Murders and Madness examines the French debate over crime and madness in the fin de siecle. She argues that psychiatric theories of human behaviour and new sociological interpretations of crime combined to undermine the traditional foundations of the penal system and helped to shape the new science of criminology. As a result, traditional notions of free will and moral responsibility were eroded as new and often draconian strategies evolved from managerial practices developed mainly by medical men. This book offers a detailed examination of the radical politique criminelle they devised. Harris breaks down the conventional boundaries between intellectual and social history by linking the often esoteric formulations of the professionals to the defendants' own mental anguish and emotional despair. Both aspects were involved in developing the meaning of moral and social responsibility in 'modern society'. She demonstrates how the debate over crime and madness, aired during the courtroom trials, repeatedly touched on some of the most widespread anxieties of the era which focused on the politics of gender and class.
Through a series of case studies, she looks specifically at discussions of feminine hysteria and women's sexuality; male alcoholism and racial degeneration; crimes of passion, crowd violence and revolutionary politics.