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A Drunkard’s Defense: Alcohol, Murder, and Medical Jurisprudence in Nineteenth-Century America – Q&A with Dr. Michele Rotunda

This is such an interesting topic. Could you tell us what led to your interest in this area of study? 

Actually, I didn’t set out at first to write about murder. I was initially focused on the ways in which physicians applied scientific principles and social concerns related to gender, race, and class to a medicalized sense of heavy drinking in 19th century America. But I was also interested in how drinkers themselves, their families, temperance advocates, members of the legal profession, and others both influenced and incorporated emerging medical sensibilities of alcohol use to define the place of alcohol in American society. The potential pool of sources for such a project was astronomical. As I browsed through the medical journals, I found myself drawn to physicians’ descriptions of murder cases. The details themselves were compelling and quite revealing of nineteenth-century American life. More importantly, I discovered, the adversarial system of a well-publicized trial provided a useful medium in which to explore a variety of opinions on the nature and impact of heavy drinking. I mostly focused on murder cases where the graphic and often sensationalized stories were also more widely covered in the press, revealing broader societal attitudes towards alcohol and responsibility.

Could you give us an overview of your recently-published book A Drunkard’s Defense: Alcohol, Murder, and Medical Jurisprudence in Nineteenth-Century America

The book focuses on the competing, and often unresolved, models of responsibility for crimes related to intoxication in nineteenth-century America. In the early part of the century, drunkenness was considered voluntary and thus provided no defense to crime. However, over the next several decades, changes in the fields of medicine, the law, and society created circumstances under which such a defense became, if only sometimes successful, more viable and certainly more prevalent. American courts began to accord an expanded exculpatory value to intoxication due to several factors:

1. The medicalization of alcohol use from delirium tremens to dipsomania to inebriety created categories of mental illness with which to argue for limited or even absent responsibility under the law. 

2.  American law, beginning in 1794, allowed for a greater recognition of the issue of intent in crimes, in particular, creating statutory degrees of violent crimes that were dependent on establishing appropriate mens rea

3.  The cautionary tale of a good man ruined by the effects of alcohol was an important tool used by the early temperance movement as it sought to curb the pernicious effects of drinking in a nation rife with alcohol.

Somewhat ironically, the demonization of alcohol and those who sold it allowed for a narrative that mitigated the actions of the drunkard himself. By the post-bellum period, a backlash, led by medical professionals and buttressed by an influential temperance movement, materialized, leaving the legacy of an unsettled legal standard today.

Your book looks at a number of court cases. Would you be able to perhaps tell us about one that you find particularly interesting/illuminating? 

Trial transcripts were an invaluable resource, but the voices of the victims were too often missing. Most were the wives of drunkards, and testimony sometimes suggested a history of abuse, but it was challenging to learn more about what had transpired in the months and years prior to the murder. Probably the closest I came to hearing the victim’s side of the story was a case in which Orrin Woodford murdered his wife, Diana, in Avon, Connecticut in 1845. The circumstances of the crime were gruesome, like most, with Diana Woodford discovered lying in her bed with an extensive set of injuries that included numerous blows to her face, a fractured skull, and a four and half inch wound cut into her stomach. The medical testimony was fascinating as a series of well-known physicians argued over whether Orrin Woodford’s claim of insanity was real or feigned, and if his actions stemmed from insanity or from the alcohol he had consumed that day. In his testimony, John S. Butler, the superintendent of the Insane Retreat at Hartford was quite dismissive of earlier reports made by the victim that her husband was abusive when drinking, calling her “no very competent judge of insanity.” But the court transcript also contained considerable testimony by several women, friends and neighbors of the victim, who condemned Orrin Woodford as an abusive drunk. In no uncertain terms, they recounted a history of abuse connected to his drinking habit. Hannah Woodruff even challenged her friend’s murderer at the crime scene stating, “you need not try to make me think you are insane, you are no more insane than I am; if you are, cider and rum has made it.” Unfortunately, the women’s condemnation failed to resonate with the court, and Woodford was convicted of manslaughter, and sentenced to only ten years, and fined fifty dollars.

What sort of sources were the main material for your book? (Assuming legal material, what was it like working with those sources?) 

Generally, I took my cue from established medical and legal journals as I chose which cases to write about. Newspapers, especially after midcentury often printed full excerpts of testimony, but the number of cases was sometimes overwhelming. It was not unusual to be searching for information on a particular case in the newspaper only to be distracted by similar tales of murder and drunkenness that emerged in the search or even on the same page. I then turned to official transcripts, when available, or records of appeals. Examining legal documents brought me into an unfamiliar world with its own rules. Dates and geography gave way to precedent, and as a historian, I found myself often at a loss to reconcile the numerous legal references to cases and rulings without any acknowledgement of date, never mind historical context. Yet in these arguments and rules, I often discovered a window into historical evidence that was not revealed elsewhere. Appeals decisions, for example, often focused on the judge’s instructions to the jury. Under the law, the basis of a jury’s decision cannot be challenged by either side. During the trial, defense attorneys have an opportunity to play on the sympathies, or even unsupported conclusions of the jury, to convince them that their client should not be convicted. However, if the defense fails to persuade, if the jury does convict, there is little recourse: the jury cannot be questioned, and their decision cannot be impeached. If, however, the case can be made that the judge erred in the instructions, somehow misleading the jury on a question of law, there is a basis for appeal. I was thus able to more fully examine the intersection of social attitudes about alcohol use and the law through these arguments.

What was the biggest challenge you faced writing this book? 

The biggest challenge was probably making peace with how much I still don’t know. As I noted above, it was challenging to uncover evidence related to the victims themselves, and sometimes, short of an execution, the fate of the murderer in the years after the crime wasn’t known either. Execution provided a seemingly straightforward outcome, but it wasn’t always clear what became of the victim’s families, in particular the many children who were left without both parents. In chapter 6, I recount the case of a man named James Graves who killed an 11-year-old boy, a neighbor, in Newark, NJ in 1881. Graves hadn’t been drinking and was likely insane. He was hanged on the same day as Robert Martin who killed his wife and child after a night of drinking. The two cases were cited by a prominent neurologist, Edward Spitzka, contributing to a broader discussion on insanity, and were covered extensively in the press. I find several references to a journal kept by Graves that was used as evidence in the trial. My fellow historians were convinced such important evidence must still exist, but after scouring the archives and even contacting local law enforcement, there remains no sign of it. I wish I had the diary. I wish I had evidence of a lot of things that I just don’t.

What are you working on now? 

I’m actually working on a short history of Italians in New Jersey. In some ways this is a very different, and more personal, project as it was inspired by some research my son and I conducted on our family history. But the more I get into the project, the more similarities I notice in my approach to the subject matter, highlighting the experiences of “regular” people in order to better understand the history of American society.

Michele Rotunda is Assistant Professor of History at Union County College. A Drunkard’s Defense: Alcohol, Murder, and Medical Jurisprudence in Nineteenth-Century America is available now at UMass Press: