James Hadfield, the Criminal Lunatics
Act, and the Legal Definition of Lunacy

In 1800, James Hadfield attempted to kill George III. He did this under the delusion that the murder of the king would begin the second coming of the Messiah (Rabin 1). Hadfield’s delusions began in 1794 when he was wounded on the head during a sword fight, after which he became mentally unstable and “fell under the influence of a Pentecostal preacher and became convinced that the end of the world was coming” (Jay 62). After his attempted murder of George III, Hadfield was charged with high treason and defended by one of the best defense lawyers at the time, Thomas Erskine. Erskine did not deny anything that Hadfield had supposedly done. However, he did question whether the allegations truly added up to high treason given Hadfield’s unstable mental state. Erskine claimed that Hadfield truly thought he was acting to benefit all of mankind, which meant his actions were not criminal but moral, intended to make the world better (Rabin 142-143).

Erskine even went as far as to bring in a physician to verify Hadfield’s mental state. The physician confirmed Erskine’s claims that Hadfield was not mentally stable, which further demonstrated Hadfield’s innocence. The Lord Chief Justice was persuaded by Erskine that Hadfield could not be found fully responsible for his crimes, and he halted the trial immediately, saying that Hadfield should be acquitted (Rabin 143). However, this was the first case of its type, which meant there were no previous rules regarding acquittal based on mental illness. As a result, Hadfield walked freely from the court that day, sparking public outrage. Parliament immediately responded, creating the Criminal Lunatics Act. The Act placed these new persons, not guilty of their crimes but imprisoned for the safety of the public, in the care of state madhouses (Rabin 143).

The legal definition of madness was relative to the crimes committed. If it was apparent someone was incapable of making reasonable decision at the time they committed a crime, then they could not be found fully guilty because they were said to be mad, which meant they were not sentenced the same way. A quote from William Blackstone precisely encompasses the popular opinion in the mid- to late-18th century: “As a vicious will without a vicious act is no civil crime, so, on the other hand an unwarrantable act without a vicious will is no crime at all” (Rabin 24). This is backed by the idea that mental illness warps the mind in such a way that someone’s will is not truly their own. The popular opinion at the time was that the mentally ill were incapable of rational decision making. “The question of intent defined insanity as exculpatory” (Rabin 24).

This image above, “The King’s Life Attempted” (EIT Mental Health),  shows the scene of James Hadfield attempting to take the life of George III. This case is famous for its relevance to the laws surrounding mental illness and criminals who were mentally disabled.

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Pietikainen, Petteri. Madness: A History. Routledge, 2015.

Jay, Mike, and Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz. This Way Madness Lies: The Asylum and Beyond. Thames & Hudson, 2016.

Rabin, Dana. Identity, Crime and Legal Responsibility in Eighteenth-Century England. Palgrave

Macmillan, 2014. https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1057%2F9780230505094.pdf. Accessed 10 April. 2018.