Trials of Passion: Crimes Committed in the Name of Love and Madness by Lisa Appignanesi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Victorian-era spinster Christiana Edmonds was extremely unhappy that her letters weren’t returned by her doctor, Charles Beard. Of course he loved her and would leave his wife, but Beard never did. He simply told Christiana to stop writing. Things stalemated until a rash of poisonings—which resulted in the death of a four-year-old boy—exposed Christiana’s plans to hide her attempted murder of Mrs. Beard by broadcasting handmade poisoned chocolate creams throughout the community. Alas, her handwriting on repeated requests for strychnine and cyanide from the local chemist’s gave her away. She pleaded not guilty and stated Dr. Beard had besmirched her honor, but the “Borgia of Brighton” was sentenced to life in an asylum—not to death by hanging. Her lawyer and the “alienists”—what we’d call today psychologists—had argued that Christiana’s unrequited love had induced a madness that had driven her to this desperate act.
Trials of Passion takes a tantalizing look into landmark cases in the U.K., France and the U.S. during the later-half of the 19th and into the early years of the 20th century that set the standards we recognize today for the legal defense of temporary insanity. Appignanesi shows how these crimes and their trials demonstrate changing gender roles in Western society. The belle époque’s attitude was that women (and some men) were “hysterics” or mentally feeble and suggestible to commit these crimes, but in actuality, these criminals were simply crying out for justice that their culture didn’t address. The poor and downtrodden committed crimes of passion to right wrongs perpetrated on them by the powerful and wealthy who had left them without honor. However, even millionaires such as American Harry Thaw used this psychological defense to justify his shooting of architect Stanford White because White had raped the beautiful model Evelyn Nesbit, who later became Thaw’s wife, when she was but a teenager. Murder had become a “cure for insanity”.
Trials of Passion is a fascinating read for those interested in history, psychology, and the legal profession and how these disciplines came together to create the feminist movement and modern ethics.
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