Felo de se

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Felo de se, Latin for "felon of himself", is an archaic legal term that denotes an illegal act of suicide.[1] Early English common law considered suicide a crime and a person found guilty of it, even though dead, was subject to punishments including forfeiture of property to the monarch and being given a shameful burial. Beginning in the seventeenth century law and custom gradually changed to consider a person who committed suicide to be temporarily insane at the time and conviction and punishment were gradually phased out. The term and punishments could also apply to a person killed while committing a felony.


In early English common law, adults who killed themselves were literally felons, and the crime was punishable by forfeiture of property to the king and what was considered a shameful burial – typically with a stake through the 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.[2] 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.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in England, as suicides 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 perpetrator's property was not forfeited to the crown and the family could inherit the property.[3] 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 method of interment in a public highway with a stake driven through the body persisted until 1823, when the Burial of Suicide Act 1823 (4 Geo. IV, c. 52) abolished the practice, and provided that the remains should be buried in a churchyard (with the Minister in attendance), or other authorised place. Some elements of the old practice did persist, however, into at least the middle of the nineteenth century. A news report in 1866 concerning the suicide of Eli Sykes, a prisoner awaiting the death sentence at Armley gaol in Leeds, stated that the inquest jury returned a verdict of "felo de se" and "in consequence of that verdict the body would be buried at midnight, without any religious ceremony, within the precincts of the gaol".[4] In the Burial Laws Amendment Act 1880, provision was made for the provision of funeral rites to be performed described as "Christian and orderly religious service", replacing that taken from the Book of Common Prayer, if required.

"Felo de se" is also employed as the title of poems by fin de siècle poet Amy Levy and Georgian poet Richard Hughes. It is also the title of a book by R. Austin Freeman.

The laws relating to felo de se also applied to someone who was killed or died by other causes whilst committing another felony (e.g., a burglar who was killed by a householder defending his own property).[citation needed]

England and Wales[edit]

In England and Wales, the offence of felo de se was abolished by section 1 of the Suicide Act 1961.[5]

Restrictions on the burial of persons found felo de se had previously been relaxed by the Burial of Suicide Act 1823 (4 Geo 4 c 52)[6] and by the Interments (felo de se) Act 1882.


In 2017, the Indian Parliament passed a mental healthcare bill that (among other things) decriminalized attempts to suicide.[7]

United States[edit]

In the 1700s, the English colonies in what is now the United States decriminalized suicide.[8] Following the example set by the United Kingdom, state laws against suicide were gradually repealed.[9] By the 1990s only two states prohibited suicide.[9]


  • 1854—Joseph Zillwood, Lyttelton, New Zealand.[10]
  • 1919—John Moss, aged 44 and of 8 Foster Street, Chorley, Lancashire, went missing just after 8 o'clock on the morning of 25 February 1919. He had just been questioned by police in his workplace about an attack on a family in their home in Geoffrey Street. Three weeks later, on 18 March 1919, Moss's body was recovered from the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. At an inquest the following day, the coroner said that there was no evidence that Moss had an unsound mind and had murdered himself in his right senses, and a verdict of "felo de se" was returned.[11]


  1. ^ Chisholm, Hugh (1910). The Encyclopædia Britannica: A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, Literature and General Information. At the University Press. p. 243. felo de se history.
  2. ^ Macdonald, M. "The Secularization of Suicide in England, 1660-1800", Past and Present #111, (May, 1986), pp. 50-100.
  3. ^ Sleepless Souls: Suicide in Early Modern England by Michael MacDonald and Terence R. Murphy (1990). Chapter 4.
  4. ^ Stamford Mercury, 12th Jan 1866
  5. ^ Holt, Gerry (2011-08-03). "When suicide was illegal". BBC News. Retrieved 2017-11-25.
  6. ^ Also called the Felo de se Act 1823, the Interments (felo de se) Act 1823, the Burials (Felo de se) Act 1823, and the Suicide Act 1823.
  7. ^ "Mental Healthcare Bill decriminalising suicide attempt passed by Parliament". hindustantimes.com/. 2017-03-27. Retrieved 2017-11-25.
  8. ^ Mash, Eric J.; Barkley, Russell A. (2014-07-01). Child Psychopathology, Third Edition. Guilford Publications. ISBN 9781462516681.
  9. ^ a b Foster, Charles; Herring, Jonathan; Doron, Israel (2014-12-01). The Law and Ethics of Dementia. Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 9781849468190.
  10. ^ "Papers Past — Lyttelton Times — 25 October 1854 — LOCAL INTELLIGENCE". paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. 2012. Retrieved 10 January 2012.
  11. ^ Lancashire Evening Post, 20 March 1919