In the case of a policy of life assurance, where there is a
condition in the instrument that if the assured shall "die by his
own hand," the policy shall be void, the rules to be applied in
case of the death of the party by such means, are these, that is to
If the assured, being in the possession of his ordinary
reasoning faculties, from anger, pride, jealousy, or a desire to
escape from the ills of life, intentionally takes his own life, the
proviso attaches, and there can be no recovery.
If the death is caused by the voluntary act of the assured, he
knowing and intending that his death shall be the result of his
act, but when his reasoning faculties are so far impaired that he
is not able to understand the moral character, the general nature,
consequences, and effect of the act he is about to commit, or when
he is impelled thereto by an insane impulse, which he has not the
power to resist, such death is not within the contemplation of the
parties to the contract, and the insurer is liable.
Mary Terry brought an action in the court below against the
Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York, to recover the sum of
$2,000, claimed by her as due upon a policy of insurance
Page 82 U. S. 581
on the life of her husband George Terry, made and issued to her
as his wife.
The policy contained a condition, of which a portion was in
"If the said person, whose life is hereby insured, . . . shall
die by his own hand, . . . this policy shall be null and void."
Within the term of the policy, George Terry died from the
effects of poison taken by him.
Evidence was given tending to show that at the time he took the
poison he was insane. Evidence was also given tending to show that
at that time he was sane, and capable of knowing the consequences
of the act he was about to commit.
Thereupon the counsel for the defendant requested the court to
instruct the jury thus:
If the jury believe from the evidence in the
case, that the said George Terry destroyed his own life, and that,
at the time of self-destruction, he had sufficient capacity to
understand the nature of the act which he was about to commit, and
the consequences which would result from it, then, and in that
case, the plaintiff cannot recover on the policy declared on in
That if the jury believe from the evidence
that the self-destruction of the said George Terry was intended by
him, he having sufficient capacity at the time to understand the
nature of the act which he was about to commit, and the
consequences which would result from it, then, and in that case, it
is wholly immaterial in the present case that he was impelled
thereto by insanity, which impaired his sense of moral
responsibility, and rendered him, to a certain extent,
irresponsible for his action."
The court refused to give either of these instructions, and
charged as follows:
"It being agreed that the deceased destroyed his life by taking
poison, it is claimed by defendant that he 'died by his own hand,'
within the meaning of the policy, and that they are therefore, not
Page 82 U. S. 582
"This is so far true that it devolves on the plaintiff to prove
such insanity on the part of the decedent, existing at the time he
took the poison, as will relieve the act of taking his own life
from the effect which, by the general terms used in the policy,
self-destruction was to have, namely, to avoid the policy."
"It is not every kind or degree of insanity which will so far
excuse the party taking his own life as to make the company
"To do this, the act of self-destruction must have been the
consequence of the insanity, and the mind of the decedent must have
been so far deranged as to have made him incapable of using a
rational judgment in regard to the act which he was
"If he was impelled to the act by an insane impulse which the
reason that was left him did not enable him to resist, or if his
reasoning powers were so far overthrown by his mental condition
that he could not exercise his reasoning faculties on the act he
was about to do, the company is liable. On the other hand, there is
no presumption of law, prima facie
or otherwise, that
self-destruction arises from insanity, and if you believe from the
evidence that the decedent, although excited, or angry, or
distressed in mind, formed the determination to take his own life,
because, in the exercise of his usual reasoning faculties, he
preferred death to life, then the company is not liable, because he
died by his own hand within the meaning of the policy."
The cause came to this Court on exceptions to the refusal of the
court to give the instructions requested by the insurance company,
and to the charge which was actually given.
Page 82 U. S. 583
MR. JUSTICE HUNT delivered the opinion of the Court.
The request for instructions made by the counsel of the
insurance company, proceeds upon the theory that if the deceased
had sufficient mental capacity to understand the nature and
consequences of his act -- that is, that he was about to take
poison, and that his death would be the result, he was responsible
for his conduct, and the defendant is not liable; and the fact that
his sense of moral responsibility was impaired by insanity, does
not affect the case.
The charge proceeds upon the theory that a higher degree of
mental and moral power must exist; that although the deceased had
the capacity to know that he was about to take poison, and that his
death would be the result, yet, if his reasoning powers were so far
gone that he could not exercise them on the act he was about to
commit, its nature and effect, or if he was impelled by an insane
impulse which his impaired capacity did not enable him to resist,
he was not responsible for his conduct, and the defendant is
It may not be amiss to notice that the case does not present the
point of what is called emotional insanity, or mania
Page 82 U. S. 584
that is, the case of one in the possession
of his ordinary reasoning faculties, who allows his passions to
convert him into a temporary maniac, and while in this condition,
commits the act in question. This case is expressly excluded by the
last clause of the charge, in which it is said that anger,
distress, or excitement, does not bring the case within the rule,
if the insured possesses his ordinary reasoning faculties.
