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10 Strange Cases of Non-Humans Put on Trial

by Ben Gazur
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

The concept of a judicial system is one which defines a civilized society. When a crime is committed, citizens can go to the authorities to seek redress for the wrongs done against them instead of having to seek justice for themselves. However, the history of trials has seen some bizarre ones indeed as justice developed. Sometimes, the defendants in a case were not even human.

Looking back on the history of law, here are ten times that unexpected objects and animals found themselves hauled in front of a judge.

Related: Top 10 People Found Guilty At Trial Due To Surprise Evidence

10 Buphonia

Ancient Athens was a city-state that prided itself on the sophistication of its laws and legal system, but each year, a strange ritual was played in which a weapon was put on trial. Known as the Buphonia, it involved an ox being killed to honor Zeus on the Acropolis. An ax was ritually sharpened, and some grain was set out in front of a group of oxen. Whichever one went to eat the grain first was struck on the head with the ax. As soon as the ax fell, the person who wielded it would throw it aside and flee.

Animal sacrifice was not unusual in the Classical world, but there was one problem—an ancient law forbade the killing of animals that did labor. Every year after the sacrifice, a trial was convened, and everyone who had a role in the killing was examined to see who was guilty of breaking the law. Each person blamed another person present until only the ax was left as a potential wrongdoer.

The sources for this ritual trial differ in terms of the outcome. Some say that the ax was found innocent of the crime, while others say that it was a knife that was put on trial and that it was found guilty. The convicted knife was then thrown into the sea to rid the city of its guilty presence.[1]

9 Trial of a Javelin

The idea of religious pollution was a strong one in ancient Greece. A person who had committed a crime and got away without punishment risked bringing down the wrath of the gods on their community. After a person was killed, it was essential to find out who had done it so that they could be cast out of the city. But what if the criminal was an object?

Antiphon the orator was a 5th-century BC speech writer from Athens, and he left us a series of legal arguments, which he composed. In one of these, a legal case is brought following the accidental death of a boy while in the gymnasium. The youths were practicing throwing the javelin when one came down and slew the boy. The case had to decide who was to blame. Was it the boy who threw the javelin, the boy who got in the way of it, or the javelin itself?

Alas, we do not know what the outcome of this case was or who was punished in the end.[2]

8 Bronze Bull

Committing a crime within the sacred area of a temple was one of the worst sacrileges that any ancient Greek could imagine. Anything that tainted a holy site risked upsetting the relationship between gods and humanity—and humans would always come out the worse from any conflict. When a murder was committed at Olympia, then someone had to be punished.

Within the confines of the sacred space, a bronze bull—crafted by Philesius of Eretria—had been donated to the honor of the gods. One day, a child wandered into the temple while playing and crouched down underneath it. When the child stood up, he smacked his head on the bull’s belly and cracked his skull.

The citizens of the region had a dilemma. Should they drag the statue out and punish it? But could you take an object that had been given to the gods? So the bull was put on trial with the gods as the judge. They asked Apollo, speaking through his prophetess at Delphi, what they should do. His advice was to leave the bull in place but sacrifice a live bull to wash away the pollution.[3]

7 A Hungry Pig

Why was a Pig put on trial in Medieval Europe? (Strange History)

Pigs are not fussy eaters. Sometimes, it is just annoying when they trample crops and dig up dirt to get whatever they are after, but sometimes it can be horrifying. Today, it is rare for people to meet a pig anywhere other than a farm, but in the Middle Ages, it was more common to find pigs wandering around the streets. If they came across a helpless person, then it was not unknown for the pigs to eat them. Numerous cases are known where pigs ate babies and small children and were put on trial for murder.

In 1457, in the French town of Savigny, a sow had killed and eaten a five-year-old boy. The pig and her owner were dragged in front of a judge. Witnesses were called to reveal the truth of what had happened. It was decided that the owner should certainly have locked up their pig but that the sow bore the full responsibility. She was sentenced to death by hanging.

The sow had six piglets at the time of the murder, and they may have been involved in the crime, but given their tender years, the judge showed them clemency.[4]

6 Weevils

When Beetles were Banished

The rules of putting animals on trial were quite complex. Farm animals like pigs were considered to be under the jurisdiction of secular courts, while wild animals were thought to fall under divine control. Pests like locusts and other insects would be tried in an ecclesiastical court.

