Accommodating 'imbeciles' or the 'weak-minded': justice and sexual crime in nineteenth-century Scotland

Elizabeth Foyster, Christopher Holligan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Downloads (Pure)


This article foregrounds the challenges encountered by the criminal justice system in understanding the distinctiveness of individuals in nineteenth-century Scotland classified as “imbecile” or “weak-minded”. Examining cases of rape and sexual assault that came before the High Court of Justiciary, it interrogates the difficulties of prosecution. It describes how human difference came under threat from a eugenic bioethical hierarchy when social structures were transforming under industrialization. Each of these factors made Scottish communities less safe for the dependent, especially those classified as “childlike” with sexually mature bodies. Based upon precognition legal sources the article, through the retrieval of the “imbecile”, identifies a paradigmatic clash between esteemed legal conceptions of mental capacity and a more complex humanity. It demonstrates how and why public expectations that these new social groups would be accommodated were not always met within the Scottish judicial system.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)91-113
Number of pages23
JournalCrime, History and Societies
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 6 Nov 2020


  • criminal justice
  • sexual assault
  • prosecution


Dive into the research topics of 'Accommodating 'imbeciles' or the 'weak-minded': justice and sexual crime in nineteenth-century Scotland'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this