McNaughtan, Daniel

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Daniel McNaughtan

Born c. 1812 (Glasgow, Scotland)

Died May 3, 1865 (Berkshire, England)


Daniel McNaughtan was tried in 1843 for the murder of a British government official. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and his case created a widely used legal precedent known as the McNaughtan Rules. These rules, established by Great Britain's House of Lords, were delivered by Chief Justice Nicholas Tindal (1776–1846), the judge who had presided at McNaughtan's trial. The rules state that: (a) every person is assumed to be sane until proven otherwise; and, (b) it must be clearly proved that at the time of committing the crime, the accused lacked the understanding to know the nature of his act or even that he was doing something wrong. To this day most American state criminal justice systems use a form of the McNaughtan Rules to determine a person's criminal responsibility.

"The test for sanity . . . is not one of whether the accused suffers from any mental disorder or not, but rather of whether his mental state is such that he should fairly be held responsible."

A basic description for the test for a criminal defendant's sanity

McNaughtan's name has seen various spellings over the years, partly because people at that time did not always spell their names the same way in every document. In association with both the man and the rules, McNaughtan has appeared many ways including McNaughton, M'Naghten, MacNaughten, and McNaughtun. Financial records of Daniel's father, along with an 1843 newspaper article bearing the accused signature indicate that the McNaughtan spelling was the one used most by the family.

Learning right from wrong

Daniel McNaughtan was born in Glasgow, Scotland, to a poor dressmaker named Ada. Births were not required to be recorded in the Scottish Register Office until 1855, so the actual date of Daniel's birth is unknown. It has been estimated that he was born as early as 1812 or as late as the spring of 1813. Daniel was raised by his mother until her death in 1821 when he went to live with his father. His father, also named Daniel, was a respected businessman who owned several properties in addition to the wood turning (fashioning wooden pieces or blocks into various shapes) shop where he worked on Stockwell Street in Glasgow.

Daniel's stepmother resented his presence, but the ten year old became an apprentice to his father as a wood turner and proved to be very talented at the trade. After more than four years, Daniel became a journeyman (one level up from apprentice) and spent the next few years perfecting his craft. Daniel had a gentle temperament and a good work ethic, which made him a favorite among the other shopkeepers on Stockwell Street. When Daniel turned eighteen he was ready to become a partner with his father. His stepmother preferred that her own sons be given the business, so he remained only an employee.

Daniel continued working but at night went to school to prepare himself for a career on the stage. He studied the works of English playwright William Shakespeare (1564–1616) and several English dramatists until he was a competent actor. In 1832, at the age of nineteen, Daniel had enough money saved from work to pursue his theatrical career. He took the stage name of Mr. Knight and joined several others in a series of readings and recitations in the Glasgow Trades Hall. Joining a band of touring actors, Daniel found himself at various towns in western Scotland. The touring ended unsuccessfully and he returned to Glasgow three years later. He had become an accomplished reader and an effective public speaker but finances forced him to return to the more profitable trade of wood turner.

In 1835 McNaughtan opened his own small shop on Stockwell Street, just a few yards from his father's shop. He continued his education in science and the arts and taught himself French, wrote poetry, and enjoyed quoting Shakespeare to his fellow craftsmen. McNaughtan's skills kept him working steadily and his shop was busy. Most of Glasgow, however, was experiencing an economic recession and the trades were particularly hard hit. By the early 1840s, Great Britain was in a depression and even McNaughtan could not keep his shop going full time.

A downward spiral

In the fall of 1842 McNaughtan booked passage to London on the steamship Fire King. He secured a room in a boardinghouse and for the next sixteen weeks acquainted himself with the public offices and residences around 10 Downing Street. For three weeks McNaughtan studied the daily habits of the man he thought to be the prime minister, Sir Robert Peel (1788–1850).

Insanity Defense

Under the U.S. Constitution, a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty when charged with a crime. It is the duty of the prosecution to prove the accused is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in criminal trials. Criminal prosecution in America allows for "justifications" or "excuses" for the defendant's crime.

