A Brief History of Animals (and Inanimate Objects) Going to Court

A pig is tried in France in 1457.
A pig is tried in France in 1457.

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.

824

A labor of moles in Aosta, Italy is tried in court for destroying crops. An ecclesiastical judge reportedly excommunicates them.

1267

A washerwoman falls into a vat of boiling water and dies. The guilty vat is declared a deodand, is confiscated, and then appraised at 18 pence.

1386

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.

1522

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.)

1545

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.

1567

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.

1591

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.)

1668

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.)

c. 1690s

After biting a local council member in the leg, a dog in Austria is imprisoned for one year in a public marketplace.

1716

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.

1750

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.)

1827

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.”

1921

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.”

1941

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.

1999

A fictitious office printer is murdered—without trial—in the film Office Space. There is much rejoicing.

10 Questions About Columbus Day

ihsanGercelman/iStock via Getty Images
ihsanGercelman/iStock via Getty Images

Every American student learns that Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and landed in the New World in 1492. Winifred Sackville Stoner, Jr.'s poem "History of the U.S." has made it impossible to forget the date (although the couplet actually predates her birth), and many federal workers get a day off every October to recognize the explorer's arrival in the New World. You know the who and where, but here are 10 more answers to pressing questions about Columbus Day.

1. When did Christopher Columbus become a cultural icon?

By the early 1500s, other navigators like Amerigo Vespucci and Francisco Pizarro had become more popular and successful than Columbus had been with his off-course voyages. According to The New York Times, historians and writers in the latter part of the 16th century restored some of Columbus’s reputation with great words of praise for the explorer and his discoveries, with his fellow Italians proving particularly eager to celebrate his life in plays and poetry.

2. How did Christopher Columbus's popularity reach the United States?

Blame the British. As the American colonies formed an identity separate from their mainly English roots, colonists looked to figures like the "appointed of God" Columbus to symbolize their ideals. "By the time of the Revolution," writes John Noble Wilford, "Columbus had been transmuted into a national icon, a hero second only to Washington." Columbus's American legacy got another shot in the arm in 1828 when a biography (peppered with historical fiction) by Washington Irving transformed Columbus into an even more idealized figure who sought to "colonize and cultivate," not to strip the New World of its resources.

3. When was the first Columbus Day?

The first recorded celebration took place in 1792 in New York City, but the first holiday held in commemoration of the 1492 voyage coincided with its 400th anniversary in 1892. President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation in which he called Columbus a "pioneer of progress and enlightenment" and suggested that Americans "cease from toil and devote themselves to such exercises as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life."

If Harrison had had his way, though, the holiday would have been celebrated on October 21. He knew that Columbus landed under the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian calendar we use today—making October 21 the correct date for anniversary celebrations.

4. Did anyone actually celebrate Columbus Day in the 19th century?

Italian Americans embraced Columbus as an important figure in their history and saw celebrating him as a way to "be accepted by the mainstream," the Chicago Tribune notes. The Knights of Columbus, an organization formed by Irish Catholic immigrants in 1882, chose the Catholic explorer as their patron "as a symbol that allegiance to their country did not conflict with allegiance to their faith," according to the group's website. Following President Harrison’s 1892 proclamation, they lobbied for Columbus Day to become an official holiday.

5. When did Columbus Day become an official holiday?

The holiday first found traction at the state level. Colorado began celebrating Columbus Day, by governor's proclamation, in 1905. Angelo Noce, founder of the first Italian newspaper in the state, spearheaded the movement to honor Columbus and Italian American history. In 1907, the Colorado General Assembly finally gave in to him and made it an official state holiday.

6. When did Columbus Day become a federal holiday?

With Franklin D. Roosevelt as president, lobbying from the Knights of Columbus paid off, and the United States as a whole observed Columbus Day in 1934. Thirty-four years later, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Uniform Holiday Bill, which designated Columbus Day as a federal holiday.

7. Why does the date of Columbus Day change every year?

Columbus Day was originally celebrated on October 12, the day Columbus landed in the New World, but the Uniform Holiday Bill took effect in 1971 and changed it to the second Monday in October, as well as moved the dates of Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day to Mondays (Veterans Day would be moved back to November 11 in 1980 after criticism from veterans’ groups). The act of Congress was enacted to "provide for uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Monday, and for other purposes."

8. Does every state observe the Columbus Day holiday on the same weekend?

In Tennessee, Columbus Day comes with an asterisk. The state’s official holiday observance calendar reads that Columbus Day is the second Monday of October, or "at the governor's discretion, Columbus Day may be observed the Friday after Thanksgiving."

9. Which states don't celebrate Columbus Day?

In Hawaii, the second Monday of October is known as Discoverer’s Day, "in recognition of the Polynesian discoverers of the Hawaiian Islands, provided that this day is not and shall not be construed to be a state holiday," KHON2 writes. According to the Pew Research Center, only 21 states treated Columbus Day as a paid state holiday in 2013. South Dakota, New Mexico, Maine, and the District of Columbia celebrate Native Americans Day or Indigenous People's Day as a paid holiday. Several cities, like San Francisco and Cincinnati, celebrate Indigenous People's Day.

10. How do other places around the world celebrate Columbus Day?

In Italy, Columbus Day (or Giornata nazionale di Cristoforo Colombo) is listed as one of the national or international days of celebration and is still on October 12, but it's not a public holiday. Some countries have chosen to observe anti-Columbus holidays like the Day of the Indigenous Resistance in Venezuela and Nicaragua, Pan American Day in Belize, and the Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity in Argentina.

Quid Pro Quo Has a Nefarious Etymology

MangoStar_Studio/iStock via Getty Images
MangoStar_Studio/iStock via Getty Images

While some altruists will happily lend a hand without expecting anything in return, most of the world runs on the idea that you should be compensated in some way for your goods and services.

That’s quid pro quo, a Latin phrase which literally means “something for something.” In many cases, one of those “somethings” refers to money—you pay for concert tickets, your company pays you to teach your boss how to open a PDF, etc. However, quid pro quo also applies to plenty of situations in which no money is involved. Maybe your roommate agreed to lend you her favorite sweater if you promised to wash her dishes for a month. Or perhaps, in return for walking your neighbor’s dog while he was on vacation, he gave you his HBO login credentials.

No matter the circumstances, any deal in which you give something and you get something falls under the category of quid pro quo. According to The Law Dictionary, “it is nothing more than the mutual consideration which passes between the parties to a contract, and which renders it valid and binding.” In other words, if everyone on both sides understands the expectation that something will be given in return for a good or service, your contract is valid.

Based on that definition, quid pro quo hinges on transparency; all parties must understand that there’s an exchange being made. However, this wasn’t always the case. As the Columbia Journalism Review reports, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary entry states that quid pro quo was used in 16th-century apothecaries to denote when one medicine had been substituted for another, “whether intentionally (and sometimes fraudulently) or accidentally.”

So, if you were an unlucky peasant with a sore throat, it’s possible your herbal remedy could’ve been swapped out with something less effective—or even dangerous. Though Merriam-Webster doesn’t offer any specific examples of how or why this happened, it definitely seems like it would have been all too easy to “accidentally” poison your enemies during that time.

Just a few decades later, the term had gained enough popularity that people were using it for less injurious instances, much like we do today.

[h/t Columbia Journalism Review]

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