A Question of
sanity of criminal defendants is a difficult proposition for courts.
Since the beginning of the Anglo-American criminal justice system,
courts have struggled with just how to apply the medical issue of
mental illness to the legal arena.
The issue of legal insanity was
still relatively new when Nancy Farrer of Cincinnati, Ohio was put on
trial in 1852 for committing a series of murders by poisoning.
Courts had first reckoned with
insanity with the case of Daniel M’Naughten in 1843, after M’Naughten
killed an employee of the British Prime Minister whom he thought was
the leader of an outlandish plot against him. During his trial,
witnesses testified to the fact that he was insane, and the jury
acquitted him, finding him “not guilty by reason of insanity.”
The verdict caused a major
brouhaha in England, and the House of Lords came up with a legal
standard for determining the guilt of people who were obviously
The M’Naughten Rules, as they
became known, essentially boil down to the belief that a defendant
should not be held responsible for his actions if he could not tell
that his actions were wrong at the time he committed them.
When Nancy Farrer went on trial,
Ohio and many other states in the United States had not yet formally
adopted the Rules.
In the early 1850s, Nancy
Farrer, a nurse, was highly regarded by the patients she cared for, as
well as by their families. It is clear from the record that while she
was considered kind, the court held Nancy in low regard — with
apparent good reason.
“There is full testimony to the
effect, that in several households, Nancy, though awkward, and in many
respects incapable, proved herself to be a kind and affectionate
nurse,” the Ohio Supreme Court wrote in 1853. “She hardly ever spoke
except when spoken to — asked no questions — never ran after company —
readily did what she was bid.”
The court’s low regard for Nancy
was partially based on the now-disproved “science” of phrenology — a
system by which advocates believed a person’s intelligence, health and
general psyche could be determined by the shape and character of the
“In person, she is remarkably
ugly,” the court wrote. “The eyes encroach on the space proper to the
brain. Her head, in shape rather than size, is unfavorable to the
usual presumption of sound mind and full capacity.”
Based in part on Nancy’s skull and her
family history, the court found that she was insane. The court’s
opinion in this matter is questionable.
“Testimony shows, that, thus marked out
from the common characteristics of our fellow beings by her personal
appearance, and thus apparently deficient in capacity, the facts of
Nancy’s history agree with the conclusions so given by medical men,”
Justice John A. Corwin wrote. “Nancy was not such a woman as others.
And her training was such, as rather to destroy than to improve the
little mind with which nature may have gifted her. Her father, an
Englishman, (who became a Mormon, and with Nancy and her mother, lived
for some time at Nauvoo,) died of drunkenness in the hospital at
Cincinnati. Her mother was a Mormon, and fancied herself a prophetess
— Nancy imagined herself “the same as her mother.”
Despite Justice Corwin’s reliance on
Nancy’s appearance as proof of her insanity, there is significant
other, more acceptable proof, that something was wrong with the girl.
The Forrest Murders
1851, Nancy entered the service of the Elisha Forrest family and
proceeded to poison every member of the family, resulting the deaths
of Mrs. Forrest (her given name is lost to history) and two children
within a week of her arrival.
Apparently, Nancy had a problem with the fact that Mrs. Forrest had
made her re-clean the kitchen floor after spilling some water, but
just what caused her to begin her killing remains a mystery.
“She had a notion of speaking
back about it,” a friend, Mary Ann Dankey, testified at Nancy’s trial.
“But she thought she’d fix her for it.”
Shortly after that exchange,
Mrs. Forrest took ill after eating a supper Nancy prepared.
“Mrs. Forrest has been taken
with vomiting and heaving, just like Mrs. Green,” Nancy told a member
of the household, referring to a former employer who had also died.
While Mrs. Forrest lingered, and
appeared to be recovering, another servant remarked that it was odd
that the mistress of the house would take a turn for the worse after
begining to recover. Again, Nancy referred to the late Mrs. Green.
“It was just the same way with
Mrs. Green,” she replied. “Mrs. F. took to heaving just like Mrs.
Green and I do not think she will recover.”
Mrs. Forrest did not recover and
died the next day.
A week after Mrs. Forrest was
buried, her son, John Edward Forrest took ill in the same fashion. He
died shortly after he began vomiting a greenish bile.
After Johnny died, someone
pointed out that Nancy was “unfortunate to live where so many people
For the first time, the extent
of Nancy’s murderous ways was made evident.
“Yes,” Nancy replied. “Five have
died where I lived. First were Mrs. Green and her baby, and Mrs.
Isherwood’s baby died a day or two after I left.”
Nancy predicted even more
tragedy for the Forrest household.
“Jimmy will go next, and Billy,
and the old man, and I expect they’ll all go of one complaint,” she
Then she tried to make light of
“How lucky I am with sick
folks,” she said. “They all die.”
“Maybe you killed them,” Dankey
“Maybe I did,” Nancy said.
Jimmy Forrest was Nancy’s next
victim. Before he died, in fact, before he ever became ill, she
predicted his demise to another witness.
