Sunday, February 12, 2006

Old Bailey Symposium: A Perfect Fatuity

Today, DS, TU is taking part in a multi-blog symposium on the Old Bailey Proceedings Online. Back in the fall, Jonathan Edelstein issued a challenge to history bloggers, to do something with the amazing Old Bailey Proceedings Online site. This is a rich, rich site: "A fully searchable online edition of the largest body of texts detailing the lives of non-elite people ever published, containing accounts of over 100,000 criminal trials held at London's central criminal court," April 1674 to October 1834. Perfect for the disability historian, as Jonathan Edelstein himself proved in a recent preview post on deaf defendants and signed communication at the court.

My particular area of research interest is in the history of the lives of people with cognitive disabilities, especially those outside institutions, living in the community, in families, towns, schools, churches, farms, cities. And that certainly might include courthouses. So I ran a search on the word "idiot," and wasn't at all surprised to see several cases appear: In 1710 Mary Bradshaw stole clothing from two women, but was acquitted because "sufficient Proof [was] given in Court that she was an "Idiot." Similarly, Robert Left was acquitted of simple grand larceny in 1748, by a jury who found him non compos mentis. The transcript from Peter Cunniford's simple grand larceny trial in 1759 includes discussion of his childhood brain injury (he was attacked by dogs as a small child); his brother says "he is half foolish and thick of hearing" in his defense. (Cunniford was also acquitted.) Mary Tame was left in charge of her two-year-old sister, who drowned in a pond; but the court in 1719 found enough evidence of Mary's being an "ideot" to acquit Miss Tame. (Always check common misspellings of keywords.)

What evidence of idiocy was given, centuries before IQ testing or other assessment tools? Common knowledge and behavioral anecdotes served the purpose, but medical evidence and experts could be involved. "I have seen the boys after him in Newgate-market making game of him," says one witness, so "poor foolish lad" Thomas Baggot's "weakness" was a matter of general understanding in the community (he was acquitted of breaking the peace during an 1780 riot). "It is well known in the neighbourhood that he says yes, to every thing he is asked," explained one witness in an 1825 horse-theft trial, and a former employer said of the same defendant, "if you tell him to do one thing he will go and do another." (In this case, the testimony was not enough to save the defendant; John Battle was sentenced to death and executed.) Peter Cunniford's story above shows that a plausible cause for the defendant's idiocy--a head injury during childhood, for example--would bolster the claim. A medical expert was called in the trial of John Glover, to explain that a high fever two years earlier had left the previously sound-minded defendant "a degree of idiocy, which remained, a perfect fatuity, absolute fatuity." Events in Glover's life further explained his changed mind: a child burned to death, a mugging, a pregnant wife and no means of support. Other witnesses in Glover's defense aver that his friends had applied to various Jewish charitable boards for poor relief on his behalf. (Glover was acquitted of stealing a ring.)

The "idiots" in the Old Bailey records aren't always the defendants. Seventeen-year-old Elizabeth Harvison, a dwarf who had multiple disabilities, was raped in 1725, by a fellow lodger--her mother, three midwives and several female witnesses testified to her physical state after the attack. When Samuel Street was asked why he did this, he explained, "The Devil bewitcht me." (He was acquitted of the felony.) John Arthur, an "ideot" about sixteen years old, died in jail, and a guard was accused of causing the death through frequent beatings (Arthur, it seems, was minimally verbal and incapable of basic personal care). Arthur's was ruled a natural death from exposure and infections caused by poor hygiene. In 1830, William Cole explained why he stole silver thimbles from his employer: "I earned 30s. of my master, and he stopped 15s. 6d. out of it - my wife and child were turned out of doors; my child is blind, and is an idiot." (Cole was found guilty, but the jury recommended mercy in his punishment.)

But beyond the crimes and punishments.... we learn that Elizabeth Harvison was carried about by family and friends, and included on trips to the local alehouse; that Peter Cunniford had steady employment in the building trades, with a reputation as hard worker; John Battle also supported himself, as a farm laborer. Caleb Brookes, a coal warehouse employee of "good character," was ill-used, and easily led by "artful persons" into crime. Plenty of details about everyday life; but also plenty of questions: Who cared for John Arthur for the sixteen years before he landed in jail? What happened next for Elizabeth Harvison, with the stigma of rape victim added to her list of social differences? Did John Glover get the relief he needed? Did William Cole receive the mercy recommended?

Much of the history of people with cognitive disabilities is written from just such snapshot sources--probate records and wills, criminal proceedings, incapacitation hearings, commitment papers (see cites, below). These sources, valuable as they are, catch many families and individuals at the point of crisis and dysfunction: a major event has occurred to require the attention of the law, whether it's a death, a crime, a bankruptcy, a contract made or broken. We need more context for these stories of extremity, from the documents of everyday life: business ledgers, church minutes, census notations, family letters, grave markers, popular songs and stories. Vernacular sources for disability history might supply the needed background to keep the likes of Elizabeth Harvison and John Glover from being mere tragic anecdotes.

More Cognitive Disability History from Court Records:

Gudrun Hopf, "'Cretins' and 'Idiots' in an Austrian Alpine Valley in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries: Interests, Social Norms, and Institutions involved in the Attribution of 'Imbecility'," Crime, History, and Societies 3(1)(1999): 5-27.

Mark Jackson, "'It Begins with a Goose and Ends with a Goose': Medical, Legal, and Lay Understandings of Imbecility in Ingram v. Wyatt, 1824-1832," Social History of Medicine 11(3)(December 1998): 361-380.

Douglas V. Shaw, "Infanticide in New Jersey: A Nineteenth-Century Case Study," New Jersey History 115 (Spring/Summer 1997): 3-31.

Recommended further reading:

Elizabeth Bredberg, "The History of Disability: Perspectives and Sources," Disability Studies Quarterly 17(Spring 1997): 108-116.

David Wright and Anne Digby, eds. From Idiocy to Mental Deficiency: Historical Perspectives on People with Learning Disabilities (Routledge 1996).

Steven Noll and James W. Trent, eds. Mental Retardation in America: A Historical Reader (New York University Press 2004).

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