On September 5, 1700, the Flemish town of Sint-Niklaas was startled by a particularly cruel instance of child murder. While Marie Van Stappen, the wife of Jan Smet, was busy drying her linen, her twelve-year-old son Jan ran to her, saying: “Mother, Jenne Mariken is screaming, please come inside quickly”. Upon entering the house, Marie found that her youngest daughter had a grave injury to her neck. Marie’s husband was only two steps away from the girl – knife in hand – with a similar wound. With the help of her servant, Marie was able wrest away his knife. And while Jan Smet initially managed to escape, he was captured by a group of neighbours.
The situation took an even more dramatic turn when Jan Smet informed his wife that “Drusken was already dead”. Marie immediately ran to the attic, where she discovered the body of her three-year-old son, Andriesken, lying in a pool of blood.
The case quickly came to the attention of the feudal court of the castellany of the Land van Waas (a rural region situated to the north-east of Ghent, of which Sint-Niklaas was one of the major localities). On September 6, the judges required two local surgeons, Jacques De Smet and Andries Du Pont, to examine the corpse of Andriesken Smet. The surgeons declared that
“the jugular vein and artery of the aforementioned child, being a boy of approximately three years old, were severed with a sharp cutting instrument, penetrating the articulations of the vertebrae, which caused the child’s death”.
Both surgeons were also asked to examine the wounded Jenne Mariken, whom they found “injured in a very perilous way, being cut with a sharp instrument in the throat, penetrating the cavity of the arteries” and that she was “not outside peril of death”. Finally, the surgeons were asked to depose on the mental state of the culprit. While Andries Du Pont stated that he could not tell the judges anything on this matter, Jacques De Smet found that Jan Smet had “a phrenesis or raving madness”.
In all of its cruelty, the Sint-Niklaas child murder of 1700 neatly sums up the different roles medical practitioners played in early modern criminal proceedings. From the Late Middle Ages onwards, judges on the European continent gradually abandoned the old accusatorial way of prosecuting criminality (meaning that the judges only acted following an accusation by an injured party) and irrational forms of proof such as trial by combat or cruentation (the belief that the corpse of a murder victim bled in the presence of the murderer). Instead, they adopted the tenets of the so-called inquisitorial procedure, which, next to its focus on the prosecution of crime by government officials acting ex officio, placed a strong emphasis on the rational investigation of the facts by the penal judge. The necessity of obtaining rational proof of the facts and circumstances surrounding a crime, prompted judges to consult experts in a growing number of trials. Among the different types of experts that appeared in early modern courts, medical practitioners certainly constituted the most frequently consulted category, primarily because of the very broad applicability of medical knowledge in different types of cases, as is aptly illustrated by the 1700 murder case.
First, medical practitioners were asked to perform post-mortems in order to establish causes of death. In Flanders, examinations of the bodies of homicide victims were made mandatory by an ordinance proclaimed in 1589. As the cause of death of Andriesken De Smet was relatively self-evident, the post-mortem remained quite summary. The examination did, for instance, not involve opening the body, as was common in more complex cases.
Second, the examination of the wounds of his sister, Jenne Mariken, points to another important role that medical practitioners played in criminal proceedings. In case of serious injuries, the judicial authorities required surgeons to examine the victim and to depose on the potential lethality of the wounds. If the victim was considered outside peril, the culprit could only be prosecuted for having inflicted an injury, and not for (attempted) manslaughter, even if the victim eventually died. In the case of Jenne Mariken, both surgeons considered her wounds sufficiently dangerous to warrant the court’s further attention.
Third, the role of medical practitioners was not limited to victims’ bodies. In Jan Smet’s case, they were also asked to attest to his mental state. For a long time, early modern judges did not consider insanity to be an exclusively medical problem, as friends, neighbours, and relatives were deemed equally (or even more) competent to testify regarding the mad behaviour of culprits. In two other instances of child murder, from 1750 (a father who drowned his two children) and 1773 (a mother who slit her daughter’s throat), the testimony of lay witnesses sufficed in establishing the lunacy of the culprits. In Jan Smet’s case, three neighbours and his manservant were also asked to depose on the culprit’s mental condition, one of whom remembered that Jan Smet had been a light-minded person since his childhood, a condition that had worsened since the past winter, and primarily manifested itself in the utterance of many “crazy discourses”. What is perhaps the most surprising aspect of this case, is not that medical practitioners were consulted regarding the culprit’s insanity, but that this task was entrusted to surgeons, who – in contrast to university-trained physicians – were expected to occupy themselves exclusively with external injuries.
The interest of the judges in the mental state of Jan Smet might to a large extent account for the peculiar outcome of the case, which remains shrouded in mystery. No record survives to indicate that Jan Smet was sentenced to death or other penal sanction, even though the criminal sentencing records of that particular court are in an excellent state of preservation. The most probable outcome is that Jan Smet was, in fact, never officially sanctioned. Similar to most modern codes of criminal law, early modern jurists acknowledged that a mad offender could not be held responsible for criminal acts committed in a state of lunacy, and could therefore not be punished. At best, lunatic offenders were confined to a madhouse or charitable institution. In Jan Smet’s case, whether he was confined, and the duration and place of confinement if so, remain unknown. The only clue we have is a deposition by his wife dating from December of 1700, three months after the dramatic events described above, in which she related how her husband was confined at home, bound by iron shackles attached to the wall. He was temporarily released at certain intervals so that he could work in order to support his seven surviving children.
In many respects, the 1700 Sint-Niklaas murder bears striking resemblances to a number of recent Flemish ‘family drama’s’, in which a parent, after having killed one or more of his/her children and attempting suicide, was confined to a psychiatric institution after being declared insane. Notwithstanding changed conceptualisations of criminal responsibility and the contribution of medico-legal expertise to the administration of criminal justice, it is tempting to push the comparison even further. However, it may suffice here to note that both early modern and modern societies alike have grappled with atrocious acts of violence that might be explained by the forensic-psychiatric gaze, but which were and are extremely difficult to predict and prevent, and it is this that largely contributes to their shock value, and our fascination with them.
State Archives Ghent, Archives of the Feudal Court of the Land van Waas, no. 254: Register of Criminal Inquiries 1690-1701.
State Archives Ghent, Archives of the Council of Flanders, no. 31128: Documents regarding the murders committed by Jan Baptiste Van Goethem, who drowned his son and daughter (April 1750).
State Archives Ghent, Archives of the Council of Flanders, no. 31151: Documents concerning the murder committed by Marie Vervaek, who slit her daughter’s throat (March 1773).
Eigen, Joel Peter. Witnessing Insanity. Madness and Mad-Doctors in the English Court. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
Ruggiero, Guido. ‘The Cooperation of Physicians and the State in the Control of Violence in Renaissance Venice.’ Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 33, no. 2 (1978): 156-166.
Ruggiero, Guido. ‘Excusable murder. Insanity and Reason in Early Renaissance Venice.’ Journal of Social History 16, no. 1 (1982): 109-119.
Watson, Katherine. Forensic Medicine in Western Society: A History. New York: Routledge, 2011.