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Insanity

One October morning in 1825 Richard Neal, aged thirty-seven, of Eliot, Maine, rose from his bed with the fixed intention of killing the family cat. He searched in vain, even taking up some of the flooring of his bam with an axe. His wife told him to leave the cat alone. In response Neal knocked her down and chopped off her head. He then proceeded to the town of Berwick and gave himself up. Neal was a man of good character, with no private quarrels, and seemingly happily married to his wife of seven years and mother of his four young children. How to make sense of a senseless murder? The noise resulting from Neal hacking off the head of his wife quickly brought neighbours to the scene. He told them that his cat was possessed by witches and that they had transferred themselves to his wife—presumably explaining why he could not find the cat. He said he had no intention of killing his wife when he left the house that morning. The conclusion of the press and others was that such an ‘unnatural’ murder must have resulted from a delusion induced by insanity. There had to be a medical cause. It was reported that eight or nine years before Neal had contracted hydrophobia after saliva from a rabid pig came into contact with a cut on one of his hands. As a result, he had suffered from a period of mental derangement. It was assumed that the murder must be a recurrence of this malady.1 Was Neal really insane from a modem medical perspective? We will never know. But the issue of gauging the sanity of witch killers cropped up repeatedly over the next century raising profound and difficult legal and ethical questions.

The psychiatric profession in America, as in Europe, has its origins in the growth of mental hospitals during the early nineteenth century in response to changing welfare and penal policies. It was a period when the medical profession was increasingly turning its focus from the body to the mind, exploring the physiology of hallucinations, emotions, and the impulses behind abnormal social behaviour. Insanity was categorized to improve our understanding of it, and research was conducted on asylum inmates to identify the causes of different types of insanity and whether and how they could be cured.

Some early psychiatrists thought they could detect the predisposition to insanity and superstition by applying the science of phrenology. In his 1841 popular guide to the subject, the eccentric San Francisco phrenologist, showman, and photographer Frederick Coombs identified the organ of ‘marvellousness’ in the brain as being the seat of the problem. Those with a large one were prone to being credulous and superstitious, while those with a very large marvellousness exhibited a propensity to believe in witchcraft and demonology.2 According to Coomb’s head measurements, the archetype of feminine cranial perfection, which he termed ‘New England’s Fairest Flower’, had a very large marvellousness, as did the Chinook Indians. It should be noted that Coombs believed he was George Washington. Other phrenologists explained that a diseased organ of ‘destructiveness’ exhibited itself in the propensity to irrational violence and murder, sometimes under the delusion of satanic agency. In the days when witchcraft was widely believed in, opined the Scottish phrenologist George Combe, such people were frequently believed to be possessed by evil spirits.3

The understanding of insanity in these early days of the profession was deeply influenced by America’s racial history. In the 1840s a note published in the first volume of the American Journal of Insanity reported observations by physicians in the field that insanity was unheard of amongst the Cherokees and seldom found amongst Africans. An elderly Chief was reported as saying that ‘he had never known a case of insanity among his people, such as he had seen in the Hospital at Philadelphia’.4 The view was pervasive in nineteenth-century psychiatry that insanity was a product of ‘civilized’ society because life in a modem, urban-industrial environment generated a higher degree of mental excitement. ‘Primitive’ or ‘barbarous’ peoples did not need to think beyond satisfying their immediate needs, and so had undeveloped emotional faculties. Once African Americans and Native Americans became civilized or were given their freedom they too experienced increased levels of insanity, but not necessarily because they become more intellectually sophisticated. The perceived intellectual inferiority of African Americans made them even less able to cope emotionally with the disorientation of urban life, and less equipped to handle the responsibilities of civilized society. In 1896 the asylum superintendent Theophilus Powell concluded from the results of a survey of inmates in Georgia that there had been a substantial rise in insanity and tuberculosis amongst blacks since 1860. This he attributed to their enthusiasm for sexual debauchery and drink once freed from slavery. The obvious racist conclusion to be drawn from such fundamentally flawed studies was that emancipation was more traumatic than enslavement and not in the interests of the general well-being of African Americans.

