanity, gradually degenerate and become insane. When the kind of life they lead is considered the wonder is that so many of them do not become mad.

X 4 was a girl of the labouring class. She was handsome and of a fine figure. Good-tempered and of an easy disposition, she was rather indolent; and as she was not trained in any very strong regard for morality and had plenty of admirers, she soon gave up working and took to the less restricted life of the town. She got into the hands of the police and was sent to prison, where her behaviour was beyond reproach. She did the work required of her and was always even-tempered and orderly. She took to drinking rather heavily, and during one imprisonment had a bad attack of delirium tremens, from which she recovered only to fall into a condition of dementia which remains and, though it has become less marked, leaves her unfit to take care of herself. Her insanity is the direct result of her excesses.

X 5 got into bad company and was encouraged rather than corrected by her mother, who found her profit in her daughter’s misdeeds. She left her work but did not take heavily to drink, and by and by came to prison charged with theft. She contracted disease in the course of her misconduct and began to take fits. She gradually became worse, as she gave herself no chance of recovery and neglected treatment when at liberty. She was in prison for short periods during two years and finally became insane and died. When first I saw her she was free from any mental or physical infirmity. Her disease and death were the direct result of her way of living.

X 6 had always been a wild and uncontrollable lad. He entered the army and was soon found to be one of the bad bargains. He was ultimately discharged. He got into a lawless set in Glasgow and picked up a living, sometimes honestly, sometimes otherwise. He suffered imprisonment on several occasions and was always a troublesome man to deal with. Gradually he showed delusions of suspicion and had attacks of violence ; and finally he had to be dealt with as a criminal lunatic. In his case there was from the beginning a condition of mental instability, which showed itself in his restlessness and impatience of restraint. It unfitted him for a soldier’s life, and the discipline incident thereto was much more likely to aggravate than to remedy his condition. Having no friends capable of directing him, he flew to excesses and was punished for the crimes in which he took part. Than life in prison there could be nothing imagined that would be worse for him ; and the monotony of it and the quiet would tend to develop the delusions which afterwards dominated his mind, and influenced his conduct to such an extent that under their influence he committed assaults and proved himself to be a dangerous lunatic. His case is different from the last two in respect that the very means adopted to deal with his excesses were largely the cause of his final insanity.

Short of cases of certifiable insanity there are a number of prisoners who are mentally defective. The total is small, but the individuals command an amount of attention, and cause an amount of trouble to the public, out of all proportion to their numbers. In some cases the defect consists of delayed development ; the body and the passions have grown at a greater rate than the mental powers, but time and training would be likely to establish an equilibrium.

In other cases there seems to be something wanting in their mental outfit—they “have a want,” as it is put colloquially and expressively. Many of them are capable of behaving themselves when under the guidance of well-disposed persons ; and more may be found about religious meetings than in prison. They have come under the influence of the Churches and have benefited thereby, and it is largely because no such healthy influence has been obtained over those others that they are in prison. They are usually quite tractable and pay obedience to stronger-minded persons. When these are law-abiding they cause no trouble, but when the influence is evil it is otherwise.

Mental powers that may be sufficient to enable a man to work and live in conformity with the law in one social position may be quite inadequate to enable him to support himself in another. There are men holding positions and discharging the duties required of them to the satisfaction of their employers, who would sink to a very low level if cast adrift. Any fixed standard of mental capacity is irrational, since it leaves out of account the conditions under which the person examined has to live. The question is : Is the person by reason of mental defect unable to bear the stress of life under the social conditions in which he is placed? Is he fit to take care of himself and abstain from offending against the laws?

Whatever may be the view of lawyers on the matter, no business man expects the same conduct from a boy as from a man; nor will he trust a young man to the same extent as an old man. The younger man may possess more knowledge, but there is a difference between knowledge and experience, and a man may know right from wrong without having the experience of life that enables him to discount his passions and follow his knowledge. A person who is mentally defective, and who has the additional misfortune to be born into a family of poor people and brought up in a slum, if he transgress the law can only be dealt with as though he were as fully endowed as his neighbours. If he is not mentally unsound to such a degree as to justify his certification as insane, there is only the prison for him; with the prospect of hardships on liberation and imprisonment when he offends, till he is sufficiently mad, or his record and his condition combined are bad enough, to enable him to be placed under the treatment he ought to have received from the first.