“In a week or two, Jimmy will
die,” she said.
Dankey pointed out that Jimmy
was outside playing with other children and looked quite healthy. What
did Nancy mean, the witness asked.
“I don’t know. Only he won’t
eat,” she said.
Jimmy did get sick, vomiting
green bile like his mother and brother. He died quickly, but not
without considerable suffering. He claimed it was the “onion syrup”
that Nancy was giving him that made him ill.
While Jimmy was in his sickbed,
Nancy refused to eat dinner with the rest of the family, although that
was her custom. That night, Elisha and Billy Forrest both became
violently ill. They both recovered, however.
The number of deaths in the
Forrest household, even in the 1850s when multiple deaths from
mysterious illnesses was more common, prompted Elisha Forrest to ask
that Jimmy’s corpse be autopsied.
A Dr. Dandridge conducted the
post-mortem (in the Forrest home) and ruled that Jimmy had taken
arsenic. He asked if Forrest had any rat poison around, to which
Elisha replied no.
Dandridge would later testify
that when poison was mentioned, Nancy became “quite excited and
She refused to let Dandridge and
Forrest discuss the matter outside her hearing and “if we were
talking, she would walk up close to to wish to know what we were
The day after Jimmy’s funeral,
Elisha Forrest found a paper outside Nancy’s room. It was wrapping
paper bearing the label “Dr. Salter’s Drug Store.”
William Salter testified that
about three weeks before the stomach of James Forest was brought to
his brother to analyze, he sold Nancy five cents worth of arsenic,
done up in a paper like that produced by Mr. Forrest. Nancy said she
wanted it to kill rats.
Other druggists testified to the purchase by Nancy,
at different times and places, of large quantities of arsenic; one
thinks he sold Nancy arsenic as long as six months before the death of
James. One of the druggists says she got from him “enough to poison
Nancy’s Trial and the Aftermath
The trial of Nancy Farrer was, understandly, a notable event in the
community of Cincinnati (approximately 115,000 people lived there
according to the 1850 census), but it was a rather straight-forward
affair until it got to the point where the case was about to go to the
Unlike the trials of the current
era that involve questions of sanity, there were no expert witnesses
at Nancy’s trial to debate whether her actions were or were not those
of a sane person. Instead, witnesses to her crimes were paraded before
the jury which was then instructed — with erroneous instructions,
Justice Corwin later wrote — about mental competency.
The trial court asked the jury
to decide “Was Nancy Farrer, at the time this act was committed,
capable of judging whether this act was right or wrong, and did she
know at the time that it was an offence against the laws of God and
“So far as the girl Nancy is
concerned, you will carefully examine the testimony, touching her
knowledge of right and wrong, and if you find she was able to
distinguish between them, then, no matter of how low an order may be
her intellect, or how depraved her character, she is guilty as
charged, if you have no reasonable doubt as to her commission of the
Corwin wrote that this reliance
on reasonable doubt as to Nancy’s sanity was
the incorrect standard.
“The court characterized the old
rule, requiring insanity to be proved beyond all reasonable doubt, as
a doctrine, which though useful in its time, is too hard to uphold,”
Corwin wrote. “And I cannot see that a reasonable doubt of a
prisoner’s sanity can legally arise, except upon a
preponderance of testimony.”
The jury did not find Nancy to
be insane beyond a reasonable doubt, and although Corwin said he would
have preferred an additional instruction about “irresistable impulse”
(”The power of self-control — ‘free agency’ — is said to be quite as
essential to criminal accountability as the power to distinguish
between right and wrong”), had the jury not misbehaved in other ways,
he would have let stand its verdict of guilty.
Fortunately for Nancy Farrer,
the jury misconduct in her case gave Corwin the opportunity to toss
out its verdict.
The post-conviction review of the trial showed
The prosecuting attorney was desired by one of the
jurors to cause a change of clothing to be sent to one of the
jurors. It appears, however, that he
made no reply.
A member or members of the jury, on the second or third day of their
deliberation, obtained a newspaper containing what purported to be a
part of the proceedings had at the trial;
Two members of the jury received and consumed of spirituous liquors,
(which, in one instance, may have been prescribed by a physician,
and in the other, may have been necessary to health, though not
After the jury received the charge of the court, some of the jurors
held communication with their friends and acquaintances in the
street, the persons so violating their duty, being at the open
windows of their consulting room. “Various questions were put to the
jury, as to whether they had agreed upon their verdict — whether
they were likely to agree — how they were divided; some of which
questions were answered from the jury room.”
Other communications and conversations passed, and occurred between
the jurors at the windows and persons on the side walk below.
These errors, the court found, combined with the mistaken instructions
on insanity, provided Corwin with sufficient grounds to overrule the
jury verdict. He further ruled that it was clear that Nancy Farrer was
insane and not criminally responsible for her actions.
Unfortunately, the records don’t show what happened to Nancy, although
it is unlikely that she remained at large to kill again.