Lunacy & Astronomy

This entertaining snippet comes from records of 18th Century court proceedings. Not content to have been acquitted on a technicality, Dr Elliott attempts to demonstrate his insanity via scientific hypothesis.

On the 9th of July 1787, a Dr Elliott, described in the journals of the day as ‘one of the literati’, fired two pistols, apparently, at a lady and gentleman, while walking in Prince’s Street, London. Neither, however, was injured, though both were very much frightened, and the lady’s dress was singed by the closeness of the explosion. Elliott was arrested, committed to Newgate, and, a few days after, tried for an attempted murder, but acquitted on the technical point, that there was no proof of the pistols having been loaded with ball. Unforeseeing this decision, Elliott’s friends had set up a plea of insanity, and among other witnesses in support thereof, Dr Simmons, of St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics, was examined.  This gentleman, whose long and extensive experience in cases of insanity, gave great weight to his evidence, testified that he had been intimately acquainted with Dr Elliott for more than ten years, and fully believed him to be insane.

On being further pressed by the recorder to adduce any particular instance of Elliott’s insanity, the witness stated that he had lately received a letter from the prisoner on the light of the celestial bodies, which indisputably proved his aberration of mind. The letter, which had been intended by the prisoner to have been laid before the Royal Society, was then produced and read in court. The part more particularly depended upon by the witness as a proof of the insanity of the writer, was an assertion that the sun is not a body of fire, as alleged by astronomers, ‘but its light proceeds from a dense and universal aurora, which may afford ample light to the inhabitants of the surface (of the sun) beneath, and yet be at such a distance aloft as not to annoy them.’ The recorder objected to this being proof of insanity, saying that if an extravagant hypothesis were to be considered a proof of lunacy, many learned and perfectly sane astronomers might be stigmatised as madmen.

Though the defence of insanity was not received, Elliott, as already observed, was acquitted on a legal point, but the unfortunate man died in prison, of self-inflicted starvation, on the 22d of July, having resolutely refused to take any food during the thirteen days which intervened between his arrest and death.

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