Some early psychiatrists and physicians, particularly those in the southern states, believed the slave population was more prone to conditions such as hysteria and epilepsy, and that they had mental and physical ailments peculiar to themselves. The racist physician Samuel Cartwright (1793-1863) conjured up the term ‘drapetomania’ to describe a form of insanity that caused slaves’ to abscond, while dysaesthesia aethiopis was a condition explaining ‘Negro rascality’, which particularly affected freed slaves who lived amongst themselves. The condition of Cachexia Africana or dirt eating was also considered peculiar to the African.5 Amongst African Americans, forms of insanity such as dementia expressed itself in a regressive way that brought out their primitive, pagan, magical impulses. Furthermore, their profound belief in witchcraft rendered them more prone to insanity. A.P. Merrill, a Memphis physician, wrote in the mid-nineteenth century that the negro was ‘easily depressed by his confidence in witchcraft, and much of his unhappiness as well as many of his diseases, proceed from purely imaginary causes’.6 James Kieman, Superintendent of Cook County Hospital for the Insane, Illinois, and respected author of numerous psychiatric studies, examined several cases of paranoia concerning witchcraft amongst African-American patients. He observed that ‘the talk of witchcraft renders a practical business man suspicious of insanity, and would soon bring the mental condition of an otherwise seemingly intelligent negro under suspicion’.7

In exploring the relationship between insanity and witchcraft belief in historic contexts we also need to recognize that our modem conceptions of insanity do not necessarily map directly on to historic notions and experiences, and vice versa. Old terminologies such as ‘madness’, lunacy’, and ‘melancholy’ were shaped by historic religious, cultural, moral, as well as medical notions; they have to be understood within the context of the time and place they were applied. The condition of ‘hysteria’, or uncontrolled emotional excess, is a pertinent case in point. Its origins lie in the ancient notion that female maladies resulted from a disturbed uterus (hystera), but in the nineteenth century it came to be applied widely in relation to the ‘mania’ or ‘madness’ of the witch trials. ‘Witch hysteria’ and the term ‘witch craze’, which imply that the trials were an outbreak of gendered and/or pathological behaviour, continue to be widely employed in popular culture, although historians have wisely abandoned the terms in recent years.

Seeking retrospective diagnoses, that is, identifying maladies from the annals of history with the hindsight of modem knowledge, and classifying them according to contemporary categories of illness, was a favourite past time of the early psychiatric profession and continues to be seductive. It has been argued in recent decades that poisoning by the ingestion of ergot fungus (a source of lysergic acid), outbreaks of Lyme disease, and encephalitis lethargica or ‘sleepy sickness’ solve the ‘puzzle’ of early-modern witchcraft persecutions. An attempt has also been made to prove that schizophrenia contributed to the Salem witch hunt.8 This condition is generally associated with delusions of persecution and aural hallucinations in the form of hostile or critical voices, although again, in popular usage it is incorrectly used to suggest multiple personalities. There has never been lull agreement in the medical profession about the origin, diagnosis, and cure of schizophrenia, and today there is debate that it should not be used as a diagnostic category.

The term schizophrenia was coined in the early twentieth century, and its use can be more revealing of the contemporary influence of the pharmaceutical industry, doctor-patient relationships, media, and biological research, than the mental health of people in the more distant past.9 Still, retrospective diagnoses can be of value. They remind us to take seriously beliefs and experiences that have at times been denounced as the excrescences of racial and cultural backwardness. Consider, for example, the case of the Swedish immigrant Leopold Weedstrand, who in the 1870s, believed he was plagued by witches. He moved from Meadville, Pennsylvania, the centre of the trouble, to Iowa and Minnesota to escape their torment, but their voices followed him. ‘For hours at night they whispered strange things to me’, he said. ‘When I got to Minnesota I found it just the same—witches, witches all the time, and they persecuted me ... I heard voices and remember what they said... I heard them say they’d kill me’.10 Similarly in 1878 the mental state of a German Iowa farmer, Max Frahm, was assessed after he claimed witches constantly called him foul names, and that whenever people approached him the witches cried to him that he was doomed. He was said to be sane in every other respect.11

Labelling these cases as schizophrenia helps us to understand the difficult lives of these otherwise sane people. We can understand their suffering and why they believed themselves bewitched, rather than dismissing them as credulous fools and laughing at them, just as Weedstrand was mocked in the local press at the time. Witchcraft belief was not the cause of his insanity, but his illness was expressed through such notions. His case and others highlight that while witchcraft belief was completely normal, it could easily be interpreted as pathological by others who did not share the same culture of belief. This is no mere academic exercise in definition. As we shall now see, determining normal and abnormal witchcraft belief tested the limits of the law in numerous legal disputes.

