While the word mayhem is often used in the context of describing chaos, confusion, rioting and disorder, that is neither its original meaning nor its legal definition. The etymology of mayhem has its roots in Anglo-Norman French, derived from Old French “mahaignier” and Anglo-Norman “maihem”, and legally speaking it is defined as an offence characterized by “willfully maiming or crippling a person”. Under Norman law, and in the centuries that followed, it was narrowly defined so that the maiming in question had to adversely impact the victim’s ability to defend himself in combat; it could encompass either dismemberment or the permanent disabling of a body part necessary for fighting. As such, destroying an opponent’s eye or arm would constitute mayhem, but cutting off an ear, for example, did not. It was originally not an indictable felony and such acts were commonly prosecuted as trespasses or misdemeanors until they were made statutory felonies during the reign of Henry IV in 1403 (the Maiming Act, 5 Henry IV. c. 5). By the 17th century the offence had become much expansive, and included any act of disfigurement, most notably under the 1697 case of Fetter v. Beale when the King’s Bench ruled that loss of part of one’s skull (which most of us would classify as a pretty grievous injury) could fall under the rubric of mayhem.
In the United States, mayhem is a statutory felony in a few states, including California (under Cal. Pen. Code Sec. 203) which states that “[e]very person who unlawfully and maliciously deprives a human being of a member of his body, or disables, disfigures, or renders it useless, or cuts or disables the tongue, or puts out an eye, or slits the nose, ear, or lip, is guilty of mayhem.” Injuries sustained must be permanent in order to sustain a charge of mayhem, and as this statutory provision indicates, it also encompasses disfigurement. In many jurisdictions, these acts could be (and are) charged as aggravated assault, which is commonly defined as attempting to cause serious bodily injury; or knowingly, recklessly or purposefully causing serious bodily injury. A number of other offences are related to this charge, including assault with a deadly weapon, assault with intent to murder, and aggravated assault with a motor vehicle.