Felo de se
Felo de se, Latin for "felon of himself", is an archaic legal term meaning suicide. In early English common law, an adult who committed suicide was literally a felon, and the crime was punishable by forfeiture of property to the king and what was considered a shameful burial – typically with a stake through his heart and with a burial at a crossroad. Burials for felo de se typically took place at night, with no mourners or clergy present, and the location was often kept a secret by the authorities. A child or mentally incompetent person, however, who killed himself was not considered a felo de se and was not punished post-mortem for his actions. The term is not used in modern legal practice, and the terminology to "commit suicide" as it is not legally correct is to that extent and in the legal context deprecated.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in England, as suicide came to be seen more and more as an act of temporary insanity, many coroner's juries began declaring more suicide victims as non compos mentis rather than felo de se. This meant that the suicide victim's property was not forfeited to the crown and the suicide's family could inherit the property. MacDonald and Murphy write that "By the 1710s and 1720s, over 90 per cent of all suicides were judged insane, and after a period of more rigorous enforcement of the law, non compos mentis became in the last three decades of the century the only suicide verdict that Norwich Coroners returned. ...Non compos mentis had become the usual verdict in cases of suicide by the last third of the century."
The laws relating to felo de se also applied to someone who was killed or died by other causes whilst they were committing another felony (e.g., a burglar who was killed by a householder defending his own property).
As to the advent of remedies for abortive suicide which set up asylum for those attempting suicide see the Interments (felo de se) Act 1882 which has been superseded by the various Mental Health Acts.
Documented incidents of Felo de se
- Macdonald, M. "The Secularization of Suicide in England, 1660-1800", Past and Present #111, (May, 1986), pp. 50-100.
- Sleepless Souls: Suicide in Early Modern England by Michael MacDonald and Terence R. Murphy (1990). Chapter 4.
- "Papers Past — Lyttelton Times — 25 October 1854 — LOCAL INTELLIGENCE.". paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. 2012 [last update]. Retrieved 10 January 2012.
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