Putting it to the test

There was an ever-present tension between bad psychiatry and good law, and bad law and good psychiatry in the courtroom.12 The source of much of it was the M’Naghten rules as a test of legal insanity. They derived from the trial in 1843 of a Scotsman, Daniel M’Naghten, who, believing he was being persecuted by a conspiracy led by the British Tory government at the time, attempted to assassinate the British Prime Minister Robert Peel, but shot dead his secretary instead. M’Naghten was acquitted on the basis of insanity. This caused public uproar and so Parliament requested a panel of judges to draw up a set of rules that justified the decision. In short, the rules, which became a standard test in many countries including the US, judge that persons be found either ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ or ‘guilty but insane’ if proven that they had a disease of the mind that rendered them unable to understand the ‘nature and quality’ of the criminal act committed, or if they did not know what they were doing was wrong. Those adjudged so, were to be committed to a secure hospital or asylum, usually for an indefinite period.

An American development bom out of dissatisfaction with M’Naghten was the irresistible impulse test. This went beyond cognition of the difference between right and wrong, accepting that some people were unable to prevent themselves from committing a crime—they were not free agents, they were uncontrollably driven. So a defendant might know they were doing wrong but could plead diminished responsibility because of irresistible impulse. This was obviously applicable in cases where people claimed they were driven to commit murder by delusions and hallucinations inspired by evil spirits, witches, and the Devil. The irresistible impulse test was first adopted by an Alabama District Court in the 1880s, and was accepted by a few other state courts, but it received criticism for stretching too far the medico-legal definition of insanity, and raised the difficulty of testing that an impulse was uncontrollable rather than one that was not resisted.13

The judicial opinion on witchcraft and insanity was forged in the probate courts, during the fraught and often interminable disputes over the validity of wills. The seminal test case of the nineteenth century was that of a South Carolina plantation owner named Mason Lee, who in July 1820, being ‘of perfect mind, memory, and understanding’, bequeathed his entire $50,000 dollar estate to the states of Tennessee and South Carolina. Doing so, he disinherited his family and two illegitimate sons known as the Pennywinkle twins. To ensure there was no ambiguity, Lee’s will stated that his relations would not inherit anything ‘while wood grows or water runs’. Lee died two years later aged fifty-two. Over the next seven years his relatives, the Wiggins’, contested the will in various courts on the basis that he was insane at the time of making the will, the principal evidence being his conviction that he was plagued by witches and evil spirits.

Lee was bom to a respectable North Carolina family. He settled in Georgia before fleeing the state after killing one of his plantation slaves. He then bought a plantation in South Carolina on the Pee Dee River, near Bennettsville, where he prospered. Yet despite his wealth, towards the end of his life Lee lived in a dirty hovel, eating frugally, sleeping in a hollowed out gum-tree log, and wearing the coarsest of clothing. The spoon he ate with had iron rivets, which Lee said helped keep the witches away. He constantly feared that his relatives had ‘goomered’ him, and believed that all women were witches. Urinating on the ground made him vulnerable to spells, so he carried with him a tin cup into which he peed. A local blacksmith made several swords for him that he thought would protect him against the Devil and his witches. He accused the Wiggins of bewitching his penis and his teeth. To counteract the latter he had fourteen healthy teeth removed. Various other proofs were given of his eccentric ideas regarding farming techniques.14

Lee was certainly obsessed by his fear of witches, and held some unusual views on farming practice, but in both the original court hearing and the subsequent appeals it was ruled that his ‘foolishness’ regarding witchcraft was considered explicable in terms of his fondness for whisky, and his suffering from the complaint known as the ‘gravel’ or kidney stones. Indeed, one witness said that Lee had, during his final moments, denied the existence of witchcraft, stating that the cause of all his problems was the gravel. But the outcome of the suit still hung on the relationship between witchcraft belief and insanity. Presiding over the case, the eminent Judge Thomas Waties, great-grandfather of the outspoken South Carolina anti-segregation judge Julius Waties Waring (1880-1968), instructed the jury that ‘a belief in witchcraft, although sometimes the symptom of a disordered mind, was not of itself any proof of it, as it had often been entertained by persons who were above all suspicions of insanity, and even by men who were distinguished for their wisdom’.15 Case law was made.

