December 16, 2008

The madness of Alice Hall

On 17th January, 1709, Alice Hall of the parish of St Giles without Cripplegate was brought to the Old Bailey, she was charged with murder. The account in the trial document makes clear what happened better than any account your humble blogger could supply,

Alice Hall , of St. Giles's without Cripplegate, was Indicted for the Murder of Diana Hartley and Martha Shetton, by Poysoning of them with Rats Bane in Broth, on the 2d Instant. She was a 2d time Indicted upon the Coroners Inquest, for the Murder of the Persons aforesaid. It appear'd that on Sunday the 2d Instant the Prisoner came to a Parish Nurses, and sat down by the Fire; That she was observ'd to take something out of her Pocket, and convey it into a Ladle half fill'd with Broth, stirring it about with her Finger, and put it into the Porridge-Pot then upon the Fire. The Family not knowing what was done, eat of the Broth to the Number of 15, which in an hour or two were taken with Vomiting; it wrought to that degree upon the 2 deceas'd Persons, that they died the Day following. It appear'd that the Prisoner had been with several Apothecaries on the first Instant to buy Rats Bane, and could not get any; that at last she succeeded, but would not discover where she had it. She confess'd that her intent of getting it was to Poyson her self, but was prevented by the Woman, who she thought see her put it into the Ladle; and it did not appear that she had any Design upon the Persons that took it. It appear'd thro' the whole Series of the Evidence, that the Prisoner had been for a considerable time Distracted, and fancied she was Damn'd, that she was a Spirit, and not a Woman; and sometimes was so very Outragious that she was chain'd in her Bed, &c. It likewise appearing that she was under great disorder of Mind when she committed the Fact, the Jury acquitted her and brought her in a lunatick

The case seems particularly sad as soon as you read it. Hall was attempting to commit suicide- to 'Poyson herself' and her failure to do so led to illness amongst 15 other people who ate the poison and death for Diana Hartley and Martha Shetton. The evidence in the indictment and description of the trial seems clear and the jury seem to have accepted Alice's madness as a plausible reason for her to have committed the murder: based on the account above I see no reason why we should disagree.

What I think is more interesting to reflect on though is the form her madness took: according to the trial transcript she beleived that 'she was damned, that she was a spirit and not a woman' and that that belief led to her being so 'outrageous' she was chained to her bed. Alice's madness caused physical action- we should note the response in the 18th Century to such convulsions was purely punitive- to chain the lunatic to their bed would not have struck contemporaries as at all strange or problematic. What in a way is more interesting even than that is the type of madness that Alice had- obviously she felt a delusion about spirits and devils being present not merely in the world, but directly to her. But in her time, indeed even today, that perception is not so strange- plenty of religious people share the feeling that they have seen something- and its not much of a step from Henry Lawrence's view that Christ was the hope of glory within a man to the conception that one is not merely a woman but a spirit. What made Alice mad was in part the content of her beliefs not their nature, and moreover her behaviour. What might have been religious heterodoxy became insanity because of Alice's behaviour- 'distracted', 'outrageous' and a murderer.

What made Alice mad was her inability to live in that society, yet Alice's insanity lies on a precarious borderline, between a belief and a delusion. That borderline is a fascinating place: there would be societies in which Alice's madness would have been perceived as a qualification to be a sage or a shaman, rather than a route to Bedlam. There is an interesting moving line between what human beings consider insane and what we consider sane: that perception has shifted throughout history. Alice's behaviour lay on the insane line of that boundary- and who are we to contradict the jury- but what is interesting is that like so much insane behaviour it is a recognisable varient of some forms of sane behaviour. Her behaviour is an outlier on the spectrum of religious mysticism that is so recognised in the century before her trial: it is not unusual nor that different from the norm, but it was for her fellow citizens insane enough to justify regarding her innocent (in some sense) of murder.

There is such a thing as insanity- its content varies over time- but wherever we find it, I suspect Alice's case helps us comprehend, what we will find will be recognisably human.


Crushed said...

I have only once had the opportunity to actually get to grips with the mind of someone who was, it turned out, going through a psychotic episode. I have to say, I didn't at the time pick up on the signs. Well, i realised he was goping through mental stress, I didn't pick up on what he actually believed.
Problem was, much of what he said seemed perfectly sane, if extreme, as long as you accepted a premise that most people would regard as unlikely- that Satan was out to get him in particular.

It actually centred on a transe-sexual person who I think he had started to see as a a man sees a woman, but the strength of his religious beliefs (most esp that transgender people are inherently wrong because God doesn't put people in the wrong bodies, yadda yadda yadda) led him to conclude the transgender person was possessed.
After he was taken away, I found he'd left open two Bibles. It was clearly a message. One was Paul's epistle to the Romans, one was Leviticus, I think. Both were passages alluding to homosexuality. It was clear what had been running through his mind and I found it rather disturbing. Because I had conversed with him on several occasions, though not quite picked up what he was thinking, since he seemed quite lucid and logical. As long, of course, if you accepted his basic premise that Satan was out to get him and turn him gay by siezing possession of people to turn them trans-gender.

Georg said...

Hallo Gracchi,

You have certainly a special gift of analysis. And it works splendidly. even when applied to a mildly lunatic woman who made it big nevertheless.

There is a small step from madness to sanctity, look at Joan of Arc with her voices telling her what to do.


Anonymous said...

The voices tell me you are wrong... wrong I say!! MwooOOoHHhahahahHHhahhahha!!

Gracchi said...

Mutley your voices are lying.

Crushed- what a terrible story- I hope that he makes a full recovery.

Georg- thanks for the compliment- the Joan of Arc analogy is perfect and one that I had not thought of. In a sense what Alice's mania told her (commit suicide) was more sensible given her position than what Joan's sane perception fo the demons told her (as a peasant girl go and lead the armies of France to beat the English). It makes the point nicely.