A Brief History of Insanity

Sallie Gardner at a Gallop by Eadweard Muybridge.

Yesterday’s Google doodle was a brilliant celebration of photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s birthday. Muybridge is most well-known for his work in recording animals in motion, specifically the horse’s gallop – which simultaneously solved the question of the manner in which horses gallop and pissed off Governor Leland Stanford. I told my wife about it, as she loves photography and is studying art history – and because it was a really cool feature. Not only had she already seen it, she had already clicked through and perused the accompanying Wikipedia article, informing me of this interesting bit of history:

In 1874, while still living in the San Francisco Bay Area, Muybridge discovered that his young wife Flora had a lover, a Major Harry Larkyns. On 17 October, he sought out Larkyns and said, “Good evening, Major, my name is Muybridge and here’s the answer to the letter you sent my wife.” He shot and killed the major pointblank.

Muybridge was tried for murder. His defense attorney pleaded insanity due to a head injury that Muybridge had sustained following his stagecoach accident. Friends testified that the accident had dramatically changed Muybridge’s personality from genial and pleasant to unstable and erratic.

Ultimately, Muybridge’s insanity plea was dismissed, but the jury found the incident a case of justifiable homicide (which is… interesting). Regardless, we got to thinking – how early did the insanity plea enter our courtrooms? And I don’t mean convenient pleas of temporary insanity (like, say, Congressman Daniel Sickles) – Muybridge (also known as Edward James Muggeridge, Eduardo Santiago Muggeridge, and Helios) exhibited some eccentricities.

There are instances of people of unsound mind committing crimes throughout history, of course, but instances of declaring a defense of insanity took a while to reach the tenuous place we are today. In 1764 a British man named Edward Arnold was tried for shooting at Lord Onslow allegedly after he had been bewitched. He plead insanity, and it was in this case that the judge asked the jury to determine whether Arnold had the mental capacity and reason like that of a wild beast or infant – the apparent measure of insanity at the time. Arnold was found guilty and sentenced to death, a sentence which was commuted to life in prison at the behest of Onslow. In 1840, Edward Oxford tried to kill Queen Victoria and was acquitted by reason of insanity, under the notion that he could not resist the impulse to fire due to lack of mental capacity.

After an attempt to kill the British Prime Minister in 1843, a panel of judges drafted the M’Naghten Rules, which answered hypothetical questions that gave an outline of the insanity plea and its application, including that the suspect be unable to determine the difference between right and wrong or did not understand the nature of the alleged act. Most common law countries used these guidelines until the 1950s, when the American Law Institute issued the Model Penal Code that established that the defendant had to have “substantial capacity” to understand the crime and criminality in order to face trial.

Alvin Ford is escorted by a police officer. Photo from Associated Press.

After John Hinckley tried to kill President Ronald Reagan, the Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984 was passed by Congress. Unlike the assassination attempts in England that led to updates to laws concerning the insane, Congress’ response to Reagan’s close encounter made it much harder to be found not guilty by reason of insanity, placing more stringent rules on evidence and placing the burden of proof on the defense. In 1986, the landmark Supreme Court decision Ford v. Wainwright argued that the insane cannot be executed, however in 2005 the Court upheld a state’s rights to limit expert testimony to the insanity defense (thus not qualifying to determine criminal intent) in Clark v. Arizona. There are whole states that have actually banned the insanity plea, bans which have so far been upheld in most cases.

We’ve come a long way since Dorothy Talbye was hanged after God told her to kill her daughter. But the insanity plea is actually quite rare, and very difficult to use – even when it actually applies. It’s just a small part in the overwhelming societies that marginalizes, institutionalizes, and incarcerates the mentally ill.

Civil Rights in Mad Men and Beyond

The only black character that has been on Mad Men for more than two episodes is Carla, the Draper housekeeper. That might change this season.

If you didn’t see the season premiere of Mad Men this week, you should know one thing: racism and civil rights have intruded upon Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. The show has referenced racism a few times, with Paul and Sheila going to the South to register voters, but it has never been a prominent theme like women’s role in the workplace has. It seems, however, that the fifth season could feature race quite a bit, especially if the office hires a person of color. As Tanner Colby points out, most seasons have included a major historical event (Kennedy’s election, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Kennedy’s assassination), and if this season spans about two years it could include Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

In this first episode of the season, race is treated as a problem that nobody wants to fix.  The opening scene of the premiere features a few executives at Young & Rubicam water bomb a Civil Rights protest going on outside their office,* which gets them in the papers. From there, the partners at SCDP decide to take the opportunity to rub salt on Y&R’s wounds by placing an ad in the paper declaring themselves “an equal-opportunity employer.” The boys at Y&R fire back, sending a resume and an African artifact through the door while a number of black applicants sit in the lobby.