This is not necessarily the fault of those who administer the laws. The police are not justified in permitting offences to be committed; and whether the person who offends is sane or mentally defective it is their duty to arrest him. The medical men who may see him can only certify if they find him insane from their examination of him. Even if he is sent to an asylum the medical superintendent cannot detain him if his condition improves so far that he behaves sanely there ; and out he goes to the old struggle that he is quite unfit to face, with no one to help him or to exercise authority over him when he has a wayward turn.

X 7 is congenitally mentally defective, and he has been neglected. He has a stutter which makes it more difficult for him than for others equally weak-minded to get in touch with those around him and, asking questions, to learn. When he does make himself understood he has nothing of any great interest to say, and he is bound to find in the impatience of the ordinary man a barrier when he tries to speak. He cannot get work and there is not much he could do. He haunts outhouses at night for shelter and is arrested for trespassing in doing so. He is in a filthy condition and is a nuisance and an offence to those with whom he comes in contact. He is sent to prison for committing an offence which he cannot avoid committing and which is the direct result of the destitution incident on his mental defect and friendlessness.

X 8 is a quiet, peaceable, and rather attractive young woman. She was married to a respectable young man with a small wage. She behaved very well and seemed to be managing their home in a satisfactory manner, but to his surprise and horror she was one day arrested, and was afterwards convicted, for obtaining goods under false pretences. She had been unable to make her income serve for the support of the household, although she was not extravagant, and she had played up to her appearance and got certain articles by a story that was fraudulent. Had she appealed to his friends she would have been assisted, but she took the other course from sheer mental incapacity to deal with her situation. Her case was thoroughly investigated while she was in prison and arrangements were made for directing her on her liberation. She is quite tractable, has no vices, is anxious to do well, but is not fit to bear unaided the responsibilities of her position. The Church to which she belongs has constituted itself her guardian now that her condition has been shown; and she is not likely to transgress so long as interest in her is sustained, nor to cost much in money to those who are looking after her.

X 9 is a lad who has got out of parental control and seeks adventures. He answers questions intelligently, if somewhat insolently, and so far as a merely professional examination would show is not defective mentally. He is to all appearance simply a bad boy. Observation of his conduct in prison and enquiry outside, show the mental defect behind it. He has recurrent outbursts of temper without apparent cause, and while showing no sign of confused intelligence, he proceeds to smash things. He has been in prison for malicious mischief and for offences against decency as well as for theft. He is not given to drink, but is beginning to indulge when he can get a chance. He works intermittently, but cannot stay at anything for more than a short period. He was charged with housebreaking, but on a report from prison as to his mental condition he was certified as insane and was kept in an asylum for about a year. He had improved so much in conduct that he was discharged, but the medical superintendent expressed the opinion that left to himself he would probably break back; and he did; resuming his old practices within a short period of his liberation. He can do well enough under proper conditions, but is unfit to look after himself.

X10 is a young woman who is strongly built and of a pleasant manner and appearance. She has been a domestic servant, but falling into bad company has given up work. At first she only appeared to be “soft” a little, but drink and excess have contributed to cause or to show—for in her case it is difficult to say which—mental deficiency. She is quiet and well-behaved in prison, and is of fair intelligence, but on liberation she resorts to the lowest haunts and indulges in such excesses that when brought back to prison she is in terror of death, she feels so ill. She was induced to place herself under control for a time, and she did well, working hard and cheerfully; but she returned to the city and resumed her old courses. All who know her recognise that she “has a want,” but the defect is so slight that there is no possibility of having her dealt with for it, as the laws at present only enable her to be punished for its results. Unless her excesses produce some marked degeneration— and, as she is reported to be having “ fits ” occasionally, that seems probable—all that can be done for her is to arrest and imprison her when she offends. When she is a wreck she will receive the kind of treatment and the guardianship that might save her were it possible to give it now.

Just as some prisoners become insane as a result of their criminal and vicious life, some undergo mental degeneration to a degree not certifiable. In the case of the older ones this is accompanied by such an amount of physical disability as compels them to seek refuge in the poorhouse, and they are only back to prison on the rare occasions that they leave its gates, induced thereto by a feeling of improvement and a renewed desire to visit their old haunts. Taking insane and mentally defective prisoners together, their number is small relative to that of those who suffer from no mental deficiency. Clearly then insanity will not account for crime in any except a very small number of cases. In fact the proportion of insane among prisoners generally is not greater than among the population outside, but in the case of females admitted for cruelty to children it is enormously in excess.


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