Feigning insanity in late-Victorian Britain

Shepherd, Jade (2017) Feigning insanity in late-Victorian Britain. Prison Service Journal, 232 . pp. 17-23. ISSN 0300-3558

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Feigned insanity has been ‘impressed upon the popular imagination from the earliest of times’, from the days of Ulysses and of King David. William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Edgar, the latter from King Lear, feigned insanity so perfectly we ‘forget they are feigned’. Prior to the mid nineteenth century, discussions of feigned insanity tended to take place within broader discussions of malingering to avoid military service. As the nineteenth century progressed, alienists, or psychiatrists as they are now known, felt it increasingly necessary to study the features of feigned insanity, and particularly convicts who feigned madness, with the aim of gaining admission into an asylum, in order to escape punishment. Despite a wealth of scholarship on the history of psychiatry, prisons and criminals, historians have paid surprisingly little attention to how feigned insanity was understood and detected by British alienists, prison medical officers (PMOs) and asylum superintendents, or why convicts feigned insanity. Utilizing the published works of alienists, PMOs and asylum superintendents, alongside the case files of convicts transferred from prison to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum in the late-Victorian period, this paper does two things. First, it examines how Victorian medical men conceptualised feigned insanity, and shows how discussions of feigned madness related to broader concerns regarding the recidivist (also known as the habitual criminal or repeat offender). Second, it examines why convicts feigned madness, and the extent to which this corresponded to broader medical understandings of malingering. It is suggested that convicts feigned insanity to resist the prison system, and to obtain respite from the harsh prison environment by being transferred to an asylum. Their attempts to do this demonstrate one way by which convicts could exercise agency within the regulatory Victorian prison system.

Keywords:Broadmoor, Feigned Insanity, History of Psychiatry, History of Prisons, History of Asylums, History of Crime, Malingering
Subjects:V Historical and Philosophical studies > V140 Modern History
V Historical and Philosophical studies > V144 Modern History 1800-1899
V Historical and Philosophical studies > V210 British History
Divisions:College of Arts > School of History & Heritage > School of History & Heritage (History)
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ID Code:24962
Deposited On:26 Feb 2017 20:33

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