This paper examines the relationship between suicide and insanity in the eyes of both legal and medical professionals in nineteenth century Britain and Ireland. Both jurisdictions had a similar historical legacy in relation to the treatment of suicide, punishing sane suicides, those found felo de se, by ignominious burial and forfeiture. Legal changes between 1823 and 1882 negated the need for a verdict of temporary insanity as suicide essentially became a crime without legal punishment. Nevertheless, the rise of forensic psychiatry within the legal system meant that definitions of the temporary insanity of suicides became a controversial question for medical professionals. Similarly, the retention of distinctions of sanity and insanity for religious and insurance purposes ensured that there were spiritual and practical ramifications to a verdict of felo de se even if there were no legal consequences. The debate among doctors and legal professionals suggests that the process of “medicalization” of suicide was not, as MacDonald has suggested, driven by these elite professional groups, but rather by public opinion. While legal punishments for attempted suicide remained in force and in use, by the end of the nineteenth century medicine was seen as the main actor in the fight against this “social disease.”


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pp. 732-743
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