For centuries, an inanimate object or animal could be held responsible—and punished!—for committing a crime. Don’t take our word for it. Just ask Plato, who wrote in one of his dialogues:
"If a beast of burden or other animal kills someone ... let the relatives open actions at law for homicide against the killer ... and when the animal has been defeated in the trial, let them kill it and throw it beyond the borders of the land. If an inanimate thing deprives a man of life, except for a thunderbolt or any other missile of supernatural origin … let the relative by descent appoint the nearest of the neighbors as judge for the occurrence … and when the thing has been defeated in the trial, let it be expelled beyond the borders."
In medieval Europe, a special legal category called the deodand was reserved for guilty animals and inanimate objects, which would be confiscated, forfeited to “God and Country,” and sold to benefit some noble cause. “Over the centuries there were some standard types of fatal accidents which frequently resulted in deodands, such as incidents involving boats, horses, houses, trees, and carts,” Teresa Sutton wrote in The Journal of Legal History. “Other cases were more dramatic, with people being torn to pieces by mills, crushed by maypoles, eaten by pigs, falling into vats of boiling ale, and hit on the head by casks full of wine.”
When animals were the guilty party, the killer was often hanged, burned alive, or buried alive. (Animals guilty of less-than-lethal crimes could be jailed in a public space.) Incredibly, these trials were treated with the same seriousness as any other legal proceeding, with paid human lawyers serving as the animal's defense. “There are records of proceedings against asses, beetles, bulls, caterpillars, cocks, cows, dogs, dolphins, eels, field mice, flies, goats, grasshoppers, horses, insects, leeches, locusts, moles, rats, serpents, sheep, snails, termites, turtledoves, weevils, wolves, worms, and unspecified vermin,” Paul Schiff Berman wrote in the New York University Law Review.
“Some may shrug dismissively, drawing from these peculiar events the conclusion that our pre-Enlightenment relatives, while playing the game of law, were fundamentally irrational,” Anila Srivastava wrote in Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal. “In my view, however, the trials demonstrate unexpected ways of thinking about who or what the law acts upon. Without losing their status as property, animals were imbued with sufficient legal personhood to permit the law to act upon them as it would upon similarly situated humans.”
Put differently: Sometimes the world just didn’t make any sense. Accidents happen. People die for inexplicable reasons. In an era without insurance or meaningful regulations, one way to find order in the chaos was to hold creatures and objects accountable for their actions. Here is a brief timeline of just a few odd trials that resulted.
5TH CENTURY BCE
A statue of Theagenes of Thasos, a famed Olympian boxer, falls and kills a man—one of Theagenes's old adversaries, who had been visiting the sculpture "every night ... and flogged the bronze image as though he were whipping Theagenes himself." The statue is thrown into the sea as punishment.
A labor of moles in Aosta, Italy is tried in court for destroying crops. An ecclesiastical judge reportedly excommunicates them.
According to a 1917 issue of the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, a sow in Falaise, Normandy—accused of eating infants—is dressed in “a new suit of man’s clothes” and hanged. Before reaching the gallows, it is attended by a caravan of armed men riding horseback.
Rats purportedly eat large amounts of barley in Autun, France. As the story goes, a young lawyer is appointed to defend the critters and successfully pushes the court date further as the rats, time and again, fail to show up for court. (At one point, he argues that the rats failed to show because they were afraid of the local cats.)
Weevils are brought to court after ravaging vineyards in the Savoie region of France. “Presumably, the plaintiffs had to pay for their own counsel, but the weevils had both an agent and an advocate appointed for them,” Srivastava wrote.
A sow kills a 4-month-old girl. The royal notary of the Court of Senlis, France, condemns the pig to be hanged from a tree.
A church bell in Uglich, Russia, rings in the death of Tsar Ivan the Terrible’s son, Dmitry, and locals begin a short-lived uprising. Angry officials flog the bell and remove its “tongue”—the clapper—and exile the whole piece to Siberia. (Today, the bell is on display at Uglich’s Church of St. Dmitry on the Blood.)
Playwright Jean Racine’s new comedic three-act play Les Plaideurs contains scenes parodying animal trials. (Specifically, a dog is tried for eating a capon.)
After biting a local council member in the leg, a dog in Austria is imprisoned for one year in a public marketplace.
A stack of wood falls and kills a child. The wood is found liable and is ransomed as a deodand for 30 shillings, which are given to the child’s father.
A female donkey in Vanvres, France is acquitted of charges of bestiality after a local priest attests “to her virtue and good behavior,” wrote Srivastava. (Nobody, however, comes to the defense of her human counterpart, who is found guilty.)
The U.S. Supreme Court rejects a shipowner’s claim that a vessel cannot be convicted of privateering. According to the Court, “[t]he thing is here primarily considered as the offender, or rather the offense is attached primarily to the thing.” A similar case is made in 1844, with Justice Joseph Story writing, “[t]he vessel which commits the aggression is treated as the offender.”
In a similarly bizarre trial, an American judge finds a unique way to forfeit an automobile to the state: “The court charged the jury to render a verdict finding the car guilty.”
In one of the first actions taken by the modern FDA, 135 packages of phony medicine are destroyed after a U.S. federal court hears the case United States v. 11 ¼ Dozen Packages of Articles Labeled in part Mrs. Moffat’s Shoo-Fly Powders for Drunkenness.
A fictitious office printer is murdered—without trial—in the film Office Space. There is much rejoicing.