This book reinterprets the history of madness by examining the powerful influence of civil law on understandings of and responses to madness in England and in the North American territory of New Jersey. The influence of civil law on the history of madness has not hitherto been a topic of major academic investigation. Lunacy investigation law (that body of laws encompassing trials in lunacy, chancery court proceedings, proceedings in guardianship and trials of traverse) had its origins in fourteenth-century England. By the eighteenth century, English architects of the civil law had developed a sophisticated legal response to those among the propertied classes who suffered from madness. Lunacy investigation law was also transported successfully along imperial pathways and built into the legal frameworks of several colonies, including New Jersey. In New Jersey a rare and extensive collection of lunacy trials are explored to uncover how customary understandings of and responses to madness were tightly connected to the structures of civil law. The richness of these legal documents allows for an assessment of how civil law, customary responses and institutional alternatives to caring for the mad were balanced in this North American setting before and during the asylum era. Through its analysis of historical precedent, the book also offers insights into on-going contemporary concerns about mental capacity and guardianship.
This chapter explains how the book fits into the key debates in the historiography of madness studies. It also explains how the book serves as a useful case study in transatlantic imperialism. The chapter considers the extensive published work by historians on the asylum and the family, exploring its contributions, its analytical strengths and weaknesses and also how more recent research on the asylum has led to a reconsideration of the history of madness in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The chapter then explores a more recent body of work that challenges the centrality of the asylum in studies of madness, emphasising family and community care, the enduring practices of boarding out, home care and myriad local responses prior to and during the growth of asylum provision. Finally, the chapter argues that a transatlantic and legal perspective on the history of madness offers a major contribution to the field of madness studies and the historiographical debates that the field has engendered.
This chapter traces the history of lunacy investigation law from 1320 to 1890 in England. This body of law included trials in lunacy, chancery court proceedings, proceedings in guardianship and trials of traverse. Verdicts of non compos mentis in these trials meant that individuals were mentally incapable of managing their person or property. Included in this legal approach to madness was the appointment of a guardian who would oversee the care and management, as well as the material wellbeing, of those deemed to be non compos mentis. The law also provided for the restoration of control over property and person in cases where individuals could successfully convince the courts that they had regained their ability to control property rationally – trials of traverse. This chapter argues that the development of lunacy investigation law for the preservation of property in the face of irrational behaviour was central to the definition of and response to madness for centuries in England. It was a socio-legal context for understanding and responding to madness that would eventually be situated in parallel with laws that signalled a growing emphasis on institutional confinement and inspection in England and, later, in parts of North America.
The conclusion reiterates the main themes of the book, emphasising what is significant about the book in terms of both historiography and methodology. This study helps us to ‘get out’ of the asylum in our investigation of the history of madness – not because the asylum was unimportant but, rather, because the asylum’s long shadow becomes shorter, and more geographically specific, when one is able to uncover pre-asylum understandings of and responses to madness that continued to thrive long after the asylum’s introduction. This study also helps to establish the importance of civil law in the response to madness over a considerable period of time in a transatlantic context. The conclusion also draws attention to the continuing relevance of the relationship between civil law and the consideration of mental capacity and guardianship as evidenced by the United Nations’ recent declarations about the rights of people of unsound mind.
Lunacy investigation law and the asylum reconsidered
James E. Moran
This chapter probes the relationship between the well-entrenched legal process of lunacy investigation law – along with the customs of community care and understanding that revolved around it – and the lunatic asylum as it emerged as a purpose-built institutional response in New Jersey. This analysis reveals a range of reactions to the asylum from family and community – from outright rejection, to ambivalence, to some sense that treatment there had a positive effect. On the one hand, it is clear from these examples that the asylum was but one of many alternatives in nineteenth-century communities in New Jersey. However, it is also clear that, over the course of the century, especially after the opening of the New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum in 1848, the asylum was an increasingly popular option for those considered to be mad in New Jersey. This ‘warming up’ to the asylum was partly the result of asylum psychiatrists promoting their institutional response as a better bet for the insane and their families. By the mid-1800s, a new hybrid process of lunacy law also facilitated the admission of increasing numbers of patients to the asylum.
