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The Line Between Mad and Bad

The Line Between Mad and Bad

Psychiatric Times August 2005 Vol. XXII Issue 9


In his acclaimed biography of Justice Benjamin Cardozo, Harvard Law Professor Andrew Kaufman devotes part of a chapter to a lurid murder case in which Cardozo, then serving on New York's highest court, wrote an opinion interpreting the classic M'Naghten formulation of the insanity defense (Kaufman, 1998; People v Schmidt, 216 N.Y. 324). The case decided in 1915 is a classic cautionary tale for forensic psychiatrists and, with the wisdom of hindsight, one might even suggest that it is also a cautionary tale for the great justice.

Hans Schmidt, whose clerical credentials were never authenticated, was serving as a Roman Catholic priest in New York City. An immigrant from Germany, Schmidt was a charismatic figure in the German Catholic community. He was, however, something of a mountebank and apparently engaged in counterfeiting U.S. currency as well as having an affair with an unfortunate and uneducated woman, Anna Aumuller, who was a servant in the parish house of his New York church. Aumuller, also an immigrant, had at least one previous pregnancy by Schmidt and returned to Europe to obtain an abortion. It was a subsequent late trimester abortion in New York City that led to her death.

Parts of her dismembered body were discovered in the Hudson River and with them the manufacturers' tag on the pillowcase that had been used as wrapping. The tag led the police to a blood-stained apartment, to her identity and to the "priest" Hans Schmidt. Although the police did not at first suspect him, his reaction and their interrogation, unhindered in those days by any Miranda warning, led to a confession. The sordid details of the case reported in the New York newspapers of that time have been spelled out in Richard Polenberg's historical account The World of Benjamin Cardozo: Personal Values and the Judicial Process (1997). It suffices for our purposes to note that Schmidt at first took full responsibility for killing Aumuller and dismembering her body but claimed to be insane. God, he said, had appeared to him and ordered him to kill the poor woman as a sacrificial offering.

The trial would pit two teams of noted psychiatric experts against each other: the famous Smith Ely Jelliffe and William Alanson White for the defense and New York University/Bellevue Professors William Mabon and Carlos F. MacDonald for the prosecution. Both sides, according to Polenberg, claimed to have foolproof "objective" tests to support their forensic opinions. The New York newspapers gave the trial and the "battle of the experts" front page coverage. Headlines asked the crucial question, was Schmidt "shamming"? The defense psychiatrists in 30 hours of interviewing found "no signs of shamming." Jelliffe's expert pronouncement was, "A man cannot sham insanity such as [Schmidt] has ... It is a product of nature, not a product of artifice."

Schmidt, along with his supposed delusions and hallucinations, had told a strange and perverse story of being sexually aroused by blood all of his life. During their examination of him, Jelliffe and a colleague, who happened to have a blood blister on his finger, decided to test this part of the story. Pricking the blister with a pin, the finger with a drop of blood on it was presented to Schmidt who went appropriately berserk with what the psychiatrists considered physiological manifestations--dilated pupils and so forth--that could not possibly be faked. At trial, with total certitude, they advanced a diagnosis of the paranoid type of dementia praecox. The prosecution's experts had their own "objective" test set out 30 years before in the classic textbook Insanity, Its Classification, Diagnosis, and Treatment; a Manual for Students and Practitioners of Medicine (Spitzka, 1883). During their examinations they proposed "bogus symptoms" to Schmidt and when he claimed to have them he had fallen into their trap. They angrily confronted the defendant and berated him for pretending to be insane.

The judgment of history is that Schmidt was malingering and after he was condemned to death at his second trial (the first was a hung jury), Schmidt wanted everyone to know what had actually happened. He signed an affidavit stating that his confession was false and his insanity feigned. Aumuller, who was six months pregnant, died of a botched abortion, according to the new account, and several accomplices were involved.


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