In a violent 19th century, desperate attempts by the alienists - a new wave of ‘mad-doctor’ – brought the insanity plea into Victorian courts. Defining psychological conditions in an attempt at acquittal, they faced ridicule, obstruction – even professional ruin – as they strived for acceptance and struggled for change. It left ‘mad people’ hanged for offences they could not remember, and ‘bad’ people freed on unscrupulous pleas.
Written in accessible language, this book – unlike any before it – retells twenty-five cases, from the renowned to obscure, including an attempt to murder a bemused Queen Victoria; the poisoner Dove and the much-feared magician; the king’s former wet-nurse who slaughtered six children; the worst serial killer in Britain…and more. ~Goodreads Blurb
It is probably a foreboding start to a book when the 1st listed chapter is simply a glossary and a list of the important people involved with insanity pleas in Victorian times. I will admit to having read an uncorrected proof from NetGalley, so I am hopeful that either the editors will have made the grouping of these cases easier to read or some method of categorization has made more sense out of the seemingly random flow of the book. The second chapter is not much better in layout as it is another list of the different “insanities” that people pleaded. It seems that instead of working these bits into a narrative format or a version with footnotes, Author David J. Vaughan has simply placed a series of lists for the readers to push through until they get to part of the book they can relate to, which should be the fifth part of the book, the cases themselves.
As evidence by the sheer amount of procedural shows on the air and with 456 episodes of “Law and Order” alone, people love a good mystery and court drama. The introduction of the insanity plea, is an almost guaranteed way to create a media circus in the modern world. Because it is a mental break instead of a clear visible physical effect, it has always been subject to stricter questioning than simply bad people. The whole point of a title like “Mad or Bad” is to have the audience ask the question, was there something actually wrong with these people or were they simply bad people? I'm not sure that I was able to get a solid answer to this, as the mess that these court cases could be seems to have creeped into the book itself. Though footnotes are used later on in the case files, the constant flipping back and forth between sections to identify people and topics eventually proved more annoying than anything. Hopefully in the future eBook version there will be a way to simply click a link to jump between pages instead of the search option I had to use.
This is obviously well researched and Vaughan has put a great deal of effort into it. Unfortunately for me, I found it to be a difficult read and not to my taste. There are a number of other authors who have tackled this subject and have made it more accessible to their readers. If the editors and publishers are able to iron out the wrinkles in this book, it has great promise, but right now I wouldn’t recommend it.
*This eBook was provided by NetGalley and Pen & Sword Books for honest feedback*
Freelance Editor & Reviewer