Gothic Stories, Mens Rea, and Nineteenth Century American Criminal Law
THE ASHGATE RESEARCH COMPANION TO LAW AND HUMANITIES IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICA, eds. Nan Goodman and Simon Stern (Ashgate Press 2015) Forthcoming
23 Pages Posted: 21 Feb 2015
Date Written: February 19, 2015
The early-to-mid nineteenth century was a turbulent period for the cities of an expanding America. Beginning in the 1830’s, it was a time of “epic homicidal riots,” which prompted the creation of the first urban police force. The rise of the police helped reduce the rates of homicide dramatically. Concomitant with the explosion of real-life murder and the rise of the first police force was also a particular renaissance moment for gothic storytelling, focusing in large part on the wily criminal and the deductive reasoning used by these early police to track, apprehend and convict these offenders. What influence did these tremendously popular stories have on the creation of 19th-century criminal law and the public’s understanding of the 19th-century criminal?
The most emblematic example of this fascination with American criminality, of course, was the writing of Edgar Allan Poe, whose Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque was published in 1849. Close behind it in influence, however, was the gothic fiction of Washington Irving and short stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose work beguiled a developing nation. These highly popular stories, steeped in mystery, psychology and potentially horrific crimes, were influential in the shaping of 19th-century criminal law and organized police forces, which rose hand in hand with the popular understanding of crime-solving.
There were many links between 19th-century gothic/criminal fiction and the intellectual development of 19th-century American criminal law. One example is the rise of new narrative techniques in 19th-century fiction in developing character studies, including third-person narrative forms, and the concomitant development of mens rea analysis (i.e., that liability for wrongdoing should not just be based on sheer “wickedness,” but on actual intent to commit a specific crime). As literary gothic fiction explored a new, more complex understanding of why a criminal defendant might act the way he did, this matched — and undoubtedly influenced — the way the legal understanding of mens rea became more refined, shifting from a simple finding of general wrongdoing to a more sophisticated, elemental approach. This book chapter explores the similarities and cross-pollination between the two.
Keywords: mens rea, gothic fiction, 19th century, criminal law
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