Top 10 animals on trial
Acquitted donkeys, murderous pigs and a bear with a criminal taste for honey, these creatures all found themselves on the wrong side of the law.
WHAT A SWINE
Crime: Pig kills a child
Of all the animals brought before the court throughout the ages, none appears so often as the pig. In one such example, from 1494, a hog was arrested near Clermont in France for having “strangled and defaced a child in its cradle”. Multiple witnesses claimed the porker let itself into the house and “disfigured and ate the face and neck of the said child”. The judge found the swine guilty and sentenced it to be hanged.
IN FLAGRANTE DELICTO
Crime: A donkey is caught fornicating with a man
Sentence: The man, Jacques Ferron, was burned alive
When Frenchman Jacques Ferron was caught copulating with a female donkey in Vanves, France, in 1750, the subsequent trial drew much attention. The parish priest was one of many character witnesses for the popular she-ass, calling her “a most honest creature”. The court judged that the donkey “had not participated in her master’s crime of her own free will”, but Ferron was not so lucky. He was burned to death.
FALLING FOWL OF THE LAW
Crime: Cockerel lays an egg
Sentence: Burned to death
In 1474, the Swiss city of Basel bore witness to a satanic atrocity – a cockerel committing “the heinous and unnatural crime of laying an egg”. Deemed an act of heresy, the rooster was condemned to be burned alive at a judicial hearing. A sombre crowd gathered for the feathered heathen’s immolation, with it being treated as seriously as the execution of a human heretic.
Crime: Weevils damage a vineyard
Damaging any church property was a very serious crime in the Early Modern era, which put animals at the risk of the wrath of the authorities. When weevils ruined a crop of holy grapes in St Julien, France, in 1587, action was swift and thorough – the trial lasted eight months. The outcome is lost to history, but surviving records state that, while the lawyers argued, the impatient locals created a reserve for the critters away from the vineyard.
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STRING 'ER UP
Crime: An elephant kills her handler
Sentence: Death by hanging
A 1916 parade in Kingsport, Tennessee, turned ugly when a circus elephant named Mary killed her handler, Red Eldridge – a homeless man who'd landed a. job as a transient hotel clerk. Eldridge led the elephant parade, although he was not qualified, riding on the top of Mary's back.
Having been on the job only a day, he clumsily hurt Mary with a spear, and the elephant reacted by knocking him down and stamping on his head. The crowd erupted and soon a bloodthirsty lynch mob formed, chanting “Kill the elephant”. They tried to shoot her, but the bullets fell from her thick hide, so they strung her up from a 100-ton railcar-mounted crane. A veterinarian examined Mary after the hanging and determined that she had a severely infected tooth in the precise spot where Red Eldridge had prodded her.
THE RAT TRAP
Crime: Rats destroy a barley crop
Sentence: Rats went free
In 16th century France, lawyer Bartholomew Chassenee developed a reputation as a deft defender of animal rights, after representing a colony of rats in 1510. The rodents had been summoned to trial after destroying a field of barley. When they didn’t show, Chassenee argued his clients couldn’t possibly attend court, as to do so would put them in danger from local cats and dogs. Such risk of death would allow humans to skip court, so why not animals? The befuddled judge postponed the trial indefinitely.
Crime: Primate acts as a French spy, supposedly
During the Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815), anything French was treated with suspicion in Britain. So after a French ship wrecked off the coast of Hartlepool and the sole survivor made it into town, the locals were concerned he was a spy. Even though he was a monkey. According to local legend, the townsfolk held an impromptu trial, found the primate guilty and hanged him. Though the
story may be apocryphal, Hartlepudlians are still known today as the ‘Monkey Hangers’.
MAKING A MOUNTAIN
Crime: Moles cause crop damage
Sentence: Perpetual banishment
For the crime of causing crop damage in Stelvio (modern-day Italy), a company of moles was banished in 1519. After objection from the defendants’ lawyer, the paternal judge mitigated his sentence, adding a clause that those subterranean mammals “with young and to such as are yet in their infancy” should be given 14 days’ respite before being told to get out of town.
DON'T HAVE A COW
Crime: A cow pushes a woman over
When, in 1621, a woman from Saxony, Germany, died from injuries caused by a cow pushing her over, the bovine was pulled before the Law Faculty of the University of Leipzig. It didn’t take long for her sentence of death. The executioners were instructed to kill and bury the animal “unflayed” – the condemned cow’s flesh was not to be eaten, nor leather to be made from her hide.
TASTE FOR HONEY
Crime: Bear steals honey
Sentence: The state had to pay a £1,750 fine
Just eight years ago, in 2008, a court in Macedonia heard how a bear attacked a beekeeper’s hives and stole the honey inside. The wild animal, one of a protected species, didn’t turn up to court so had to be convicted in its absence. The bear was found guilty and as it had no owner, the state was instructed to pay the exasperated beekeeper in damages.