Similar decisions were reached in subsequent probate appeals. In 1854 the will of an Indiana farmer named Francis Stephen was upheld despite the fact that he declared his deceased wife was a witch and that the children he disinherited were also witches and had inherited their mother’s ‘witch-sticks’.16 The judgment in favour of the validity of the will consisted of a rambling disquisition on belief in the supernatural from the Bible through to spiritualism, concluding that belief in witchcraft was not, in itself, sufficient evidence of insanity, even though Stephen had acted upon this belief by disinheriting his children. A couple of years later a similar story to that of Mason Lee was heard during an appeal regarding the will of the bachelor Obed Woodbury, of Beverly, Massachussetts, which cut out the principal heirs, a nephew and niece of his brother named Zebulon Woodbury and Elizabeth Ludden. Obed had intimated that the two would inherit his estate; that is, until a year before his death, when Obed began to harbour the conviction that Zebulon had poisoned and bewitched him. He kept an iron nail in his pantry to ward of witchcraft, and accused Zebulon of removing it. He also believed that Zebulon’s wife had a bottle with seeds in it, which by swinging over her head she could cause him agonies. Obed’s convictions were, he had confided, based on conversations with spirits. He even believed he had seen Jesus Christ in the air. Two physicians who attended Obed testified that in their opinion he was suffering insane delusions regarding his nephew. The appeal was successful this time, on the basis that the executor, who was also a legatee, Josiah Ober, had undue influence on Obed in making his will.17

In the three cases above, the deceased had expressed their witchcraft belief in terms of persecution complexes that have similarities to the symptoms and behavioural patterns of illnesses such as dementia, but the next case, brought before the New York Surrogate Court in 1888, shows how what we might describe as ‘normal’ witchcraft beliefs were now being interpreted by some as symptomatic of enfeebled minds. Eliza Ann Vedder, of Albany County, New York, and of Dutch descent, died on 19 January 1887, aged seventy-seven. Four years earlier she had made out her will leaving nearly all her property to her husband. The couple had no children. Once again nephews and nieces contested the will. The principal evidence consisted of her various beliefs and practices. So it was heard that she made the sign of the cross at the bottom of her chum and put irons in the cream to ensure the butter came. She believed that her horses were ridden at night by witches. She told a neighbour that her child was bewitched, and advised her to search its pillow to see if there was a feather wreath. She once took a nephew on a treasure-hunting expedition on her farm. Aspects of Vedder’s beliefs, such as feather wreaths, may indeed have seemed peculiar to those who had no knowledge of Dutch popular magic, but to a distant eye there was nothing monomaniacal or paranoid in her behaviour. Evidence in support of the will was given that demonstrated she was perfectly competent in running her farm and domestic life, was a life-long member of the local Reformed Dutch Church, and that her belief in visions was an aspect of her faith. The defence lawyer concluded reasonably: ‘The Bible was the book of books to the aged testatrix. Its lessons had sunk deep in her heart, its language was often on her lips, it was to her the precious fountain of God’s inspiration. It is not passing strange that the ancient belief in witchcraft survived in her’. The court agreed.18

In this case, and others, illustrious men of the past were cited as evidence that belief in witchcraft was not incompatible with the highest intellect and moral purity. So the lawyer defending Vedder’s will mused that Martin Luther and John Wesley had expressed a belief in the evil of witchcraft. In 1903 Judge John Vestal Hadley of the Indiana Supreme Court drew upon his historical knowledge when he reversed a local court decision invalidating the will of an avid treasure-hunter and farmer named Joseph Watt, observing that the influential English judge Matthew Hale (1609—1676) and William Blackstone believed in witches and in punishing them.19

Murder trials provided the other main legal forums for debating the relationship between witchcraft belief and insanity. The stakes were much higher, of course. Psychiatric opinion could determine whether a murderer lived or died. Studies conducted in the 1970s showed that the American public vastly inflated how often the insanity defence has been used and the extent of its success. It has always been thus.20 The insanity defence was actually uncommon in murder trials in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. High-profile cases, such as those of the assassins of Presidents James A. Garfield and William McKinley, distorted public perception. There were practical reasons against employing it. The introduction of an insanity defence usually prolonged trials and led to burdensome costs. The success rate was also low, so that it was not an automatic option for defence lawyers. Furthermore, a successful insanity plea did not mean the murderer got off scot-free. If cure was considered possible, then by the letter of the law the murderer would have to face trial once again. The judicial and medical problems posed by the insanity plea are well illustrated in the following case.

