Last I wrote about the attempted murder of Victorian Prime Minister Robert Peel that led to the concept that people suffering from extreme mental illness, may not be responsible for their acts.
This was a time of great reform in man areas of life and in 1861, a legal milestone, the Offences Against The Person Act, came into force. It meant murder was in effect the only crime (other than treason) punishable by death under English law. Until that time you could be executed for any number of crimes and indeed in the preceding centuries, the crimes that you could be executed for were almost limitless.
The new law meant that the handful of people accused of murder now had a particular interest in claiming insanity. It could be a matter of life and death for those who were on trial.
From then on, there seemed to be a perverse contradiction at play: the more brutal the killing, the more inclined a jury might be to accept that someone was out of their right mind when they did it.
Could this be exploited by those who were simply bad, not mad, in order to escape the gallows?
In August 1867, six years after the new Act came into force, local labourer Thomas Gates stumbled upon the severed head of a young girl as he ambled home through hop fields near Alton, Hampshire.
It was that of eight-year-old Fanny Adams, who had failed to return to her family cottage nearby after playing in the fields with her friends.
The account given by Fanny’s friends was every parent’s nightmare. As the girls were playing, they had been approached by Frederick Baker, a clerk at a local solicitor’s firm, who had offered Fanny a halfpenny to accompany him into a field and sent her friends away with money to buy sweets.
Baker strenuously denied any involvement, but his colleagues confirmed that he had been absent from work that afternoon, and that his clothing was found to be heavily bloodstained.
On searching his desk, police found Baker’s diary, in which he had recorded an entry for the day that was chilling in its banality.
It read: ‘Killed a young girl. It was fine and hot.’
A conscientious church-goer and teetotaller, Baker was short and slight, with a pale and unprepossessing countenance. If the Victorians had their image of a madman, then Baker did not match it.
Madmen did not hold down respectable jobs and go to church.
Nevertheless, Baker pleaded insanity, spinning a tale of a family history of mental disorders, including a maternal uncle confined in the county asylum.
The doctors called to give evidence at the trial testified he suffered from ‘homicidal mania’, which was then a diagnosable mental condition.
The jury was not persuaded. Baker was indeed very bad, but under English law he was not mad.
He was executed in Winchester, with a crowd of several thousand gathering to watch.
Fanny’s terrible death left one unexpected legacy.
In a display of tasteless humour, the British Navy appropriated the term ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’ to describe substandard meat rations, comparing them unfavourably with poor Fanny’s dismembered remains.
The term eventually was applied to anything deemed worthless or pointless, and often abbreviated as ‘Sweet FA’ though the meaning of the letters have long since had a ruder meaning.