The case of Borradaile v. Hunter,
reported in 5th
Manning & Granger, [Footnote
] is cited by the insurance company. The case is found also in
2 Bigelow, Life and Accident Insurance Cases, [Footnote 2
] and in a note appended are found the
most of the cases upon the subject before us. The jury found in
that case that the deceased voluntarily took his own life, and
intended so to do, but that at the time of committing the act he
was not capable of judging between right and wrong. Judgment went
for the defendant, which was sustained upon appeal to the full
bench. The counsel for the company argued that where the act
causing death was intentional on the part of the deceased, the fact
that his mind was so far impaired that he was incapable of judging
between right and wrong did not prevent the proviso from attaching;
that moral or legal responsibility was irrelevant to the issue. The
"It may very well be conceded that the case would not have
fallen within the meaning of the condition had the death of the
assured resulted from an act committed under the influence of
delirium, or if he had, in a paroxysm of fever, precipitated
himself from a window, or, having been bled, removed the bandages,
and death in either case had ensued. In these and many other cases,
that might be put, though, strictly speaking, the assured may be
said to have died by his own hands, the circumstances clearly would
not be such as the parties contemplated when the contract was
In delivering the opinion of the court, Erskine, J., says:
"All that the contract requires is that the act of
self-destruction should be the voluntary
Page 82 U. S. 585
and willful act of a man having at the time sufficient powers of
mind and reason to understand the physical nature and consequences
of such act, and having at the time a purpose and intention to
cause his own death by that act, and the question whether at the
time he was capable of understanding the moral nature and quality
of his purpose, is not relevant to the inquiry further than as it
might help to illustrate the extent of his capacity to understand
the physical character of the act itself."
Chief Justice Tindal dissented from the judgment. In speaking of
the verdict he says:
"It is not, perhaps, to be taken strictly as a verdict that the
deceased was non compos mentis
at the time the act was
committed, for if this latter is the meaning of the jury, the case
would then fall within that description mentioned in the argument
to be without the reach of the proviso, namely, the case of death
inflicted on himself by the party whilst under the influence of
frenzy, delusion, or insanity."
This authority was followed in Clift v. Schwabe,
] where it was
substantially held that the terms of the condition included all
acts of voluntary self-destruction, and that, whether the party is
a voluntary moral agent, is not in issue.
These decisions expressly exclude the question of mental
soundness. They are in hostility to the tests of liability or
responsibility adopted by the English courts in other cases from
Coke and Hale onwards. Coke said, "A little madness deprives the
lunatic of civil rights or dominion over property, and annuls
wills." But, to exempt from responsibility for crime, he says
"complete ignorance of the knowledge of right and wrong must
exist." Lord Mansfield holds the legal test of a sound mind to be
the knowledge of right and wrong, of good and evil; of which the
converse is ignorance of knowledge of right and wrong, of good and
evil. Lord Lyttleton held the test to be the state called
or sound mind. Lord Erskine [Footnote 4
] defined it to be the absence of
any practicable delusion traceable to a criminal or immoral
Page 82 U. S. 586
act. In Pritchard, on the Different Forms of Insanity, [Footnote 5
] will be found the somewhat
lengthy definition of insanity by Lord Lyndhurst.
The English judges refuse to apply to the act of the insured in
causing his death the principles of legal and moral responsibility
recognized in cases where the contract, the last will, or the
alleged crime of such person may be in issue.
In Hartman v. Keystone Insurance Co.,
] the doctrine of Borradaile v.
was adopted, with the confessedly unsound addition that
suicide would avoid a policy although there were no condition to
that effect in the policy.
In Dean v. Mutual Life Insurance Co.,
] the courts of Massachusetts held
substantially the doctrine of Borradaile v. Hunter.
In Kentucky, in St. Louis Life Insurance Co. v. Graves,
] the court were
divided upon the question of the soundness of Borradaile v.
but held unanimously that where the suicide was
committed during an uncontrollable passion caused by intoxication,
the condition was broken and the policy avoided.
