On Oct. 20, 1847, little William Nelman poisoned his grandpa. Who is this person and why did he do it? Why is it significant?

Expert Answers
cburr eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This appears to be a reference to the murder of Samuel Nelme by his grandson William Allnutt in England on October 20, 1847.

William, age 12, tended to be dishonest and often angered his grandfather. On one occasion, his grandfather hit William so hard that he fell down and knocked his head. Determined to have revenge, William stole arsenic (used to kill rats) and put it in the sugar bowl which his grandfather used liberally due to a sweet tooth. Even though William had ample opportunity over the next few days to reconsider this act and get rid of the arsenic, he did not and Samuel died about a week later.

This case was famous not only because it was shocking, but because the defense argued that William suffered from moral insanity -- that is, the part of his mind that knew what he was doing was not connecting to the part that knew murder to be wrong. Only 4 years earlier, the landmark McNaughton rule had defined the scope of the insanity defense. In his charge to the jury, the judge in this case attributed William's crime to "indulging habitually in a moody, resentful disposition" rather than true insanity, and instructed them that this was not a form of insanity that should relieve William of responsibility for his crime. The jury found William guilty.

dbello eNotes educator| Certified Educator

A young Englishman with the name William Allnutt was found guilty of killing his grandfather on October 20,1847 by arscenic poisoning. The significance of this murder trial is that it began to establish precedent regarding the definition of 'insanity'. The system of justice in 19th century Britain was trying to understand and contemplate the metamorphsis of law and psychiatry in the courts. Why was the crime committed, who are the experts to give testimony, and what precedents would be set? were among the hottest topics of discussion. Insanity is not a medical term, but a legal one. How do the courts sentence someone 'not guilty by reason of insanity' and those who are 'guilty but insane'? Should the medical feild, the psychiatric, or legal professions be consulted? This 19th century case gave way to serious discussion on the subject in England and the U.S. This case was partially responsible for adding an entirely new dimension and perspective to many nations' justice systems, not to mention the controversial nature future cases like this would have on society.