A "justification" defense allows for the possibility that some situations require a person to choose between the lesser of two evils in deciding on an action. Self-defense is an example of justification. The degree and type of punishment is considered when there is a justification defense. Legal excuses, such as insanity, cover the other major type of criminal defense. If the accused is determined to be irresponsible, a successful defense in a court of law will receive a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity. The person will not be punished but will be committed to a secure mental health facility until it is determined he or she is no longer mentally ill or dangerous to society.

Most states use a form of the McNaughtan Rules to determine a person's legal responsibility for a crime. Some states have added additional elements and others have abolished the insanity defense entirely. John Hinckley (1955–) was acquitted of murder by reason of insanity when he made an assassination attempt on U.S. president Ronald Reagan (1911–2004; served 1981–89) in 1981. As a result, Congress enacted a stricter insanity test that is now used in all federal criminal prosecutions.

On Friday, January 20, 1843, McNaughtan followed Edward Drummond as he emerged from the public offices on Downing Street. Drummond was the private secretary to the prime minister and resembled Robert Peel in stature and age. The two men were often mistaken for one another by the public. They kept the same schedule and there was no pictorial press available for people to distinguish one from the other in the nineteenth
century. Drummond walked to his bank and was returning to Downing Street when McNaughtan drew a pistol from his pocket and shot him in the back. He was reaching for a second pistol when a policeman wrestled him to the ground. Drummond survived for four days before he died from his wounds.

McNaughtan was taken to the station house at Gardener's Lane where he was charged with attempted murder. Six weeks later, on March 3, 1843, the thirty-year-old McNaughtan stood trial for the willful murder of Edward Drummond. The courthouse was packed with curious observers, including author Charles Dickens (1812–1870; see entry). McNaughtan entered a plea of "not guilty," and the trial began.

The prosecution's case centered on the fact that McNaughtan had shot the wrong man, which showed evidence of his diminished mental capacity. The lead attorney then offered his observations on the law of insanity to the court. The defense acknowledged McNaughtan had shot Drummond and stated its case would rest upon his state of mind at the time McNaughtan committed the offense.

Seven medical examiners testified for the defense that McNaughtan showed signs of insanity. The judge stopped the trial based on the medical evidence and instructed the jury, who returned a verdict of not guilty on the ground of insanity in less than two minutes. On March 13 McNaughtan was escorted to London's Bethlem Hospital at Newgate Prison, known locally as Bedlam. McNaughtan occupied an eight-foot by ten-foot stone cell that would be his home for the next twenty-one years. In 1864 he was transferred to the new State Criminal Lunatic Asylum at Crowthorne in Berkshire. He died the next year after twenty-two years of confinement. He was buried on the asylum grounds in an unmarked grave.

The McNaughtan Rules

Following McNaughtan's trial a great debate rose over the need for a more precise statement for the use of the insanity defense. The verdict alarmed the public and the government called on the judges of the Supreme Court of Judicature to present opinions on the law. The House of Lords presented judges with a series of questions they were to consider as a test of insanity. The judges' answers became known as the McNaughtan Rules, which outline the criminal responsibility of the insane in English law. The rules have been followed in many British Commonwealth countries and parts of the United States, but not in Scotland.

For More Information


Hall, Kermit, ed. The Oxford Companion to American Law. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Katsh, Ethan M., and William Rose, eds. Taking Sides: Clashing Views onControversial Legal Issues. Guilford, CT: Dushkin Publishing Group, 2000.

Levinson, David, ed. Encyclopedia of Crime and Punishment. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2002.

Moran, Richard. Knowing Right from Wrong: The Insanity Defense of DanielMcNaughtan. New York: The Free Press, 1981.

Walker, David M., ed. The Oxford Companion to Law. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Web Site

Pearse, O'Malley. "Psychiatry and the Legal System." The Irish MedicalJournal. (accessed on August 15, 2004).

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