Monday, April 5, 2010

felo de se

felo de se: An old Latin legal term, literally translated as "felon of himself," meaning suicide. In old England, it specifically referred to suicide by a sane person, which carried with it harsher penalties than the suicide of someone who was insane.

How do you penalize a dead person? At one time, if your death was ruled a felo de se, all the properties you left behind would be forfeit to the king, and your body would suffer "a barbarous burial," according to one legal site.

This was a new one for me when I came across it on p. XVI in the Prologue to Simon Winchester's The Meaning of Everything:

And in central London, a needle- woman and a dispatch clerk--neither a trade that would be formally recognized today--were found dead in Hyde Park, with neck wounds suggesting that at least one of the pair had succumbed to what the newspapers darkly referred to as felo de se, the archaic legal phrase then much used by the polite for the indelicate crime of suicide.