Felo de se

Felo de se, Latin for "felon of him- or herself", was a concept applied against the personal estates (assets) of adults who ended their own lives.[1] Early English common law, among others, by this concept considered suicide a crime—a person found guilty of it, though dead, would ordinarily see penalities including forfeiture of property to the monarch and a shameful burial. Beginning in the seventeenth century precedent and coroners' custom gradually deemed suicide temporary insanity—court-pronounced conviction and penalty to heirs were gradually phased out.

Such judgment and penalties had taken in any deceased, lawfully killed for self-defence or defence of another, committing a felony.

Detailed evolutionEdit

Extract from London Before the Houses, W.E. Loftie, 1884 showing at centre in Middlesex beyond old London's limits an elevated key crossroads, for centuries, a place of hanging convicts, the Tyburn Tree and of Ossulstone (Oswald's Stone); today by Marble Arch. Roadside burials were also a slur in the Roman Empire.

Until the end of the widespread phasing out mentioned below, in English common law suicides were felons. The crime was punishable by forfeiture (great loss of property) to the monarch and what was considered a shameful burial – typically with a stake through the heart and at a crossroads. Burials for felo de se typically took place at night, with no mourners nor clergy; the place was often kept secret by justices of the peace, coroners and local undertakers.[2]

A child or lunatic (a term which included the demonstrably mentally disabled) who killed themself was excepted from this post mortem offence, which resembled attainder.

Burial at the place mentioned persisted until the Burial of Suicide Act 1823 abolished it. By this, the remains should be buried in a churchyard (with minister attending), or other authorised place. This was broadened by the Interments (felo de se) Act 1882. Vestiges of the old practice persisted into the middle of the century. A news report in 1866 as to the case of Eli Sykes, a prisoner awaiting the death sentence at Armley gaol in Leeds, read 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".[3]

By the Burial Laws Amendment Act 1880 funeral rites were defaulted to a "Christian and orderly religious service", substituting that taken from the Book of Common Prayer if required (i.e. if the deceased was known to be of other religion).

Phasing outEdit

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 instead. As such the perpetrator's property was not forfeit (given to the Crown).[4] 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."[4]

Repeal in England and WalesEdit

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

Repeal in IndiaEdit

In 2017, the Indian Parliament passed a mental healthcare bill that (among other things) decriminalized attempts to do suicide.[6]

United StatesEdit

In the 1700s, many English colonies in what is now the United States decriminalized suicide.[7] Later state laws against suicide and its attempt have been widely repealed;[8] by the 1990s two states had the crime (or that of attempt) in their legal canon.[8]

Use in literatureEdit

"Felo de se" titles works by

It entitles a novel by R. Austin Freeman.


  • 1854—Joseph Zillwood, Lyttelton, New Zealand.[9]
  • 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.[10]


  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. ^ Stamford Mercury, 12 January 1866
  4. ^ a b Sleepless Souls: Suicide in Early Modern England by Michael MacDonald and Terence R. Murphy (1990). Chapter 4.
  5. ^ Holt, Gerry (2011-08-03). "When suicide was illegal". BBC News. Retrieved 2017-11-25.
  6. ^ "Mental Healthcare Bill decriminalising suicide attempt passed by Parliament". hindustantimes.com/. 2017-03-27. Retrieved 2017-11-25.
  7. ^ Mash, Eric J.; Barkley, Russell A. (2014-07-01). Child Psychopathology, Third Edition. Guilford Publications. ISBN 9781462516681.
  8. ^ a b Foster, Charles; Herring, Jonathan; Doron, Israel (2014-12-01). The Law and Ethics of Dementia. Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 9781849468190.
  9. ^ "Papers Past — Lyttelton Times — 25 October 1854 — LOCAL INTELLIGENCE". paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. 2012. Retrieved 10 January 2012.
  10. ^ Lancashire Evening Post, 20 March 1919