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.

Hard Sell: A History of the Pet Rock

Amazon
Amazon

You may have heard the story of the Pet Rock, the Mexican beach stone that could be purchased in bulk for less than a penny, retailed for $3.95, and made inventor Gary Dahl a millionaire during a kind of novelty gift hysteria in late 1975. But Dahl didn’t really get rich off of the rock.

He got rich off of a cardboard box.

Dahl was working as a freelance advertising copywriter in California that year when, while having drinks at a bar with friends, the conversation turned to the destructive nature of pets. Dogs and cats ruined furniture. Worse, they required constant attention, from being walked to being fed to cleaning up after them. Dahl said that he didn’t have to worry about any of that because he had a “pet rock.”

It was, of course, a joke. And it got a laugh. But Dahl decided there could be more to it than that. He went home and began writing an owner’s manual for this hypothetical pet rock, which detailed how best to handle it, the tricks it could perform (“play dead” being the most popular), and how it could remain a faithful companion due to its “long life span.” The gag was not so much the rock itself but the way it was presented. In addition to the manual, Dahl conceived of a cardboard box with air holes that resembled the kind used by pet shops. It also bore a passing resemblance to a McDonald's Happy Meal container.

 

Dahl's motivation in making a serious effort to monetize his pet rock idea was due in large part to his precarious financial situation at the time—he was struggling to keep up with his bills. He recruited George Coakley and John Heagerty, two colleagues, to come on as investors. They both signed on, with Coakley investing $10,000—a not-inconsiderable sum in 1975, especially when the intention was to sell virtually worthless rocks.

The Pet Rock packaging is pictured
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dahl, however, knew what he was marketing. Like chattering teeth, the Hula Hoop, and other fads, the Pet Rock was the beneficiary of good timing. Vietnam had ended but Watergate was still fresh; the country’s mood was slightly downcast, and Dahl believed people would see the inane nature of the Pet Rock and recognize the humor of it. He boxed the rocks with the manual and packed them in excelsior, which may be best known as comic book legend Stan Lee’s catchphrase but also means a softwood shaving pile meant for protecting fragile items. The rocks were purchased from a local sand and gravel company, which sourced them from Mexico’s Rosarita Beach. Dahl debuted the rock at a gift show in San Francisco in August of 1975, then waited for a reaction.

He got one. People understood the appeal right away and he began taking orders. Neiman Marcus wanted 1000 rocks. Bloomingdale’s later signed on. Newsweek did a story with a picture, which spread the word. Dahl had retail and media credibility for what was superficially a nonsense product. His bar joke was turning into a national phenomenon.

When the holiday season arrived, Dahl estimated he was selling up to 100,000 Pet Rocks a day. Ultimately, he would sell between 1.3 and 1.5 million of them within a period of just a few months. Coakley made $200,000 back on his initial $10,000 investment. Dahl gifted both Coakley and Heagerty with Mercedes. Making 95 cents in profit on each Pet Rock sold, Dahl earned over $1 million. He launched his own firm, Rock Bottom Productions, which was itself another joke. “You’ve reached Rock Bottom” is how the receptionist answered their phone.

 

The fad did not last—by definition, they’re not designed to—but Dahl was satisfied. His two investors were not; they "claimed they had received too small a share of the profits" and later sued Dahl for more revenue. After a judgment in the investors' favor, Dahl wrote them a six-figure check.

The Pet Rock is pictured
Amazon

There were attempts to prolong the life of the rock by offering a Bicentennial version in 1976—it had the American flag painted on it—and mail-order college degrees for them. Dahl sold Pet Rock T-shirts and Pet Rock shampoo. There were also copycat gifts, since Dahl could not really patent a rock. (He might have been able to obtain a utility patent because of the rock’s particular purpose as a companion, but he did not.) The humor was transient, however, and people had moved on.

Dahl had other ideas. There was the Official Sand Breeding Kit, which claimed to provide guidance on growing sand, and Canned Earthquake, which consisted of a coffee can that had a wind-up mechanism that caused it to jump around on a table. Neither was particularly successful. Dahl’s real passion, though, was buying and renovating a bar in Los Gatos, which he named Carrie Nation’s Saloon.

This was not without its problems, as people who believed they had the next Pet Rock would often stop by the bar to try and secure an audience with Dahl for his insight. Many times, their idea consisted of packaging bull or elephant excrement. There were also proposals to market a pet stick. Dahl had no patience for these inventors, believing the Pet Rock could not be duplicated. Later, he went back to advertising after taking what he described as an “eight-year vacation” following the success of his project.

The Pet Rock can still be found online, though it’s no longer Dahl’s business. He died in 2015. Of the unsold rocks he had left over at the end of the fad, he was indifferent. If they didn’t sell, he said, he would just use them to repave his driveway.

Submarine Expedition Reveals Parts of the Titanic Have Fully Decayed

NOAA/Institute for Exploration/University of Rhode Island
NOAA/Institute for Exploration/University of Rhode Island

In 1985, oceanographers Robert Ballard, Jean-Louis Michel, and their crew located the wreck of the RMS Titanic at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Images of the shipwreck have since become as iconic as photographs of the ocean liner taken before the 1912 tragedy. But the ruin's time in the ocean is limited. As part of an upcoming documentary, a crew of scientists carried out the first manned expedition to the wreck in 14 years and discovered the Titanic is rapidly decaying, BBC reports.

After it sank, the Titanic settled in two parts on the seafloor about 370 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. Most of the wreck is still intact, but a lot has changed since 2005, when it was last visited by a human-occupied submersible.

While working on a film for Atlantic Productions London, an exploration team from Triton Submarines visited the wreck five times over eight days and discovered that entire sections of the ship have disappeared. The starboard side of the officer's quarters has deteriorated, and the captain's bathtub is totally gone. The deck house on the same side and the sloping lounge roof of the bow are also on the brink of collapse, according to the crew.

Unlike other artifacts and historic sites, there's no way to preserve the wreckage of the Titanic for future generations. Churning ocean currents, corrosive salt, and metal-eating bacteria will continue to break down the steel behemoth until it becomes part of the sea. Some experts estimate that by 2030, it's likely that no part of the wreck will remain.

Whether that projection is off by years or decades, these findings suggest that every new team that visits the Titanic may find something different than the team before them. On this most recent expedition, the Triton Submarines exploration team was able to film the wreck in 4K for the first time. That footage may end up being some of the last ever captured of many elements of the ship.

[h/t BBC]

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