Harper's Weekly engraving of the Dan Sickles murder trial in Washington, DC, 1859. (Wikimedia | Public domain)

Mental Health and Criminal Justice in Civil War Kentucky

The Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition (CWG-K) is a cutting-edge digital humanities project dedicated to imaging, transcribing, annotating, and publishing documents related to Kentucky’s five Civil War governors and making them accessible/searchable online (free of charge) to researchers and the general public alike. Each week, CWG-K editors highlight interesting finds from the database on the CWG-K blog — and would especially like to thank the editors of Nursing Clio for sharing this week’s dispatch with you.

“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions.”
Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Instances of the “insanity defense” — or, more officially, a plea of “not guilty by reason of temporary insanity or mental defect” — abound in modern America. John Hinckley Jr., the would-be assassin of President Reagan, employed it (albeit unsuccessfully) at trial. So did Ed Gein, the grave robber and real-life inspiration behind the character “Leatherface” in 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Much more recently, James Holmes, whose 2012 rampage killed 12 and injured another 70 at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, entered an insanity plea but was declared sane by several state-appointed physicians. Despite its prevalence, many Americans still peer skeptically at the insanity defense. At best, they see it as an inexact science; at worst, as a loophole for criminals to avoid due discipline. Historically speaking, there also seems to be a general perception that this is a relatively new phenomenon — that in the “old days,” such flimsy excuses never would have influenced jurors.

In reality, pleas of insanity did exist in Civil War Kentucky. They were actually quite ubiquitous and oftentimes successful, maybe even more so than today. (More on this a little later.) The archive of CWG-K contains cases of men who murdered children or gunned down their wives in alleged fits of madness and were exonerated because juries believed them mentally incompetent. One mother, in an overly desperate attempt to prove her son innocent by reason of insanity, even admitted, before a packed court, to having subjected him to electroshock therapy. (If true, this case likely constituted one of the very early attempts at shock therapy in the South, if not the entire nation.) Sometimes, if the defendant wasn’t insane, he or she might point to the insanity of a spouse or dependent child, and request leniency from the court based on “insanity by proxy.” (This appears not to have been a very effective legal strategy.)

One of the most interesting cases — both in terms of circumstance and verdict — was that of Thomas Edrington of Louisville. One evening in December 1862, Thomas and his wife, Mary, arrived at the home of Thomas’s mother. He was acting strangely, his mother recalled, almost as if “intoxicated.” But, she maintained, he wasn’t drunk. More alarmingly, for reasons unexplained, Thomas was walking around with a gun. Both women begged Thomas to give up the firearm. He refused. The situation prompted his mother to run across the street, hoping a male neighbor might at least be able to restrain Thomas. Just as she shut the front door behind her, Thomas’s mother “heard the pistol fire.” At first, she assumed that Thomas’s wife had tried to take the pistol — it must’ve gone off accidentally and, she hoped, harmlessly. Wrong on both counts: as they rushed into the house, Thomas’s mother and the unnamed neighbor found Mary “lying on the floor … with a bullit hole in the center of her forehead.”

Shortly thereafter, a police officer responding to the shot found Thomas “out in the back yard walking back & forth in an unconscious State of mind.” Their exchange was quite casual — bizarrely casually, you might say — in light of what had just occurred.

Thomas: “What is the matter?”
Officer: “You have shot and killed your wife.”
Thomas: “I have? Let me go in and see.”

In his official report to the court, the officer stated that Thomas “seemed in a stupid condition” and “seemed to know nothing about it.” At trial, multiple character witnesses testified that Thomas must have been insane because he and Mary “seemed more devoted to each other than any two people she ever saw; that they seemed perfectly miserable when absent from each other. That he always treated her with the most perfect kindness; and that she could, and did exercise great control over him.” In other words, the defense argued that only a complete mental breakdown could have induced the usually gentle, peaceful Thomas to kill his beloved wife.

To verify this claim that Thomas was insane, the defense called two key witnesses. The first had dined with Thomas and Mary the very day of the shooting. She asserted that “his manner was very kind to her; but that he seemed not to be in his right mind, that his actions were Strange and peculiar, and made the impression upon her that his mind was not right.” The second was a Louisville physician, a Dr. Owens, who apparently had a long history of treating Thomas for mental illnesses.

[Owens] Said that about a year ago he was professionally called to see accused; and after examination found that there was a general wreck, or giving way of the mental faculties. Said that from long habits of dissipation or some other cause, his mind seemed to be rendered imbecile, that about a week before he saw an account of the Killing in the News-papers he was again professionally called to see accused. Upon examination he found that he had Delirium tremens, or Mania Potu. Said that his physical System and his mind was in a worse condition than when first called a year ago. Said that his whole System seemed depressed and deranged, and his mind rendered imbecile, that it was a confirmed case of Delirium Tremens or mania potu. Said that his mind, was so deranged and debilitated as to render him incapable of comprehending the nature or heinousness of the most wreckless acts. That he had, as he learned from his mother Just before he was called, fired off a pistol, which sent its contents through the Sealing of the house. Said that he did not see him after that time, until the accident occurred; but said that his mind could not possibly have changed materially from the time he saw him, up to the time of the Killing. Regarded it as a confirmed and hopeless case of mentall imbecility, that his mental & physical system seemed destroyed, or rendered incapable of commonist action. Incapable of any a rational action.

