Public Perceptions of Moral Insanity in the 19th Century

By Brian Kirschner

Dr. Cristina Hanganu-Bresch, assistant director in the Writing Programs, was invited to present at the “Histories of Forensic Psychiatry and Forensic Psychology” conference held March 17-18, 2016, at University of Canterbury in New Zealand, thanks to a travel grant offered by the conference organizers. Put together by Dr. Heather Wolffram, the conference included a small group of international scholars from Spain, Germany, Hungary, the United States, Australia and New Zealand, and aimed to shed light on the intersection between the two disciplines.

The conference program stated: “The intersection of the human sciences with the law has been an area of growing fascination for historians during the past twenty years. In particular, the development of forensic psychiatry and its relationship to criminology during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has enjoyed attention, culminating in histories of the field in the German, English, French, Irish, and Italian contexts among others. In contrast, the history of forensic psychology has been slower to develop, but has also begun to bear fruit with studies of witness psychology in Germany and Spain being a particular focus. Furthermore, while historical studies of forensic psychology and forensic psychiatry have tended to treat these disciplines separately, recent works and current research has pointed to both the crossfertilization and competition between these two disciplines in the early decades of their evolution.”

Dr. Hanganu-Bresch’s presentation was entitled “Public Perceptions of Moral Insanity in the 19th Century” and focused on the concept of “moral insanity” in the American courts. For a few decades in the 1800s, moral insanity—the capacity of an otherwise sane mind to act bizarrely or offensively in certain aspects of life, or the irrationality of an otherwise rational mind—allowed medical experts to explain a variety of “immoral” acts, including murder, as variations of insanity, and thus cast doubts upon the issue of responsibility. The paper paper illustrated this concept through a local Philadelphia case from 1849, the (in)famous “Hinchman Conspiracy Case,” which pitted a local Quaker against a number of relatives and friends, whom he accused of wrongfully confining him to an asylum in order to deprive him of property. The trial hinged on proving his alleged “moral insanity” at the time of confinement. Dr. Hanganu-Bresch argued that the “moral insanity” category’s lengthy exposure to public scrutiny eroded the professional status of doctors practicing psychiatry and exposed contradictions in the medico-legal system, some of which remain unresolved.

For more about the conference, visit: Histories of Forensic Psychiatry and Forensic Psychology Conference Programme

Categories: News, Feature Story, Faculty, Academics, Mayes College, Department of Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Business, Writing Program