Mark Twain on the Insanity Defense


Illuminant by
Robert Wilfred Franson


April 2002


Eccentricities, foibles, and the myriad oddities of human behavior always fascinated Mark Twain. These included high crimes and misdemeanors, the resulting court trials, and the parallel passage of these notorious events through the newspapers and public opinion:

Insanity certainly is on the increase in the world, and crime is dying out. There are no longer any murders — none worth mentioning, at any rate. Formerly, if you killed a man, it was possible that you were insane — but now if you kill a man it is evidence that you are a lunatic. In these days, too, if a person of good family and high social standing steals any thing, they call it kleptomania, and send him to the lunatic asylum. If a person of high standing squanders his fortune in dissipation and closes his career with strychnine or a bullet, "Temporary Aberration" is what was the trouble with him. And finally, as before noted, the list is capped with a new and curious madness in the shape of wholesale adultery.

Mark Twain
"The New Crime"  (1870)

A striking change since Twain's time is the movement down-market of the insanity plea. In recent years any common criminal may plead insanity and find legions of legal and pseudo-medical defenders to help him avoid the heretofore standard penalties for his actions. As is general throughout history, of course, a criminal's high social standing, power, money, or fame, are likely to hamper any prosecution, buttress any defense, and ameliorate any sentence.

Mark Twain was well aware that Constitutional rights and obligations both go out the courtroom window when medical metaphors for human behavior are invited to sit in the witness box. Thus Thomas Szasz quotes Twain approvingly in various contexts, including several times in The Myth of Psychotherapy: Mental Healing as Religion, Rhetoric, and Repression.

The McFarland murder trial evokes a strong reaction from Twain; he knew the victim. McFarland pled temporary insanity and was found not guilty. The sympathetic Twain regrets the acquitted murderer's situation:

It is dreadful to think that maybe the most awful calamity that can befall a man, namely, loss of reason, was precipitated upon this poor prisoner by a jury that could have hanged him instead, and so done him a mercy and his country a service.

"Our Precious Lunatic"  (1870)

In "Getting My Fortune Told" (1869), Twain pretends that even getting hanged isn't so bad if one can be praised and honored as are some condemned criminals. But in his well-known fantasy, "The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut" (1876), he makes it clear that conscience answers for behavior. This is a tale of "possession", and this neat and funny fantasy illustrates that it is we who possess our minds and must answer for our behavior, even when that behavior runs to crime or other allegedly non-sane activities.


© 2002 Robert Wilfred Franson

All newspaper articles and tales referenced
may be found in —

Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays,

by Mark Twain
Library of America, New York, 1992

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