Framing Insanity

Mary Lincoln's Insanity CaseWe have a selection of new titles that examine the different ways the U.S. legal system has defined insanity, especially in relation to gender. All of these books look at and try to answer the questions: Who defines the narratives? Who benefits when a person or class of people is defined as insane or aberrant?

Perhaps the most high-profile trial was Mary Lincoln’s Insanity Case. The author, Jason Emerson, is a participant in The Insanity Retrial of Mary Lincoln, a project “to educate and inform the public about Mary Lincoln’s insanity episode and modern-day mental health issues.” Many of the events are sold out but the online coverage is robust.

Elizabeth Packard: A Noble Fight, examines how an Illinois woman went from wife and asylum-committed heretic to author and lobbyist for the civil rights of married women and the mentally ill.

The Crimes of WomanhoodIn The Crimes of Womanhood: Defining Femininity in a Court of Law, A. Cheree Carlson writes about the trials of Mary Lincoln, Elizabeth Packard, as well as Lizzie Borden and other less-well-known cases where women were tried for crimes ranging from committing abortions and passing as white to killing a married boyfriend.

Michael A. Rembis takes us nearly to the present day in Defining Deviance: Sex, Science, and Delinquent Girls, 1890-1960. Unlike the previous books, Defining Deviance focuses mostly on women and girls whose behavior and names did not make the headlines. Instead of following more well-known and oftentimes more powerful women into courtrooms and jails, interpretations by those in power of the girls as undesirable “defectives” landed them in the State Training School in Geneva, Illinois, where their threatening behavior could be corrected.