Library Dissertation Showcase

What do the newspaper articles, and trial of Robert Coombes tell us about the representations of criminally insane children in the late nineteenth-century?

  • Year of Publication:
  • 2021

On September 9th 1895, thirteen-year old Robert Coombes was tried at the Old Bailey Court for the murder of his mother. The testimonies of lay and medical-men provide insight to Robert’s insanity defence which successfully persuaded the jury that Robert did not understand the nature or quality of his crime. Robert was found insane and sentenced to Broadmoor; yet the representations of Robert, and his crime, contrasted significantly between the trial and newspaper articles. This dissertation examines the representations of Robert Coombes by analysing the Old Bailey trial transcript and various newspaper articles from the British Newspaper Archive database. Nineteenth-century criminal lunacy has been widely discussed by historians in recent years, many who tend towards the experiences and representations of criminally insane adults. By bringing together the scholarship surrounding juvenile criminality and child mental illness in the nineteenth century, this dissertation provides a unique study of a criminally insane child, a topic which appears under-represented across the discourse of nineteenth-century criminal lunacy. There are two chapters in this dissertation. The first examines the representations of Robert’s crime, focusing on the representations of age, class and family, juvenile delinquency, sensationalism and moral panic. The second examines the representations of Robert during his trial, specifically his insanity defence, using the literature of criminal insanity to discuss the influence of lay and medical-testimony, as well as the influence of his insanity defence on the newspaper press. Ultimately, this dissertation argues that the Coombes trial demonstrates the influence of lay and medical testimony in providing evidence of insanity during the trial of a criminally insane child. The trial suggests that despite the brutality of his crime, Robert was viewed sympathetically due to his age and insanity defence. On the other hand, newspaper articles demonstrate unsympathetic attitudes towards Robert, often representing him as a dangerous criminal youth which was only exemplified by his insanity, potentially emphasising the moral panic and outrage felt towards criminal children in the nineteenth-century.

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