In Cooper v. Massachusetts Life Insurance Co.,
] the doctrine of
Dean v. American Life Insurance Co.
was affirmed, the
plaintiff offering to prove that the deceased was insane at the
time he committed the act, that he acted under the influence and
impulse of insanity, and that his act of self-destruction was the
direct result of his insanity.
In Nimick v. Insurance Company,
] McKennan, Circuit Judge of the
United States for the Western District of Pennsylvania, held that
if the assured comprehended the physical nature and consequences of
the act, and intended to destroy his life, the policy was void,
although he did not comprehend the moral nature of the act.
Page 82 U. S. 587
On the other hand, in Eastabrook v. Union Insurance
judge at the trial instructed the jury "that if the insured was
governed by irresistible or blind impulse in committing the act of
suicide, the plaintiff would be entitled to recover." This decision
was sustained by the Supreme Court of the State of Maine.
In the State of New York, the question arose in Breasted v.
Farmers' Loan & Trust Co.
] In an action upon the policy, the defendants
pleaded that the deceased committed suicide by drowning himself in
the Hudson River, and died by his own hand. To this the plaintiff
replied that the assured was "of unsound mind and wholly
unconscious of the act." The defendants demurred. The supreme court
overruled the demurrer, holding that the reply afforded a
sufficient answer to the plea. The case afterwards came before the
Court of Appeals of that state, [Footnote 13
] when it was held that the provision in the
policy had reference to a criminal act of self-destruction, that
the self-destruction of the insured while insane, and incapable of
discerning between right and wrong, was not within the
In the case of Gay v. Union Mutual Life Insurance Co.,
] it was held
that if the deceased was conscious of the act he was committing, if
he intended to take his own life, and was capable of understanding
the nature and consequences of it, the policy was void, but if the
insured destroyed himself while acting under an insane delusion,
which overpowered his understanding and will, or if he was impelled
to the act by an uncontrollable impulse, the case did not fall
within the proviso of the policy. This decision, it is stated by
Bigelow, [Footnote 15
the result of a careful deliberation between Judges Woodruff and
Shipman at a circuit court of the United States held by them
In his work on Insurance, [Footnote 16
] Mr. Phillips, after citing the cases, closes
"And I take our law to be that any mental derangement which
would be sufficient to exonerate
Page 82 U. S. 588
a party from a contract would render a person incapable of
occasioning the forfeiture of a policy under this condition."
There is a conflict in the authorities which cannot be
The propositions embodied in the charge before us are in some
respects different from each other, but in principle they are
identical. They rest upon the same basis -- the moral and
intellectual incapacity of the deceased. In each case, the physical
act of self-destruction was that of George Terry. In neither was it
truly his act. In the one supposition,, he did it when his
reasoning powers were overthrown and he had not power or capacity
to exercise them upon the act he was about to do. It was in effect
as if his intellect and reason were blotted out or had never
existed. In the other, if he understood and appreciated the effect
of his act, an uncontrollable impulse caused by insanity compelled
its commission. He had not the power to refrain from its commission
or to resist the impulse. Each of the principles put forth by the
judge rests upon the same basis -- that the act was not the
voluntary intelligent act of the deceased.
The causes of insanity are as varied as the varying
circumstances of man.
"Some for love, some for jealousy,"
"For grim religion some, and some for pride,"
"Have lost their reason; some for fear of want,"
"Want all their lives; and others every day,"
"For fear of dying, suffer worse than death. [Footnote 17
When we speak of the "mental" condition of a person, we refer to
his senses, his perceptions, his consciousness, his ideas. If his
mental condition is perfect, his will, his memory, his
understanding are perfect, and connected with a healthy bodily
organization. If these do not concur, his mental condition is
diseased or defective.
