Beasts Before the Bar

Quaint court scenes of yesteryear show that ignorance of the law was once no excuse even for an animal.

The highest French court tried a cow in 1546. On the assumption that animals possessed a moral sense, capital punishment was the verdict.

The highest French court tried a cow in 1546. On the assumption that animals possessed a moral sense, capital punishment was the verdict.

G. Frederick Mason

A five-year-old boy was murdered on March 27 in Sarasota, Florida. Perhaps “murder” is not the right word, for Edward Schooley was killed by a circus elephant. “Dolly” had been one of the most docile members of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey elephant herd for more than twenty years. But for some inexplicable reason she suddenly turned vicious and trampled to death the child who was offering her a peanut. The president of the circus publicly announced that Dolly would be destroyed, and this was done within three days after the tragedy.

According to radio reports, circus officials received many letters and telegrams from people all over the country complaining that Dolly’s execution was unjustified. They apparently felt that a moral issue was involved and that an animal could not be held responsible for its actions. This point of view implies some interesting assumptions concerning animal psychology, but one thing is quite clear. If such an event had happened one or two centuries ago, the animal involved would have received quite different treatment. The law today states merely that dangerous or vicious animals must be destroyed. This represents a fairly recent simplification of older legal codes.

Ancient Hebraic law decreed that the goring ox be stoned to death. Plato’s “Laws” directed that if any animal killed a man, except in combat authorized by the State, the nearest kinsman of the victim should prosecute the murderer. The case was tried by a public official, and if the verdict was against the accused, the guilty animal was banished from Greece. Citizens of Rome used to celebrate the anniversary of the preservation of the capitol from night attack by the Gauls. On this occasion homage was paid to descendants of the sacred geese whose cries had given warning of the enemy’s approach. On the same day a dog was crucified for the failure of its forefathers to give the alarm.

During the Middle Ages the practice of trying and condemning animals was common in Europe and the British Isles and later even in the New World. It was not confined to small villages and backward regions. In 1546 the French Parliament, the highest court in the land, ordered the execution of a cow, which was first hanged and then burned at the stake. Similar legal trials survived until fairly recent times. In 1906 in a small Swiss village a man and his son, accompanied by their dog, robbed a householder, and in the course of the crime the victim was killed. The two men were sentenced to life terms; but the dog was condemned to death because, the court decreed, it was the chief culprit, without whose complicity the crime would have been impossible.

Between a.d. 824 and 1845, there were at least 144 formal prosecutions resulting in the execution or excommunication of animal criminals. When a domesticated animal injured or killed a human being, it was formally arrested and thrown into jail. Then the judge or ruling nobleman of the district appointed one or several attorneys, who were charged with the duty of defending the accused. Public prosecutors and defense lawyers argued each case before the bar, and the evidence was weighed carefully by the judge before he rendered his verdict.

Mass indictments were not uncommon. On September 5, 1379, the village swineherd of Saint-Marcelle-Jenssey left the communal herd in the care of his son. Before his father was out of sight, the boy began to tease some nursling piglets, which promptly burst into a cacophony of terrified squeals. Three old sows charged the tormentor, knocked him to the ground, and killed him before his father could intervene. All the pigs were hurried off to jail, and after due process of law, Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, condemned the three murderers to death. Their guilt was so plain that no one protested the decision, but the legal position of the remaining animals was less clear. The prosecutor insisted that they should be punished as accomplices. He called several witnesses, who testified that all of the swine had hastened to the scene of the murder and shown by their gruntings and aggressive actions that they thoroughly approved of the assault. A wholesale execution was narrowly averted when the attorney for the defense pointed out that the punishment of the convicted pigs would doubtless serve as an effective object-lesson to the other swine and would deter them from committing any more offenses against men. The Duke found this argument convincing; and when the three murderers went to the gallows, the rest received a severe warning and were then released.

It was commonly assumed that lower animals possess a moral sense and could reasonably be expected to understand and obey man-made laws. But there were some jurists who held that the animal’s owner was at least partially responsible for its actions. On January 10, 1457, a sow was convicted of “murder flagrantly committed” and was sentenced to be hanged. Her six sucklings were originally included in the indictment as accomplices.

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