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#Bookreview MAD OR BAD: CRIME AND INSANITY IN VICTORIAN BRITAIN by David J Vaughan (@David_J_Vaughan) Great cases and a must for psychiatrists and lawyers

Hi all:

OK, you won’t be able to complain now. Neither yesterday’s nor today’s books are thrillers. Although, the subject of the book today is… well, yes, many thrillers and even horror stories could be written about it (and have).

Mad or Bad. Crime and Insanity in Victorian England by David J. Vaughan
Mad or Bad. Crime and Insanity in Victorian England by David J. Vaughan

Mad or Bad. Crime and Insanity in Victorian England by David J. Vaughan

In a violent 19th century, desperate attempts by the alienists – a new wave of ‘mad-doctor’ – brought the insanity plea into Victorian courts. Defining psychological conditions in an attempt at acquittal, they faced ridicule, obstruction – even professional ruin – as they strove for acceptance and struggled for change. It left ‘mad people’ hanged for offenses they could not remember, and ‘bad’ people freed on unscrupulous pleas.

Written in accessible language, this book – unlike any before it – retells twenty-five cases, from the renowned to obscure, including an attempt to murder a bemused Queen Victoria; the poisoner Dove and the much-feared magician; the king’s former wet-nurse who slaughtered six children; the worst serial killer in Britain…and more.

A Who’s Who introduces the principal players – lifesaving medics, like Maudsley and Bucknill; intransigent lawyers like Bramwell and Parke., while a convenient Glossary of ‘terms and conditions’: ranging from ‘Insane on Arraignment’ to Her Majesty’s Pleasure, ‘Ticket of Leave’ to ‘Burden of Proof’, helps to explain the outcomes of the cases.

Insanity Conditions presents, in glossary format, the diagnosed maladies put forward in court. Rarely accepted, more often rejected, by those keen on justice in its traditional form.

A History of Debate explains the titular subject – through graspable language and a window in time. How the ones found ‘not guilty on the grounds of insanity’ were curiously handled in Victorian law.

A chapter devoted to madness and women – from hysteria to murder, ‘monthly madness’ to crime. Raising opportune questions about the issue of gender, and exposing the truths of a masculine world.

Author David J. Vaughan
Author David J. Vaughan

About the author:

Former Assistant County Archaeologist of Wiltshire, living and writing in Herefordshire’s Golden Valley. Now a published author (Pen & Sword, The History Pressetc), historian, blogger, book reviewer, media presenter and public speaker, David J. Vaughan writes both fact and fiction, including on history (often bloody) and crime & insanity in the Victorian era. He is also a ‘jobbing’ feature writer across mainstream and independent publications.

David’s two latest books are MadOr Bad? Crime & Insanity In Victorian Britain (P&S, 2017) and TheLittle Book Of Herefordshire (THP, 2016). Other works include Bloody British History: Salisbury (THP, 2014). All are available in leading High Street bookshops and online and via his website  The Secret Life of Celestina Sommer – a very Victorian Murder is an Amazon download

Current projects include his new crime-centred novels – introducing a detective partnership fit for our post-modern age – and television screenplays which rework the popular Victorian drama back to its dark murderous roots.

When not writing, David reviews titles for, amongst others, Pickering and Chatto (now Routledge), academic publisher of related journals, monographs and books.

David also owns and writes his blog about ‘Crime and Insanity in Victorian England‘ at, getting in excess of 2000 hits each month.

And gives lectures and talks on his areas of interest: criminal madness, local and regional history, the archaeology of Britain and prehistory of the world.

My review:

Thanks to Pen and Sword History for providing me with a complimentary copy of this book that I voluntarily review.

As a psychiatrist, and having worked in forensic psychiatry in the UK for a number of years, mad or bad is indeed one of the questions that we’re asked very often. (Of course, the two categories are not mutually exclusive, but in the eyes of the law there are certain prerequisites that need to be complied with to be able to apportion guilt). Therefore, I was very curious to read this book that dealt with the issue of insanity and criminal justice in the Victorian era.

The book is divided into five parts, discussing the main players in the debate, the conditions that were listed under the insanity label, the history of the debate, a part discussing ‘mad women, bad women’, and the last and longest part that discusses in more detail the case studies that caused the debates and the legal changes discussed in the book.

Personally, I was fascinated by reading details about the cases behind some of the defences and legal terms still in use today. Having an overall view of the period and what was behind the discussions illuminates and helps explain the legal changes, placing them at a historical and social moment in time. As a psychiatrist, I was particularly interested in the issues of diagnosis and the discussions as to the different categories used to classify disturbed mental states, including some that sound difficult to believe now (like the many ‘women’s conditions’ that justified all kinds of crimes). Although the details of some of the cases and the discussions might sound bizarre, the truth is that matters are not that clear even now, and even if the debates are framed differently, a decision is not always easy to reach.

The case stories are fascinating to read in their own right and cover the most famous and relevant cases of the era. They provide a great overview without going into excessive detail and would be a good starting point for people who want to delve deeper into the subject, whilst providing a general background to others who might be looking for orientation and general reading on the topic. The book is well organised, written clearly, and provides a good summary of the main issues whilst illustrating them well without excess detail or the use of unnecessarily complicated terms.

A good read for anybody interested in issues of criminal justice, insanity and law in Victorian England, particularly those that pertain to the treatment of women by the legal system of the time. A word of warning: the passing of time hasn’t made these cases less upsetting or shocking, so although the book doesn’t dwell unnecessarily on the gore details, you might find some of them hard to read.

Thanks to Pen and Sword and to the author, thanks to all for you for reading and remember to like, share, comment and CLICK!

By OlgaNunez

I was born in Barcelona and after living in the UK for many years have now returned home. I teach English, volunteer at Sants 3 Ràdio, a local radio station, I'm a writer, translator (English-Spanish and vice-versa) and I'm a medical doctor and worked in Forensic Psychiatry many years. I also have a BA and a PhD in American Literature and Film, and a Masters in Criminology. I've always loved books and apart from writing them I review them often.
I write a bit of everything, check my books for more information and my about page for links.
My blog is bilingual, English and Spanish.

21 replies on “#Bookreview MAD OR BAD: CRIME AND INSANITY IN VICTORIAN BRITAIN by David J Vaughan (@David_J_Vaughan) Great cases and a must for psychiatrists and lawyers”

Thanks, Mary. It’s a bit of a specialised subject, although some of the case stories are worth reading in their own right. Incredible!

These collections of real-life historical cases are always a compelling read. I have no doubt that David will do well with his new book.
Best wishes, Pete.

Thanks so much, Pete. I’m getting another book about Victorian asylums soon, so I’ll be reporting back on the same subject! Have a good weekend!

Olga, it was exciting to read this review! Back when I did the “Copper” serial I became very interested in Victorian things.
The book does indeed sound well organized (something I appreciate as an editor).
Good luck to David. I also look forward to the upcoming review you mentioned to Pete. TGIF and hugs!

Thanks, Teagan. I remember the wonderful discoveries of objects, expressions and all kinds of things from your serial. Great. It is a fascinating subject as, even if it is very focused on the crimes and insanity, you do get a sense of what people’s lives were like at the time. I haven’t received the book I mentioned to Pete, yet, but I hope I’ll get it before I leave for Barcelona and I’ll have a chance to read it while I’m there. Have a great Friday!

I hope you feel better soon. I know it’s an era you’re interested in, Sarah, although luckily you find beautiful things from the period. 🙂

Thanks, Robbie. It does a good job of trying to explain the basis of many of the legal terms that come from very far back. I’m waiting on another book on a similar topic so there might be more recommendations coming your way soon. 🙂

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