The testimony of Dr. Owens seemed to underscore that Thomas was in anything but his right mind when he sent a bullet crashing through his wife’s skull. Even so, the jury found him guilty of manslaughter and prescribed a sentence of three years and nine months in state prison. To call the verdict an unexpected twist would be a great understatement — legally speaking, it should have been an impossible twist. Thomas had been indicted and stood trial for murder, not manslaughter. Technically, the jury had no legal authority to find Thomas guilty of a crime for which he was never indicted. But they did. And the judge did nothing to stop them, despite the vehement protests of Thomas’s lawyers.

As Thomas’s attorneys pointed out, if their client had been insane enough to be innocent of murder, how could he not also be insane enough to be innocent of manslaughter? To them, “it was murder or it was nothing.” Furthermore, how exactly had the jury deduced what degree of mental incompetence could or should make a man responsible or not for each specific crime? In spite of these questions, the conviction stood and Thomas took up residence in the state penitentiary.

Two pardon-seeking petitions were sent to Governor James F. Robinson on Thomas Edrington’s behalf. One was even signed by his trial judge, who had apparently decided to weigh in on the legality of the jury’s decision after the trial had ended. Regardless, each request fell on deaf ears. Undeterred, in October 1863, Thomas decided to get in touch with the new governor himself. He wrote to Thomas E. Bramlette to personally announce that a third petition for clemency was in the mail. (For what it’s worth, Thomas was requesting a move from the state penitentiary to the state asylum, not the complete freedom that typically came with a governor’s pardon.) We don’t know yet how Bramlette replied to the petition or, for that matter, if he replied at all. We do know, however, that a year out from his wife’s gruesome death, Thomas still believed in his own insanity. “i was tried at Court that I was subject of incanity,” he proudly declared to the governor, “and have ben pronouced A Real Maniac by a good phisians as there is in ohio or Kentucky.”

So aside from the fact that Thomas considered himself “A Real Maniac” and an opportunity to invoke one of Faulkner’s most over-used quotations (which I so nobly refuse to do), what can modern observers really take away from the saga of Thomas Edrington?

  1. Perhaps we should start with what we cannot take away. Mainly: whether or not he was genuinely insane or whether he was guilty of murder. More than 150 years later, these queries are simply beyond the reach of historians — and, even in 1863, they were clearly matters of varying opinion. (Even the judge couldn’t make up his mind.)
  2. A jury of Thomas’s (white, male) peers put significant stock in his insanity defense, enough so to illegally reduce his charge and probably to spare his life in the process. That said, the jury’s collective understanding clearly had limits; they couldn’t completely overlook the fact that his actions, insane or not, had produced a corpse. And more often than not, in Kentucky circa 1863, the unnatural production of corpses meant someone had to be punished.
  3. Thomas’s seemingly rational understanding of his own mental deficiencies doesn’t appear to have bothered anyone in 1863 — though it might have made the millions of Americans exposed to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) in high school more than a little uncomfortable.
  4. That the option to lock Thomas away in one of the state’s lunatic asylums went unexercised leads me to the conclusion that, in 1863, commitment probably wasn’t considered a “real punishment,” even for defendants like Thomas that juries openly conceded were mentally insane. (We would do well to keep in mind that state asylums in Kentucky, or anywhere, really, weren’t particularly pleasant places to hang one’s hat in the 1860s. Thomas wasn’t petitioning for a stint on “Celebrity Rehab.”)
  5. Remarkably little has changed since the 1860s concerning how many Americans perceive the intersection of mental health and criminal justice. The line between warranted/legitimate treatment of the ill and our natural inclination to punish behavior deemed illegal or unacceptable by society is as blurry now as it was in the 1860s. Why?

The main reason for this, I would offer, isn’t a fear that Thomas Edrington was a case of real-life catch-22; a conman consciously evading justice for the murder of his wife. The actual snag comes when we consider that from the 1860s to the present, the fates of men like Thomas Edrington have been decided as “either/or” scenarios. Insane or criminal. Innocent or guilty. Such a simple binary fits snugly with how we, as a national collective, have tuned our moral compass: we want to help the sick and punish the guilty. To do the opposite would just be un-American. Therein most of us aren’t equipped to confront the pragmatic possibility that Thomas (or Gein or Hinckley or Holmes in his stead) was both insane and in need of removal, maybe even permanently, from the general population owing to violent behavior. This more complicated arrangement forces us to simultaneously punish the sick and help the guilty — a non-compute that ultimately leads back to #5.

Notes

Price and Wood to James F. Robinson, Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives, Frankfort, Kentucky (hereafter KDLA).

Henry C. Van Segger et al. to James F. Robinson, KDLA.

Thomas Edrington to Thomas E. Bramlette, 12 October 1863, KDLA.

Commonwealth of Kentucky v. Richard Smith, 26 November 1864, KDLA.

Charles A. Hardin and John C. Kylie to Thomas E. Bramlette, 8 July 1865, KDLA.

About the Author