Pick from the Past
Natural History, October 1950


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

Beasts Before the Bar

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


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.


The innkeeper's
dog
that bit the leg
of a village council-
man shared its cell
with two human pri-
soners during its one-
year sentence.

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.

Positive proof was lacking, however, and they were released to their owner after he had furnished bail for their reappearance in the event that new evidence was uncovered. The man apparently believed in the inheritance of criminal tendencies, because after worrying about the matter for three weeks, he brought the piglets back to court, openly repudiated them, and refused to be answerable for their conduct in the future.

Swine were not the only animals guilty of criminal offenses. Cattle and horses occasionally ran afoul of the law and received precisely the same treatment as human criminals. Not only was the court procedure the same in each type of case; the same methods of execution were employed. The more common forms of capital punishment were hanging, beheading, or burning at the stake. Whenever possible, the animals were dressed in human clothes before the sentence was carried out.

Homicide was not the only crime for which animals were tried and punished. Jail sentences ranging from a few weeks to several years were not uncommon in cases of the willful injury of a human being, by dogs, horses, cows, or other animals. In one Russian village a "he-goat" butted an important official while he was fastening his shoe, and as punishment the goat was banished to Siberia.



A provision of the sentence was
that the accomplices be warned of
the punishment meted out to their
more belligerent associates.


A German innkeeper's dog showed such poor judgment as to bite the leg of a village councilman. The animal's master was jailed at once, but he complained so vigorously against this miscarriage of justice that the judge ordered his release. After all, the innkeeper argued, why should he languish behind bars while the real culprit went free? Appreciating the logic of this approach, the court arranged for the incarceration of the dog for a period of one year. The sentence was duly served, and the animal shared its cell with two human prisoners.

Medieval methods of dealing with wild animals were, of necessity, more complicated. It was often impossible to capture and keep in jail the untamed creatures that sometimes brought harm to men. Nevertheless, the death sentence was occasionally imposed. In 864, the Council of Worms decreed death by suffocation to a swarm of wild bees that had stung a citizen to death. When animal culprits were not available for physical retribution, action of a different sort was possible. Insects and other pests that indirectly harmed a man by destroying his property could, with appropriate assistance from the clergy, be excommunicated. This extreme measure was not usually resorted to until milder alternatives had been exhausted.

It was customary for example, to implore a swarm of locusts or a colony of rats to depart and cease whatever depredations they may have been committing. In some cases formal provisions for sanctuary were arranged, and the animals were notified by a Crier that they could take and maintain possession of a particular plot of land which had been set aside for their use. Usually the threat of excommunication was employed in an attempt to force the undesirable visitors to move away.

After the Middle Ages the Church grew less willing to participate in such animistic rituals as the excommunication of animals, but laymen continued to rely upon the efficacy of direct appeal to the presumed intellectual and emotional natures of lower animals. Sometimes the approach was informal and persuasive. In an old issue of the Journal of American Folk Lore there appears a copy of a letter dated October 30, 1888. It is addressed very correctly to “Messrs. Rat and Co.” The writer begins with fervent expressions of his esteem for the rats and mentions his fear that they must find their present quarters at No. 3, Pine Street quite unsuitable for winter occupancy. He points out that the building was intended only as a summer residence and therefore is draughty and poorly supplied with food. By fortunate coincidence there is at No. 36, Sea Avenue a large, well-built house where the rats can live snug and happy.” The cellar is well stocked and a near-by barn contains large stores of grain. (Directions for reaching the address are included.) Having thus demonstrated his good intentions, the author of the published letter politely suggests that the rats take advantage of his well-meant advice. If they fail to do so, the letter concludes, “the undersigned, who owns the property at No. 3, Fine St., will be forced to use Rough on Rats.”

The ethical propriety of adjuring the vermin to move to a neighbor’s house seems not to have concerned this gentleman. At that, he was only repeating, with minor modifications, the medieval offer of sanctuary. The more attractive the new abode, the better the chances of acceptance. Peasants in some parts of Europe followed a similar practice in attempting to get rid of cabbage worms. It was customary to go out into the garden and invite the worms to depart, calling out, “In yonder village is church-ale.” Church-ale signified a festival which, the peasants must have assumed, no lively cabbage worm could possibly resist.


Fair Warning. If the rats did
not move to the quarters that
were recommended, Rough on Rats
would be used. An example of “the
intelligent approach” as recently as 1888.

These historical accounts illustrate the universal human tendency to recognize certain similarities between ourselves and lower animals. In scientific jargon the tendency is termed anthropomorphism. It rests upon an implicit belief that other living creatures have the same kinds of psychological experiences as men and women. Probably many of the people who protested the killing of the circus elephant, Dolly, rationalized their objections by thinking of the precipitating event as an “accident.” They may have felt that the animal did not “mean” to injure the boy. Regardless of their reasoning, these individuals were reacting precisely as human beings have reacted for many centuries.

Basic human attitudes and beliefs do not change rapidly. The notions that permitted our forefathers to try, convict, and execute animals as though they were criminals are not completely lacking from our own psychology in this modern and supposedly scientific age.

The difference is that our ancestors assumed that animals had a moral sense and that they either lived up to it or not. If an animal was guilty, it must be punished according to the same laws that applied to man. Today, we know a great deal more about the psychology of animals than our ancestors did and are in a position to know much better how a given animal should be treated. We should ask whether the offender is naturally vicious or whether it was goaded to violence by somebody’s cruelty or carelessness.

The emphasis today is on proper precautions and laws to ensure public safety. Society demands that a dangerous animal be put where it can do no harm; but it also demands that the animal be treated humanely.

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