Thursday, December 27, 2012

Interesting Clippings #8: Temporary Insanity as a defense has a long history

Ambler Gazette, April 25, 1895, Page 2
My morbid side is coming out. I love a good historical mystery novel so it's not surprising that I go looking for true crime in history. I came across this 1895 clipping to the right from the Ambler Gazette (Ambler, PA) about a professor who murdered his wife in Media, PA. It appears he was deemed insane and put in a mental hospital but the article is discussing his release.

NY Times, Oct 11, 1900
Wanting to know more about this, I went Googling and found his full name was Professor Swithin C. Shortlidge and that he had founded the Media Academy for Young Men. He murdered his second wife on Dec 31, 1893 and interestingly, some time after his release from the hospital, began pursuing insurance money on his wife, as detailed in an article from the New York Times, Oct 11, 1900  (left). 

I also found an earlier article at the time of the murder (below, right) which claims Shortlidge's was suffering from "the grip", which supposedly caused his insanity. The grip is an old term for the flu but as we know today, influenza does not last as long as what this article from the New York Times is claiming. Supposedly, he'd been suffering from it before his wedding in November and then killed his wife the night of December 31. The flu can cause pneumonia which may extend the illness but someone suffering that long from pneumonia would not have the strength to be walking about and murdering someone. Furthermore, neither influenza or pneumonia are not known to cause insanity as far as I'm aware!

NY Times, Jan 1, 1894
If he was suffering from a physical illness that caused a mental illness, and not just using it as a get out of jail free card (the family of Shortlidge's wife contested that there were any signs of insanity), it was likely something else, though I don't know of anything that conveniently presents itself during the murder of your wife and then goes away for the next 30+ years (Shortlidge apparently died in 1931). It's not like treatment of mental illness was very advanced during this time period so it seems unlikely that he was "cured," as was claimed by Dr. Richardson, detailed in the Reading Eagle article below.

Reading Eagle May 6, 1895, Page 1
Shortlidge had been treated at the Norristown insane asylum and released in early May of 1895. What is interesting about this article is that is mentions Shortlidge's brother is mayor of Wilmington, DE. I wonder if any political strings were pulled to both keep Shortlidge out of jail and get him released from an insane asylum having been "cured" only two years later. Though Shortlidge was ordered to pay the mother and brother of his victim $5,000 to "keep the peace", they strongly objected to Shortlidge's release regardless. They claimed their own lives to be in danger but obviously the court didn't buy it and indeed, there is no record of harm falling to them after his release.

Only weeks after his release, Shortlidge applied for a passport. Though he remained a resident of Pennsylvania for some years, he eventually moved to England for some time (he can found on the 1911 Census) with his son, who was married there in 1906. Shortlidge left England and returned to New York in 1914, where he was also living by 1930.

A very interesting case that might warrant further investigation for those interested in the history of mental illness and/or crime.

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