While the premiere spends a lot of time showing how SCDP employees struggle with their home lives (with two new children, two new homes, and a new wife), the issue of race is tossed back and forth between SCDP and Y&R throughout the episode, with each agency trying to stick the other with the Civil Rights problem.

During the time in which Mad Men is set, the Civil Rights movement was often treated in the same way.  Politically, both Democrats and Republicans voted against civil rights reforms in Congress, despite Presidents of both parties putting forth piecemeal plans for reform.  Kennedy denounced the Freedom Riders for provoking violence and criticized SNCC for inciting harassment as well.  It would take James Meredith’s enrollment at the University of Mississippi and Bull Connor’s crackdown in Birmingham to force his hand.

The biggest victories for blacks, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, arguably only came about because Johnson realized that black votes were important. By and large, the rights of America’s blacks were hot potato’d until politicians realized that black votes, not black people, were something to attract and protect.  One of the boys at Y&R shouted for the protesters to get a job, then pranked SCDP into accepting resumes – neither agency actually wanted to address the problem, but in the end one had to. Most politicians during the time didn’t want to deal with the “problem” of civil rights, but were forced to. I’m definitely not an expert on civil rights history, but I think this was a recurring theme until the movement grew enough to demand attention.


* Fun fact: Young & Rubicam was actually the first ad agency to hire a black adman, Roy Eaton, and that was in 1955.

70 Years Since Executive Order 9066

Real democracy is not hereditary. It is a way of living.

— Student government page, 1944 Hunt High School yearbook, Minidoka Relocation Center

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, authorizing the establishment of military zones. Angus Johnston reminded me of this anniversary this afternoon, and I thought I’d jump in on marking one of the more somber occasions in American history first with some overview and then with a look into more local history.

Map of internment camps

Executive Order 9066 authorized military leaders to establish military areas and to exclude civilians from those areas. With these powers, Lt. Gen. John DeWitt began instituting curfews directed at Japanese-Americans in Military Area No. 1 – all of California and parts of Washington, Oregon, and Arizona (Japanese-Americans in Hawaii, interestingly, did not face relocation or internment). Throughout March of that year, DeWitt issued several proclamations that increasingly restricted the rights of Japanese-Americans, culminating in the Civilian Exclusion Order No. 34, which included the mandatory evacuation and detention of Japanese-Americans. Almost simultaneously, Congress passed a law making violation of Executive Order 9066 a misdemeanor.

Over the next few months, approximately 112,000 people involuntarily left their homes and were interned in camps across America. 2/3 of them were American citizens. None of them was ever charged with treason or disloyalty, although over a hundred were sent to prison for challenging the internment itself. Most lost all of their belongings and livelihood, and only those still alive in 1988 received any compensation from the government.

The federal government’s actions were challenged several times: the curfews were challenged (and upheld) in Hirabayashi v. United States and the constitutionality of the order itself was challenged (and also upheld) in the more famous Korematsu v. United States. Neither of these decisions has yet to be overturned. On the same day as the Korematsu decision, the Supreme Court also ruled, in Ex parte Endo, that the government could not continue to detain people that it recognized as loyal, but it also left loyalty to be determined by the government itself.

Military Area No. 1 bisected Phoenix

While the demarcation of Military Zone No. 1 encompassed California, it cut through the other states. In Arizona, and likely Washington and Oregon, the line zig-zagged through many cities. If you’re a native of the Phoenix area, you’ll recognize the roads on the map to the right, which I got from the Arizona Historical Society. The line ran along Grand Avenue, Van Buren, Mill Avenue, and the Southern Pacific Railroad. If you lived southwest of this line, you were forcibly evacuated to relocation centers (usually in Poston or on the Gila River Indian Reservation). The arbitrary line decided whether or not some families had to endure the trying ordeal of relocation and internment.

