Psychopathy as a “New Malady”

25 June 2011

The first popular use of the term “psychopath” is commonly traced to to an 1885 article in the Pall Mall Gazette, which has not heretofore been easily available online. It turns out to be a short piece in the “occasional notes” section of the newspaper’s issue for January 21st, which reports a perverse case in which psychopathy had actually served as a winning criminal defense:

The acquittal, at St. Petersburg, of Mdlle. Semenova, accused of being implicated in the murder of the child Sarah Becker, has been the cause of a scene closely resembling that witnessed at Paris when Mdme. Clovis Hugues was restored to her admiring friends. The reason, however, for the acquittal of the Russian lady differs greatly from that which saved Mdme. Hugues. The evidence all through the trial was dead against Mdlle. Semenova, and it would have fared badly with her but for the declaration of an expert M. Balinsky, a Russian mad-doctor, who, pointing out to the jury the hysterical bearing of the culprit, persuaded them that she was suffering from “psychopathy,” and therefore morally irresponsible. For the benefit of those who are as yet ignorant of the meaning of psychopathy—a term which before long will be naturalized in our courts—we give M. Balinsky’s explanation of the new malady. “The psychopath,” he says, “is a type which has only recently come under the notice of medical science. It is an individual whose every moral faculty appears to be of the normal equilibrium. He thinks logically, he distinguishes good and evil, and he acts according to reason. But of all moral notions he is entirely devoid….Beside his own person and his own interests, nothing is sacred to the psychopath, &c., &c.” The short and long of it sees to be that if egotism is fully developed in a human being he becomes “morally irresponsible”—a very convenient doctrine, to which, however, mankind will have to add as a corollary that whenever a fully developed psychopath is discovered he shall be immediately hanged.

In less than four years after the publication of this article, London would meet Jack the Ripper.


Article , , ,

2 Comments to “Psychopathy as a “New Malady””

  1. The last line gave me the chills.

    Interesting to hear when the term “psychopath” was first used. I’m addicted to the online etymology dictionary. Comes in so handy.

    • Editor Haystack

      The idea of psychopathy as we understand it today was solidified in Hervey Cleckley’s 1941 book “The Mask of Sanity.” I get the sense that before then the term didn’t hold too much fascination/relevance for most people.

      I didn’t know about the online etymology dictionary, but thanks–that looks useful.

      I’m big on the Google Books Ngram viewer. It’s great for those times when you need to know whether a specific term was in use during a given period, though you have to control for the fact that it counts reprints of earlier works (i.e., nobody says “zounds” anymore, but there is always a lot of Shakespeare in print).

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.