Daniel M’Naghten murder case has influenced courtrooms for 200 years: Crime Junkie investigates

Daniel M'Naghten
The murder of Edward Drummond by Daniel M’Naghten changed insanity pleas forever. Pic credit: Henry Hering 1856

Crime Junkie is examining a very old and influential case in the form of the murder of Edward Drummond by Daniel M’Naghten (sometimes spelled and pronounced McNaughten), who gunned down his victim on a busy street in London in 1843.

M’Naghten’s case was one of the first ever to feature a successful plea of not guilty by insanity. The ensuing furor led to the establishment of the M’Naghten Rules, which determined the official criteria needed to claim a defense of insanity.

The M’Naghten Rules are still followed today in some form in the British court system and elsewhere around the world, including the United States.

On January 20, 1843, M’Naghten spotted Edward Drummond, the private secretary to British Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel, walking in London’s Whitehall toward Downing Street. As Drummond reached Parliament Street, M’Naghten pulled out a firearm and shot his victim in the back in broad daylight in front of multiple witnesses.

M’Naghten then stood on the spot, waiting for arrest. Drummond appeared to be okay and even walked home to receive medical treatment, but he passed away five days later due to complications.

The killer was found with a bank receipt for £750 (equivalent to $53,000 today), and these funds were used to pay for an exceptional defense team.

Daniel M’Naghten suffered from delusions, leading him to murder

M’Naghten was a Scottish wood-turner who had seemingly become obsessed with the Tory party, the political party in power in Britain at that time. The killer believed he was being stalked by the Tories, who he claimed had followed him throughout Scotland, England, and even through France.

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He claimed to have shot Drummond thinking he was the Prime Minister Peel. M’Naghten told a court, “I was driven to desperation by persecution.”

M’Naghten was examined by numerous respected psychiatrists who ruled he was suffering from delusions of persecution and, crucially, that he was incapable of determining right from wrong.

The killer was inflicted with a monomania, meaning he showed sanity in most aspects of his life, but on the issue of the Tory party, he was obsessed and considered insane.

The M’Naghten Rules are still used today in cases where insanity has been pleaded

The trial ended with N’Naghten being declared not guilty by reason of insanity. The decision created a controversy as critics of the ruling complained it allowed killers to get away with murder. Even Queen Victoria reportedly expressed her displeasure at the verdict.

The judiciary enacted the M’Naghten Rules, which clarified that an accused must prove they were suffering from a mental illness at the time of the crime and that they did not know their actions were wrong. These simple rules are still used nearly 200 years later in multiple jurisdictions worldwide.

There was not a happy ending for M’Naghten; despite the ruling, he was incarcerated in a small stone cell at the infamous Bethlem Royal Hospital before being transferred in 1864 to the new Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. He spent 21 years locked up.

PRECEDENT: Daniel M’Naghten is available to download on Crime Junkie.

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