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Charity Lamb Trial: 1854

The Defense: Insanity

The first line of defense was insanity. Lamb's lawyers called her a "monomaniac." While the doctor described her as "very much excited … looked wild-like out of her eyes," he nevertheless "thought she was pretending. " Although her mind may have been deranged, there was not enough to show moral ignorance, the traditional test of legal insanity.

As a second defense, her lawyers argued that she did not intend to kill her victim; "she only meant to stun him until she could get away." But that defense beggared reason: a blow with an axe blade instead of its butt was hardly the choice for stunning.

Finally, Lamb's lawyers urged that she killed to save herself from being killed. Throughout her marriage, Nathaniel had physically abused her. The children testified that once he threw a hammer at her and put a gash in her forehead. On several occasions when Lamb was sick in bed, Nathaniel threatened her with violence and ordered her to get up and work. One winter, "he knocked her down with his fists and kicked her over several times in the snow." Lamb told others that her husband also tried to poison her.

The children testified that their parents quarreled "lots of times." The quarrels sometimes ended with Lamb fleeing the encounter but having to turn back when her pursuing husband threatened to shoot her. Nathaniel had threatened to kill his wife and children if ever they told of his thefts of a horse and an ox. There was also evidence of Nathaniel's intemperate use of alcohol.

The final straw was the rage that followed the conflict over the love letter to Collins. Nathaniel had promised to kill Lamb, take the boys, and desert to California. One week before the killing, he told his wife that she "would not live on his expense longer than a week; that he was going to kill her next Saturday night"—May 13. The threat was now keyed to a specific time. During that week he sold his mare to make ready for the trip. When Saturday came, before he went off on his bear hunt, the children saw him fire a shot toward their mother.

In summation to the jury, Lamb's counsel did not emphasize self-defense. Instead they chose to rampage against the sins of capital punishment and to focus on the notion that Charity's mind was incapable of rational judgment.

Oddly enough, it was Judge Olney who stressed self-defense in his charge to the jury. He bent the law of self-defense toward a leniency not today and not then legally warranted. He instructed that she must be found innocent if she "acted out of a genuine belief in self-preservation," even if that "belief was a delusion of a disordered mind."

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882Charity Lamb Trial: 1854 - Settlers Shocked By Murder, Defendant's Children Testify, The Defense: Insanity, The Verdict