Through an exploration of the contents of specific cases, this chapter assesses how claimants, defendants and lawyers in lunacy trials, and Lord Chancellors, occasionally challenged the definitions of insanity embodied in lunacy investigation law. The highlighted cases deal with individuals who, during the course of the trial, were considered to be on the borderlands of madness – that is, they were considered mentally ‘weak’ and/or ‘incapable’, but not necessarily non compos mentis enough to fit neatly into the laws related to commissions of lunacy. The chapter shows how legal struggles around these more ambiguous cases further shaped the definition of madness both inside and outside the courts. The decisions of judicial authority, along with other peculiarities of the chancery court, allowed Lord Chancellors greater latitude for settling cases in lunacy that were at the boundaries of madness. The chapter also emphasises that the commission of lunacy could be a very imprecise instrument that did not always accord with the expectations of judicial authority.
This chapter evaluates how families used lunacy investigation law as a strategic response to the unsettling circumstances created by the mad behaviour of their relatives. This included the management of the mad and their property, the safeguarding of inheritance and the regulation of marriage. However, the interventions of legal authorities in these trials, along with the competing interests of family members, did not always make the resort to lunacy investigation law as satisfying an option as families often hoped. For their part, the Lord Chancellors considered themselves as the arbiters of this social and economic cohesion, the law of lunacy investigation being an imperfect legal instrument through which they attempted to impose their broad outlook. But these principles were at times inconsistent with the wishes of family members, who often had more specific pecuniary interests in mind. The chapter also shows how lunacy investigation trials highlight the relationships of gender and class in England. Although the law structured family fortunes in gender-specific ways, trials in lunacy highlight how madness could both affirm and complicate conventional relationships between men and women.
This chapter evaluates the ways in which lunacy investigation law powerfully shaped the management and care of the mad in England. The focus is on the period 1700–1820. During this period, lunacy investigation law stood out as the most important among many formal responses to madness in two respects. First, the law of lunacy investigation viewed the wellbeing of the person and property of the lunatic as a priority. This point was reiterated and acted upon constantly by Lord Chancellors in lunacy trials throughout the period under study. Second, the possibility of recovery of those found to be non compos mentis was built into the structure of lunacy investigation law. In their verdicts and recommendations about guardianship arrangements and about the financial arrangements for maintenance, Lord Chancellors thus paid considerable attention to the manner of caring for the insane. Their long deliberations about the nature of madness and its proper form of management further contributed to this influence. The development of this outlook from the experiences of the chancery court was also shaped in part by the families of the insane who initiated court proceedings in the first place, often as part of a struggle over property.
This chapter begins with a broader consideration of how lunacy law fitted into more general assessments of the role of law in the exercise of imperial power. Eighteenth-century legal experts made connections between the states of non compos mentis among Europeans and the ‘natural’ states of unreason found among many groups of people ‘discovered’ in the ‘new’ world through exploration. These experts concluded that indigenous people without any concept of property or property ownership (as defined by English legal tradition) were in need of guardianship just like white colonists who had lost their reason. More practically, this body of civil law was placed into the hands of colonial rulers by English authorities as a mechanism for dealing with propertied colonists who were considered mentally incapable of managing their property. In colonial New Jersey, the law of lunacy investigation was a very successful legal transplant, taking root in ways that could not have been anticipated by those who had shaped the law in England. In New Jersey, the law applied to a much broader socio-economic group and served as a formidable regulatory, managerial and caring mechanism for madness.
The survival of a continuous run of documents relating to lunacy investigation law in New Jersey allows for a closer analysis of the dynamics of family members seeking redress by lunacy trial, as well as a more in-depth consideration of how concepts of madness and mental health were affected by the development of lunacy investigation law. In New Jersey, the legal process itself had direct effects on conceptualisations of madness. Moreover, a host of popular understandings of madness can be gleaned from the testimonials of the lunacy trials. These popular views about madness were partially shaped by the encounter with lunacy investigation law, but were also clearly part of much older traditional beliefs and practices. In New Jersey, the legal records demonstrate the primacy of this law in negotiating responses to madness well into the nineteenth century. The accounts of relatives and neighbours of the insane offer the historian a rare window onto practices around madness that did not necessarily form part of formal medical or institutional responses. These records also show how informal traditions of understanding and caring for the mad intersected with both legal and, later, institutional responses to madness.