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Portrait of an Epileptic as a Murderess: Locating Transgression in the Case of a Modern Cannibal

Se-Woong Koo (École des hautes etudes en sciences sociales)

Perhaps no year has been as important for the Korean development of criminal law and psychiatry as 1960. It was then that a seventeen-year-old female epileptic killed a child for the explicit purpose of eating his flesh, causing a sensation in local society. The evident reason for the murder—to cure herself of epilepsy—stirred widespread fear over how such an act could still be possible in what was considered a modern state. But the heinous nature of the crime notwithstanding, whether the murder constituted transgression—in the sense of testing particular boundaries—was another matter for a debate. From the point of view of the prosecutor, she had obviously taken a life and deserved imprisonment. But when a large number of public health experts testified that epileptics were predisposed to violence and sometimes homicidal urges in extreme cases, her criminality was outweighed and even negated by her alleged insanity. Put another way, a rational explanation for her seemingly irrational conduct blunted the case’s transgressive character, normalizing the violent episode as a mere symptom of a well-understood mental condition.

What complicated the medical diagnosis, however, was that the perpetrator of the crime was acting within a well-established tradition of belief in the efficacy of human flesh to cure a variety of illnesses, not least epilepsy.

This paper will seek to explore representations of this particular murder in contemporaneous legal, medical, and journalistic accounts, and locate different, perhaps even competing, notions of transgression in the period of transition from the final year of the First Republic to the onset of the Third.