If readers are wondering why I’m taking so long to tell the story of George Cruickshank, charged with having stolen $5,000 in American gold pieces from the safe of the bank where he was employed as accountant, it’s because of the story’s curious twists.
And the fact that from the start his lawyer raised the issue of Cruickshank’s mental state
at the time of the alleged theft, in 1863, and his signing a confession in 1865.
This was almost virgin ground for colonial Victoria. Insanity was a rare defence in criminal trials, one not to be applied frivolously before the reserved magistrates of an age when criminal sentences were often harsh.
I’ve related how Cruickshank signed a notarized confession to the theft then, upon being formally charged, recanted in a second statement. Which is where we left off, with Att.-Gen. George Cary prosecuting for the Crown and D.B. Ring acting as Cruickshank’s defence counsel before Chief Justice David Cameron. Cary wanted to produce the first statement in court; Ring objected, insisting that Cruickshank’s mental state at the time of signing be established, and citing two precedents.
Cary said the only issue was whether the confession was voluntary but Ring wanted to introduce medical evidence of his client’s mental state. Justice Cameron agreed to hear medical evidence as to Cruickshank’s mental competence when he signed the confession and Dr. Trimble, who’d been allowed to observe from the gallery, took the stand.
He testified that he’d attended the accused "the first night he took sick, sometime…in January [six months before]. I continued to attend him…to the period of his recovery. He suffered from compression of the brain. It had an effect on his mental faculties. It affected his mind to such an extent at first that he did not know what he was saying; he was insane, in fact. For a long time, two or three months, he answered in monosyllables, and sometimes he would not answer at all.
"He said he had committed murder and had also committed forgery. He said he was a very bad man generally, and various other things.
"One of the symptoms of his state of mind was that he was quite indifferent about his child, and did not care about seeing his wife. He made many foolish statements that were sometimes rather amusing. Mr. Cruickshank was a monomaniac."
As for criminal responsibility, Trimble thought there was "a distinction between insanity and moral insanity. On several points he was insane, but principally on those of murder and forgery. Persons labouring under insanity are capable of carrying on argument and in some madmen it is almost impossible to trace any delusion…"
Cruickshank’s mental illness had been so extreme that he’d stopped eating and he’d lost so much weight that his life "was almost despaired of. The brain was inactive and he remained in bed for some time without any appetite."
Part of Trimble’s treatment program had involved his taking Cruickshank on short excursions to try to interest him in his natural surroundings, but he’d been indifferent. His professional opinion was that Cruickshank, even at the time of his arrest, was insane.
When court resumed a week later, Drs. Helmcken and Powell were present as Trimble continued his testimony. He thought, at the time that Cruickshank appeared before Magistrate Pemberton, he was so ill that he’d have "signed a paper to the effect that he had murdered his wife, if asked to do so, he was in such a state of mental imbecility." Only two days later, he’d been "much recovered," his sudden improvement, thought Trimble, the result of the shock of his being criminally charged having "rous[ed] his faculties and restoring him to a partial recovery…" Then it was Cary’s turn to question him.