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The Duncan Case


The trial of Duncan for a homicidal assault upon his wife on May 12th, 1891, offers several points of considerable interest. It is necessary, first of all, to give a brief history of his antecedents. Early in 1854, when a lad of 15, he had two falls on his head, the first of which was severe. It occurred at school while wrestling with another boy. They fell on a stone step or flag in front of the school, Duncan coming down on his head in violent contact with the stone, and the other boy upon him. He was taken to a surgeon. He was stunned, suffered from headache for some weeks, and was at home for about two months. It was not long before a marked change in his character was observed. From being a most considerate and thoughtful boy, he became indifferent and careless, although he did well in his studies. His feelings towards his father, of whom he had always been fond, altered. He said it made him nervous to sit in the same room with him. He became unsettled in all his actions, shut himself up from society, and avoided speaking to people whom he met in the street. He had terrible fits of depression, and he suffered much from insomnia. However, he went to Leheigh University, but in the course of some months suddenly returned home. Indeed, his instability of character had become such that he made plans one day only to break them the next. In 1886 he went to Baltimore to prepare for the Johns Hopkins University. It was not long before he escaped and wrote a letter to his mother in the wildest excitement. At the above-mentioned University he failed to pass the examination in mathematics, and again went off without letting anyone know where he had gone. Fear was felt that in one of his fits of despondency he had committed suicide. As a matter of fact he did contemplate it. He however went to England. He shortly, however, recrossed the Atlantic and resumed his studies. He wrote to his mother after making the attempt, that it was useless, for “he could not comprehend what he was studying.” His brother, a professor in Johns Hopkins University, wrote home that it was absolutely necessary for him to suspend all mental work or the consequence would be serious. In the following summer (1887) he was in the country, constantly changing his plans and labouring under alternate attacks of depression and excitement. It is impossible to give the number of instances in which sudden changes occurred. He began to study medicine, but soon threw it up. In 1888 his brother got him a post in an electrical company, but he immediately returned to Baltimore in great excitement. It was at this time that he consented to see Dr. Kempster, who had accidentally met him some time before, and had been struck with his strange aspect. Dr. Kempster's first impression was confirmed, and he warned the parents as to the necessity of placing him under care. He refused to stay with Dr. Kempster, as his friends wished him to do. Not long afterwards we find him in California, where he had been sent by his brother. After running away and returning he ultimately left California in the spring of 1890. About this period he had visual hallucinations. He continued to suffer from insomnia. He sailed to Europe in the autumn of 1890. In December of that year he wrote home that he had proposed to Miss Jaderholm, a Fin at Abo, and asked his parents' consent, which was given. They were married in February, 1891, although he had written to his mother that the engagement was broken off. Why he did so is not clear, but disregard for truth was one of his characteristics after the above-noted change in moral character came over him.

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Medical Superintendent of the North Wales Asylum, Denbigh.

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The British Journal of Psychiatry
  • ISSN: -
  • EISSN: 2514-9946
  • URL: /core/journals/the-british-journal-of-psychiatry
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The Duncan Case

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