Final Public Oral Exam: Catherine Evans

Final Public Oral Examination
Event date: 
December 14, 2015 - 1:00pm to 3:00pm
Seminar Series: 
Final Public Oral Exam
Princeton University
History Department

Persons Dwelling in the Borderland: Responsibility and Criminal Law in the Late-Nineteenth-Century British Empire

Catherine Evans
Princeton University

Dissertation Abstract:

This dissertation explores the problem of assessing criminal responsibility and guilt in Britain, Canada, Australia, and India in the late nineteenth century. Criminal cases where the accused’s mental state seemed to cut against his moral blameworthiness caused authorities to question the integrity of English jurisprudence. Doctors, lawyers, and administrators around the British empire worked to apply British rules and principles to communities with their own legal systems, cosmologies, and understandings of guilt. At the same time, experts and officials wrestled with medical, social and anthropological theories that suggested that criminality might be inborn and compulsive. The dissertation argues for the importance of responsibility, and criminal law more broadly, as a site for the elaboration of British concepts of personhood and just governance. As imperial power soared, confidence in the coherence of responsibility sank.

Case narratives are at the heart of this dissertation. Chapter One describes criminal responsibility as a medical, legal and administrative problem, and explores how British authorities relied on executive pardoning to manage the criminally insane. Chapter Two follows an Indian civil servant who shot a man in Madras in a fit of mania and then spent the rest of his life fruitlessly demanding a trial. Chapter Three examines non-delusional ‘moral’ insanity, the rise of criminal anthropology and the role of British imperial courts in challenging traditional understandings of insanity. Chapter Four centres on a serial murderer whose case terrified Melbourne in 1892, and his lawyer’s campaign to change the legal definition of insanity. Chapter Five considers the ‘cultural defence’ and the way that culture and insanity bled into each otherwhen imperial officials considered the guilt of indigenous defendants. Chapter Six focuses on the trial of three men who ritually executed an old woman during the 1885 North-West Rebellion in colonial Canada. Together, these cases from around the empire inspired debates about guilt and innocence, legal universalism, metaphysics and the mind. And yet, the practice of British imperial law was as much about paperwork and punishment as it was about jurisprudential theorizing. The  abstractions of responsibility became concrete in the courtrooms, asylums, and prisons of the empire.



Area of Interest: 
Colonialism & Post Colonialism
Cultural History
Imperial History
Legal History
Medicine & Health
North America
Pacific and Oceania
19th Century