Subject: Sanity — McNaughton Rule
Event: Murder of Edward Drummond by Daniel McNaughton, 1843
On January 20, 1843, a woodturner named Daniel McNaughton approached another man from behind walking on the sidewalk near Charing Cross in London. McNaughton then took a pistol from his coat pocket and shot the man in the back at point-blank range. A nearby policeman heard the shot and immediately tackled McNaughton, wrestled his gun from him, and placed him under arrest. The man who was shot was Edward Drummond, the private secretary to English Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel. Five days later this case became a murder case when Drummond died of his gunshot wound.
When questioned, McNaughton admitted that his murder of Drummond was a case of mistaken identity: his actual target was the prime minister, who resembled Drummond. The motive for the crime was paranoid delusion: McNaughton claimed that he was being followed and harrassed by government spies.
At his trial McNaughton was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and he was committed to a criminal lunatic asylum. The general public’s reaction to the verdict was outrage, which resulted in the House of Lords meeting to establish a more clear definition of “insanity” for the courts. The result of this meeting was the McNaughton Rules, which for the first time gave courts clear guidelines for dealing with the insane in legal proceedings.
The McNaughton Rules established that jury members should be instructed to presume that any accused person is sane. Only when evidence is presented to the contrary should the jury consider grounds for insanity. If this evidence is presented, it must clearly prove that the mind of the accused was diseased to the degree that he or she did not know that the crime was wrong.
In Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet, The Prince of Denmark, the murder of Polonius echoes the McNaughton case. Soon after arriving in his mother’s bedroom, Hamlet sees a rustling behind a curtain. Thinking it is his Uncle Claudius, the king who killed his father, Hamlet begins stabbing wildly at the curtain. He soon discovers that instead of killing his Uncle Claudius, he has murdered Polonius, Claudius’ trusted counselor and co-conspirator.
Is Hamlet’s murder of Polonius the act of a madman? Testifying to what she eye-witnessed, Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, seems to argue for a verdict of insanity under the McNaughton Rules:
Mad as the sea and wind, when both contend
Which is the mightier: in his lawless fit,
Behind the arras hearing something stir,
Whips out his rapier, cries, ‘A rat, a rat!’
And, in this brainish apprehension, kills
The unseen good old man.
You might think a mother would be a reliable authority on her son’s mental state. Generations of Shakespeare fans, however, have seen it differently, concluding that Hamlet just might be the only sane person in the entire play.
Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason: What is the McNaughton rule, and how would might it impact your decision if you were a part of a jury for a murder trial?
Challenge: Aristotle said, “No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness.” Do a search on quotations that deal with the fine line between genius and madness. Select the one you like the best, and explain why you like it.
Goldberg, Philip. The Babinski Reflex. Tarcher, 1990.