Excessive action of the brain whereby the faculties become
exhausted, a want of proper action whereby the
Page 82 U. S. 589
functions become impaired and diminished, the visions,
delusions, and mania which accompany irritability, or the weakness
which results from an excess of vital functions, indigestion and
sleeplessness, are all the result of a disturbance of the physical
system. The intellect and intelligence of man are manifested
through the organs of the brain, and from these, consciousness,
will memory, judgment, thought, volition, and passion, the
functions of the mind, do proceed. Without the brain, these cannot
exist. With an injured or diseased brain, their powers are impaired
We have not before us the particular facts on which the
questions of the sanity of Terry were presented. We may assume that
proof was given upon which the propositions of the charge were
based. We do not know whether he was sleepless, unduly excited, or
unnaturally depressed; whether he had abandoned his accustomed
habits and pursuits and adopted new and unusual ones; from a quiet,
orderly man, had become disorderly, vicious, or licentious; that
his fondness for his wife and children changed to dislike and
abuse; that jealousy, pride, the fear of want, the fear of death
had overtaken him. He may have realized the state supposed by the
counsel in arguing Borradaile v. Hunter, viz.,
that his death might have resulted from an act committed under the
influence of delirium, or that in a paroxysm of fever he might have
precipitated himself from a window, or having been bled, he might
have torn away the bandages. Whether he swallowed poison or did the
other insane acts might result from the same condition of body and
Delirium, fever, tearing away the bandages for preserving the
life, the taking of poison, in a case like that before us, are all
results of bodily disease. If bodily disease in these or other
forms overthrew Terry's reasoning faculties -- in other words,
destroyed his consciousness, his judgment, his volition, his will
-- he remained the form of the man only. The reflecting responsible
being did not exist. In the language of the successful counsel in
Borradaile v. Hunter,
"In these and many other cases, though, strictly speaking, the
assured may be said to have died by his own hands, the
Page 82 U. S. 590
clearly would not be such as the parties contemplated when the
contract was entered into."
That form of insanity called impulsive insanity, by which the
person is irresistibly impelled to the commission of an act, is
recognized by writers on this subject. [Footnote 18
] It is sometimes accompanied by delusions
and sometimes exists without them. The insanity may be patent in
many ways, or it may be concealed. We speak of the impulses of
persons of unsound mind. They are manifested in every form --
breaking of windows, destruction of furniture, tearing of clothes,
firing of houses, assaults, murders, and suicides. The cases are to
be carefully distinguished from those where persons in the
possession of their reasoning faculties are impelled by passion,
merely, in the same direction.
Dr. Ray, cited by Fisher, [Footnote 19
] approves the charge of the judge in
Haskell's case, where he says:
"The true test lies in the word power. Has the defendant in a
criminal case the power to distinguish right from wrong, and the
power to adhere to the right and avoid the wrong?"
The question of sanity has usually been presented upon the
validity of an agreement, the capacity to make a will, or upon
responsibility for crime. If Terry had made an agreement under the
circumstances stated in the charge, a jury or a court would have
been justified in pronouncing it invalid. A will, then, made by
him, would have been rejected by the surrogate if offered for
probate. If upon trial for a criminal offense, upon all the
authorities, he would have been entitled to a charge that upon
proof of the facts assumed, the jury must acquit him. [Footnote 20
We think a similar principle must control the present case,
although the standard may be different.
We hold the rule on the question before us to be this: if
Page 82 U. S. 591
the assured, being in the possession of his ordinary reasoning
faculties, from anger, pride, jealousy, or a desire to escape from
the ills of life, intentionally takes his own life, the proviso
attaches and there can be no recovery. If the death is caused by
the voluntary act of the assured, he knowing and intending that his
death shall be the result of his act, but when his reasoning
faculties are so far impaired that he is not able to understand the
moral character, the general nature, consequences, and effect of
the act he is about to commit, or when he is impelled thereto by an
insane impulse, which he has not the power to resist, such death is
not within the contemplation of the parties to the contract, and
the insurer is liable.
In the present instance, the contract of insurance was made
between Mrs. Terry and the company, the insured not being in form a
party to the contract. Such contracts are frequently made by the
insured himself, the policy stating that it is for the benefit of
the wife, and that in the event of death, the money is to be paid
to her. We see no difference in the cases. In each, it is the case
of a contract, and is to be so rendered as to give effect to the
intention of the parties. Nor do we see any difference for this
purpose in the meaning of the expressions, commit suicide, take his
own life, or die by his own hands. With either expression, it is
not claimed that accidental self-destruction, death in endeavoring
to escape from the flames, or the like, is within the proviso.
MR. JUSTICE STRONG dissented.
3 Common Bench 437.
Defense of Hadfield.
Vol. 1, p. 16, and see
1 Shelford on Lunatics 46.
21 Pa.St. 466.
4 Allen 96.
6 Bush 268.
102 Mass. 227.
10 American Law Register, New Series, 102.
54 Me. 224.
4 Hill 73.
4 Selden 299.
Cited in 2 Bigelow, Life and Accident Insurance Cases 4.
Armstrong on Health, book 4, v. 84. Cited in Shelford on
Lunatics, n. 1, 43.
Blandford on Insanity -- "Impulsive Insanity."
Fisher on Insanity, p. 83.
Freemen v. People,
4 Denio 9; Willis v.
32 N.Y. 719; Seaman's Society v. Hopper,
619; The Marquess of Winchester's Case,
Reports 23; Combe's Case,