Tag Archives: insanity plea

Alienists Gain Prominence

Print of Assassination Attempt, which appeared in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, July 16, 1881, courtesy Library of Congress

Charles Julius Guiteau shot President James Garfield at the Pennsylvania railroad station in Washington, DC on July 2, 1881. He did not try to escape and was apprehended on the spot; when the president died twelve weeks later, Guiteau went on trial for his murder. The public was fascinated and the trial became something of a media circus, with Guiteau’s behavior as avidly reported as the points made by the attorneys for the prosecution and defense. Continue reading


Tragedy After the War

President William McKinley, courtesy Library of Congress

President William McKinley, courtesy Library of Congress

Theodore Roosevelt’s public life soared after the Spanish-American War, but the president in office during that war suffered tragedy before his term ended.

An anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, shot President McKinley at the Pan American Exposition on September 6, 1901.

McKinley died of his wounds on the 14th, and Roosevelt took office. Continue reading


Psychiatry in 1903

Dr. Amariah Brigham

By 1903, American psychiatrists had held formal meetings for many years, first as a select group of insane asylum superintendents, then as the more inclusive American Medico-Psychological Association. One striking characteristic of psychiatrists at that time was a confidence in their ability to understand the causes of insanity and the best treatments for it.

One very prominent psychiatrist, Dr. Amariah Brigham, testified in court that he could recognize insanity on sight. He had been called as an expert witness in the case of a murderer whom the defense characterized as idiotic and demented. Brigham had not been allowed to speak to the prisoner or examine him in order to make an informed diagnosis, so the prosecution tried to shake Brigham concerning his ability to diagnose insanity by sight.

As “proof” that he could indeed make this kind of diagnosis, Brigham, at the direction of the court, scanned the crowd attending the trial  so that he could pick out  a lunatic. Eventually, he pointed to a man in the audience and pronounced him insane. The man reacted with wild gestures, shouting and cursing  Brigham for calling him insane–which was taken as proof that he was. Brigham followed through with his testimony concerning the defendant, and though the man was found guilty, he was sentenced to prison instead of being executed.

An account of this episode is found in the “Proceedings of the American-Medico Association,” 1903.

State Insane Asylum, Utica, New York (Brigham was its first superintendent)