Alfred University News

History Professor Mallory Szymanski examines limits of 'neurasthentic defense'

Alfred University history professor examines 'neuresthanic defense' at Western History Association conference

Alfred University Assistant Professor of history, Mallory Szymanski, reviewed the historically significant case of Aaron Hershfield at the recent Western History Association Conference in San Antonio, TX. She read her paper on Hershfield, “‘Not His Own Boss:’ Nervous Disease, Family Scandal, and the Banking Industry in Helena, Montana, 1893-1895,” at a WHA panel, “In Sickness and in Health: Illness, Institutions, and Medicine in the American West,” which she had organized.

Aaron Hershfield became the subject of a sensationalized divorce trial in the late nineteenth century, driven partly by Jewish relatives who wanted his marriage to a Catholic woman annulled. At the same time, Hershfield was under investigation for writing bad checks while working as a cashier in the Hershfield family-owned Merchants National Bank, located in Helena, MT.

According to Szymanski, Hershfield’s personal life was crumbling and his health was suffering. He consequently argued in court that his illness had undermined his capacity to make responsible decisions – the “neurasthenia defense,” according to Szymanski, which held that Hershfield could not be held responsible for his actions because he was too sick to have sound judgment.

Szymanski writes that Hershfield tried “to link financial and emotional distress together as legally salient justifications of his bad behavior.” The court didn’t buy his argument, and the Hershfield case, Szymanski writes, becomes historically significant “because it marked a limit to which neurasthenia and other mental illnesses could obviate a man’s responsibility to his community.”

Szymanski joined the Alfred University faculty in 2018. She teaches classes in the U.S. Civil War, Black history, the history of sexuality, and popular culture.  She also directs the Africana studies program and teaches African history.