In 1937 a forty-year-old Serbian immigrant named Ilija Martinovich shot dead his cousin and childhood friend Nicholas Aleksich, a policeman in Butte, Montana. Martinovich had emigrated from Serbia, in what was then the Austro- Hungarian Empire, in 1913. He spent a few years in casual labouring jobs, working in the mines, but returned home in 1924 after experience ‘all sorts of bad luck’. The following year, though, he was drawn back to the US by what he later believed were the malign powers of Aleksich. Thanks to the guidance of a female guardian angel that appeared to him in dreams, by 1931 Martinovich became convinced his old friend was a wizard guided by the Devil and was responsible for all his misfortune. He would do himself and the world a favour by killing such a wizard. Reasoning that he was likely to be caught, Martinovich began saving money for his day in court. In 1934 he was incarcerated for a time in Warm Springs state psychiatric hospital for exhibiting insanity ‘shown in acts and fear of witchcraft’. One of his visitors was Aleksich who stood by his old friend despite his unstable mind, and helped get him paroled. Being a model inmate Martinovich was released after a few months, bought a gun, and bided his time for the right moment. Then on Sunday 28 February 1937 he was in Starovich’s saloon, 82 East Park Street, when he spotted Aleksich, followed him down the street, and shot him in the back of the head from two feet. He had killed a wizard, and was glad he had done so.

The trial commenced in June. Martinovich’s defence team based their insanity plea upon his belief in witches and wizards. Several psychiatrists took the stand to confirm that Martinovich was an incurable paranoiac, and was unable to distinguish between right and wrong at the time of the murder, It was clear from his testimony, though, that Martinovich did know right from wrong. When questioned as to his intention to kill another man, ‘Long John’ Gurgevich, whom he also believed to be a witch, the following exchange ensued:

Q. Did you change your mind about killing Long John?

A. I am.

Q. You don’t want to kill him now?

A. I don’t care when that day I didn’t get him, he don’t do as much wrong as Nick.

Q. You don’t want to kill John now?

A. No.

Q. What made you change your mind?

A. He do me no wrong.

Q. Do you feel sorry for killing Nick?

A. No.

Q. You are glad you didn’t kill John?

A. I believe I kill, I would have kill.

Q. You don’t feel sorry about it?

A. No.

Q. You realize that the law of Montana makes it a crime for you to kill another man?

A. Yes. I say to myself the jury do what you want, this witchcraft that hurt the people the way I feel myself, give me free.

Q. [If] Instead of killing Nick you killed some other man who wasn’t a wizard, do you think you have a right to do that?

A. No other man. For man no right to kill other man. No man has right to kill. It’s against the law.

Q. How about wizards?

A. I have right to kill wizards.

It was also heard in evidence that Martinovich told his attorney it was all right to kill a snake or a wizard, but it was not all right to kill a man. Under further questioning he testified, ‘In Old Testament, I read three or four times during the panic, without work, I read New Testament five or six times “the wizard no live”, that means they be killed’. Hospital psychiatrist Dr Gold was asked if a delusion regarding wizards and witches would interfere with a person’s knowledge of law and what was unlawful. Gold replied that it would not interfere in this way, as the patient is always bright and intelligent on subjects except those connected with his or her hallucinations.

After nearly seventy hours of deliberation the jury was deadlocked eight to four in favour of a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity. Judge J. J. Lynch discharged the jury, and the trial closed at a cost of $5,500 dollars to Silver Bow County. Martinovich stayed in jail while a retrial was arranged for February 1939, a year after the murder. But before it went ahead at further great cost, the county attorney petitioned for a sanity hearing, partly on the basis of saving the county money. Doctors testified that Martinovitch’s mental condition had deteriorated. He was confined indefinitely to Warm Springs until such time as he was found to be sane and therefore could stand trial for his crime. I have found no evidence that he was ever released. As a postscript, Mrs Aleksich sued the state industrial fund for compensation for her husband’s death, but in 1944 was told by the Supreme Court that her claim was unreasonable as the job of policeman was not inherently hazardous.21 Rough justice indeed.

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