The Construction of the "Mad" Female Criminal in Medical Discourse and Legal Practice at London's Old Bailey, 1863-1913

  • Fiona Aisling MacHugh

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    This thesis looks at the practical application of medical discourse to women found insane at London’s Old Bailey between 1863 and1913. Through in-depth analysis of all cases of women found insane at the Old Bailey, 1863-1913, this PhD thesis analyses the various discourses, medical, legal and cultural which appear to have been applied to these women in order to achieve a successful insanity plea. Using trial transcripts, newspaper reports, and published medical discourse the thesis aims to provide a fuller understanding of women found insane in the period, including the types of offences they committed, their ages and social situations. Using the Old Bailey Online project these cases have also been compared with those of violent female criminals found legally responsible to attempt to identify the common elements in female cases where an insanity plea was successful. The application of published medical discourse to these women’s post-trial treatment in Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum is also considered, through the use of admission registers and patient case files.

    The aim is to shed light on the relationships between medical and lay understandings of madness in the period, how these interacted to produce insanity verdicts, and to examine the impact of published medical theory on lived experience. In particular, this thesis focuses on medical discourse which identified specifically female madness and how this was applied in trials, and the ways in which wider cultural assumptions about women influenced how behaviour was designated as “normal” or “abnormal”. A more in-depth analysis of all female offenders found insane at London’s Old Bailey also attempts to address an imbalance in the historiography on the subject which tends to focus exclusively on mothers who killed their children and were found insane. The thesis aims to contribute to a greater, and more complete, understanding of the female criminal lunatic in the period, not just the representation in medical or legal discourse, but as individuals with real lived experiences.
    Date of Award2022
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorPerry Willson (Supervisor) & Anja Johansen (Supervisor)


    • Insanity defence
    • Infanticide
    • Motherhood
    • Nineteenth century
    • History of crime
    • Broadmoor
    • Old Bailey

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