When the war first began, Japanese-Americans were kicked out of the military due to suspicions of sabotage. The prohibition wasn’t lifted until 1943, and the draft was reinstated in 1944 while many still lived in internment camps. Across the country, many Japanese-Americans protested the contradiction of living in camps due to their disloyalty but being drafted to defend the country. In the Poston Relocation Center 100 men resisted the draft and were prosecuted by the government. A sympathetic judge decided that their punishment should be a 1 cent fine, since living in the camps was punishment enough.

The United States has a history marked with good and bad deeds. The internment of Japanese-Americans is one of the darkest events in modern American history. It’s important to be aware of this history, and to acknowledge just how much damage hatred and racism can do. It’s important to remember that 70 years ago, a hundred thousand civilians were rounded up because of their heritage.

Drug War Turns 40

So, last week was the fortieth anniversary of the infamous War on Drugs. The internet was abuzz with people talking about all sorts of aspects of how much of a failure it’s been. Instead of giving anything anecdotal or analytical, I figured I’d just share one of the most effective infographics I’ve seen on it, via Colorlines:

42 Days

Forty-two days into this year, and it’s shaping up to be a momentous calendar.  I’m scrambling to include the numerous huge changes in my classes as I also roll out history and civics.  I’m going to take a step back and look out my favorite window – the international stage.

On January 9th, people across southern Sudan voted in a referendum for secession.  A month later the results were in – 99% for independence.  We are in the middle of seeing the world’s newest state emerge after a decades-long civil war and continued oppression and violence.  It’s a sign of hope for the countless other victims in the surrounding area (I’m looking at the DRC and CAR specifically, but sadly most of the region in reality).

On January 15th, after just 29 days of student protests, Tunisian dictator Ben Ali surrendered power and flew to Saudi Arabia.  Amidst the protests, solidarity actions took place across North Africa and the Middle East.  Tunisia is supposed to hold elections in the coming months and has an opportunity to take a huge step forwards from there.

On February 11th, Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak gave up power after 18 days of youth-led protests.  This came close on the heels of Tunis and after a week of escalation including a brutal police crackdown, attempted military peacekeeping, mass arrests and beatings of journalists and activists, and even more arrests, beatings, and murders of civilians.  Egypt also has the potential to move forwards here and – as what some have called the “fulcrum” of the region – a chance to move other countries forward too.

This doesn’t even touch on rising protests in the rest of North Africa/Middle East, student actions in Puerto Rico as well as England, and huge elections in Uganda.  I will be busy keeping an eye on all of these.  Needless to say, this day is one of those momentous occasions.  Tunisia’s and Egypt’s transition will be a lodestar for the so-called “Arab World,” especially Egypt.  Southern Sudan’s viability will be a signal for transition with stability across an unstable region.  If I knew any better, I’d say 2011 is going to be a 1968.

Why is July 4th Important?

On our way to the 4th of July party yesterday, a friend-of-a-friend was explaining to our driver why the 4th of July was important.  The driver was trying to figure out why we celebrated a day that we signed a paper on not the day the the Revolutionary War ended.  A few hours later I saw a friend’s facebook status explaining that we didn’t become an independent nation until years later.  So, why is July 4th, 1776 so important?

Yes, the Revolutionary War didn’t end until late 1781 with the Battle of Yorktown.  Correct, the Constitution (the law of the land) was not ratified until 1787.  True, George Washington didn’t take office until 1789.  But on July 4th, 1776 we made a statement that meant more than just “we’re independent.”  Even though it would be a decade before our country had a real government and decades still before this government could stand up on its own, 1776 was the birth of our nation in a totally different sense.

The Declaration of Independence isn’t like any other out there.  Many declarations simply cite that one group of people no longer wish to be under the rule of another and wish to separate and be, well, independent.  But our Declaration didn’t say the people in the thirteen colonies were claiming independence from Britain.

More than that, our declaration states that when any government mistreats its people, that it is the right (and duty) of the governed to fix or change that government.  Only after making this bold statement does the declaration go into why the colonists sought separation from England by listing grievances “to a candid world.”  Maybe it’s the freedom-loving side of me or the historian side, even the human rights side, but I’m pretty sure our declaration brought about a sea change in the relationship between the government and the governed and I think it is great that we can celebrate that – it’s not just the literal independence from a foreign ruler, which didn’t take place for another five years.  It’s the celebration of a new idea for the world.  I’d light a few fireworks for that.