“I Did It To Be Hanged”

I found this chilling story on the History of Emotions blog here. I'm only going to reblog major points from the story here–go to the original entry for the full post.

"In 1892 a sixteen-year-old boy named John Wise joined his friends on an excursion to Weymouth. On reaching the chosen destination, a stone’s throw from Portland Prison positioned high on a rocky peak, the boy spun round and pushed Lawrence Salter [one of his friends] off the cliff. At the coroner’s inquest into the boy’s death Wise explained his reason for committing murder. He simply said, ‘I did it to be hanged.’

". . . Much to my surprise I uncovered a number of written confessions by children who were charged with murder in nineteenth-century England . . . From the few written confessions I have found there are a number of reasons children used to explain their crimes; employing the language of insanity, of passion, and of provocation. But perhaps the first explanation provided was no explanation at all, but rather a denial.

"It was widely recognised in nineteenth-century England that children had a natural propensity to lie. Moral and educational literature designed for children promoted the motto that, ‘honesty is the best policy’ (E. Buttery, Advice to Boys, With a Poem Entitled Come to God (London, 1887), p. 2) and numerous works associated with the Child Study Movement of the 1890s recognised lying to be a natural characteristic of childhood. The fact that children lied in their confessions is not surprising, criminals deny their guilt all the time. It is the detail in the lies and the narratives that the children drew upon to validate their excuses that are notable.

"For example, in 1896 fifteen-year-old apprentice Christopher Hindle, charged with murdering the wife of his master, wrote as his confession, ‘I am innocent, that man did it.’ He contrived a story where a strange, ragged man broke into the house to commit the murder, but not before Hindle tried to stop him receiving wounds for his bravery. The boy was careful to use the knife he had killed the lady with to cut his own arm, leaving behind a trail of blood that made him look as innocent as he claimed. So why invent the ragged man? This is a story that appears in numerous confessions by children charged with murder. These children were drawing on the popular image of the ‘murderer’ that existed in the Victorian imagination; murderers were adult, male, ragged, and strangers to the victim.

". . . In addition to the wandering, ragged, male monster, murderers were also assumed to be insane. Their monstrosity did not necessarily make them inhuman, it made them abnormal. As can be seen in the confession by John Wise [the boy who pushed his friend off the cliff], the boy drew heavily on narratives of insanity to understand his crime and to explain his actions to the coroner’s jury. He wrote, ‘I tried to grasp him but it was too late. I was then seized with a fit of laughing and putting my hands on my knees I laughed like an imbecile. Groom came up and said where is Salter and what have you done. A mad feeling came over me I tried to speak to Groom fire danced before my eyes and I fell down.’

"Whether Wise knew it or not he employed notions of imbecility and fiery passion to explain his reasoning for pushing the boy off the cliff, if there was any reasoning involved in the crime at all. The jury were convinced by the confession and Wise was found to be guilty of the murder but insane. He spent the early years of his adult life in Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum."

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