We encountered a coroner’s inquest a few weeks back, presiding over the tragic suicide of an anonymous man. An inquest could deliver a verdict on the cause of death and, if they named a third party, their verdict could serve as an indictment at an assize court. The Old Bailey was the assize for the City of London. This document illustrates how insanity was taken into account in criminal trials, even when a formal insanity defence was not pleaded. It vividly shows how the perpetrator behaved and how others interacted with him, not only family and neighbours, but also strangers he encountered in court. This extract gives a vivid sense of day-to-day interactions with sane and insane people alike, and the sorts of decisions that ordinary people had to make about assessing mental capacity in ordinary and extraordinary circumstances alike.
IMAGE: Wellcome Library, London, L0040923. John Totterdale throwing his wife down stairs. Copperplate, 18th Century. From: The new and complete Newgate calendar; or, villany displayed in all its branches … Containing … narratives … of the various executions and other exemplary punishments … in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, from the year 1700 to the present time, vol. 2, By: William Jackson (London: Alexander Hogg, 1795), opposite p. 275. Collection: Rare Books, EPB 30093/B. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/