1/08/2014 Peter Durantine

NEH Grant Recipient Continues His Scholarship on Insanity Plea

  • Joel Eigen, Franklin & Marshall's Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology, heads to Australia this summer as part of his one-year National Endowment of the Humanities fellowship to teach and complete 30 years of research on crime and mental illness. (Photo by Melissa Hess)

A scholar's research journey can lead to something more promising than what he first sought to discover. And so it was for Joel Eigen, Franklin & Marshall's Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology, who has received a one-year fellowship from the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH) to complete his decades-long research on crime and mental illness.

A highly competitive grant, NEH fellowships support scholars pursuing advanced research that the nonprofit determines is of value to other scholars, general audiences, or both. In June, Eigen, who is also don of Ware College House, will begin his fellowship in Australia, one of the places where his 30 years of research on the dynamics of the insanity plea led him. He will be there for three months, writing and doing some lecturing in a course titled “Body, Mind, and Medicine: a Dissection.”

"What started this off was the Hinckley trial," said Eigen, referring to John Hinckley Jr., who in 1981 was found not guilty by reason of insanity for the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan. Hinckley said he did it to impress actress Jodi Foster. He has been under psychiatric care since.

The jury's verdict sparked public outcry and led to a stiffening of the federal law defining the scope of insanity pleas. The debate over motive vs. intention intrigued Eigen so much that in 1982 he began his long investigative study into the history of insanity pleas in Great Britain. 

  • Franklin & Marshall Sociology Professor Joel Eigen's first book based on his research was published by Yale University Press in 1995. In 1997 it garnered Eigen the Manfred Guttmacher Award for "distinguished contributions to the field of forensic psychiatry."

At the time, he was traveling to England to research psychiatry in Victorian Britain, but soon found himself delving into 18th-century trial transcripts in Guildhall Library in London. He furthered his research by attending sessions in the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales, known as the Old Bailey.

"I would go and sit in the gallery at the Old Bailey to soak up the atmosphere," Eigen said. "I would sometimes read through the historical testimony while a contemporary trial was going on, just to try to channel some of the witnesses, to get a sense of the era's voices."

Eigen pored over tens of thousands of trial transcripts from the 18th 19th and early 20th centuries to find cases in which defendants alleged that they had committed the crime because they were insane. The result was a research trove of 1,000 trials on which he bases his work.

"There are only about four to eight insanity trials per one thousand," Eigen said.

The trial transcripts, he said, describe crimes horrific and sad: The mother who cut off her daughter's hand because she thought the hand was a loaf of bread. The man who said 20 spirits living inside his head told him to commit murder.

"By reading these and examining them over time you begin to see patterns," Eigen said. He found that even witnesses who are experts in psychiatry could at best only make inferences as to the cause of a defendant's mental illness or insanity.

"After a while you can see how a trial is going to go," he said. "Insanity becomes a convenient way to decide on something that is so horrible that there is no other explanation as to why a defendant committed the crime."

  • F&M Sociology Professor Joel Eigen's book "Unconscious Crime, Mental Absence and Criminal Responsibility in Victorian London," published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2003, was named that year’s Director's Circle Book by Hopkins.

When he returns from his three-month stint in Australia next fall, Eigen will spend the 2014-15 academic year finishing the third in his three-book series on mental illness, crime, and the legal and health professions. The project is tentatively titled "Medical Testimony and the Dynamics of Forensic Diagnosis in the English Legal System, 1760-1913."

His first two books on the subject have been acclaimed. "Witnessing Insanity: Madness and Mad-doctors in the English Court," published by Yale University Press in 1995, was recipient of the Manfred Guttmacher Award for "distinguished contributions to the field of forensic psychiatry" in 1997. The award is co-sponsored by the American Academy of Law and Psychiatry and the American Psychiatric Association. And "Unconscious Crime, Mental Absence and Criminal Responsibility in Victorian London," published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2003, was named that year’s "Director's Circle Book" by Hopkins.

Recipients of NEH grants typically produce articles, monographs, books, digital materials, field reports or other scholarly resources in the humanities.

"This grant, which given the intense competition is extraordinarily difficult to win, is well-deserved national recognition of Joel's work as a scholar," said F&M Interim Provost and Dean of Faculty Joseph Karlesky. "We are all of us at Franklin and Marshall fortunate to have him as a colleague and teacher."

Eigen thanked F&M's Office of College Grants for their guidance to which he said he and his faculty colleagues have "benefited enormously."

"I've been really blessed," Eigen said. "I still enjoy researching a subject as much as I did when I first started 30 years ago."

F&M's other current NEH recipients include Bennett Helm, the Elijah E. Kresge Professor of Philosophy whose research is titled "Defining Moral Communities: Respect, Dignity, and the Reactive Attitudes," and Ann Steiner, the Shirley Watkins Steinman Professor of Classics, who is in Athens studying Grecian pottery.

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