In 1545, the vineyards of St. Julien in France were being attacked by a plague of weevils. The winemakers dragged the weevils in front of Francois Bonivard, who heard arguments about whether the infesting insects were guilty of a crime. Instead of punishing the weevils, however, the court decided that the plague of weevils was God’s punishment for the sins of the winemakers. He ordered them to pay the debts they owed to the church and attend masses to call for forgiveness.

Unfortunately, the weevils returned to the scene of the crime 40 years later. A new trial was called, and the weevils’ defending council argued that God had given wild animals the freedom to eat leaves wherever they found them. Alas, we do not know the outcome of this trial as it seems the court records were consumed by insects.[5]

5 Exiled Bell

According to folk belief in the Russian Orthodox faith, bells in a church have a soul. Since bells have an animating spirit, it is logical that they can be held responsible for their actions and put on trial when they do something wrong.

Following the death of Ivan the Terrible in 1584, a regent named Boris Godunov was appointed to rule for the new tsar. Godunov had a potential rival for the throne called Dmitri, who was exiled to Uglich to stave off the risk of rebellion. It did not work. Dmitri was found with his throat cut, and the large bell of the town was rung to summon soldiers to fight against Godunov, who was blamed for the assassination.

When Godunov put down the rebellion, he put the bell on trial. He ordered it to be pulled down and dragged to the town square. There, it was “tortured” by having its tongue town out and heavily whipped. Finally, the bell was sent into exile in Siberia. The bell was only finally pardoned of its crime in 1892 and recalled to Uglich.[6]

4 Confused Cockerel

The Most Unusual Trials in History

Sometimes, a crime causes no harm to anyone else but can still offend public morality. In 1474, in the Swiss town of Basel, a chicken laid an egg. That might not seem unusual, but this chicken was male. The town went into uproar. The confused cock was put on trial for the crime of violating the laws of nature.

In addition to going against God’s order that only female chickens should lay eggs, the rooster could have posed a huge risk to the town. Eggs laid by roosters were believed to be used by witches to invoke curses. Others thought that such an egg could hatch into a monstrous and deadly cockatrice or basilisk.

The cockerel was duly condemned by the court and publicly executed. When the executioner cut open the offending bird, he found three more eggs in development. Clearly, the cock would have been a reoffender if he had been released.[7]

3 Beastly Bestiality

The Old Testament of the Bible is abundantly clear on the wrongness of humans having sex with animals. The Book of Leviticus (20:15) says, “He that shall copulate with any beast or cattle, dying let him die, the beast also ye shall kill.” In most cases of a human being caught with an animal, the animal also suffered the death penalty for their role in the crime. But not always.

In 1647, in the American colonies, Thomas Hogg was accused of sleeping with a sow after it was noted that the piglets she gave birth to resembled Hogg. Hogg would not confess to the crime and so escaped execution, as did the sow.

Jacques Ferron was accused of sleeping with a female donkey in 1750, and a trial was convened. While Ferron was convicted and sentenced to hang, several locals, including the town priest, testified to the good character of the ass. The donkey was deemed to have been the victim and allowed to go free.[8]

2 The Sow of Falaise

Why Medieval People Put Pigs on Trial for Murder

In 1386, a sow snuffled its way into a peasant house in the village of Falaise in France. The majority of the family was out in the fields, but one of their infant children had been left to sleep inside. The sow saw its chance for a snack and attacked the baby. When the crime was uncovered, the pig was arrested, put on trial, and found guilty of murder. All that remained was the punishment.

Since the pig was judged to have done a human crime, it was dressed like a human for its execution. It waddled through the streets in front of a crowd excited to see justice performed. The executioner began by mutilating the pig’s face and breaking its legs to mirror the injuries that it had inflicted on the baby. The pig was finally put out of its misery by hanging it by the neck until it was dead.[9]

1 Murderous Statue

Theagenes of Thasos (The Statue Wrestler) | Ass-Kicking Athletes of Antiquity

Theagenes of Thasos was one of the most decorated athletes of all time. In the 5th century, he competed in the great competitions held in Greece and triumphed over 1400 times. His strength was so legendary that after his death, a bronze statue was set up in his honor, and he was worshipped as a local hero.

Not everyone was happy about this. One man had never been able to beat Theagenes in a contest and was in the habit of whipping the statue at night in order to take out his anger. One night, the statue fought back—it toppled on him and crushed him to death. The man’s children then took the statue to court to get justice. The statue was judged to be guilty and dragged to a cliff and pushed into the sea.

Years later, Thasos suffered a terrible famine, so the people were ordered by an oracle to recall everyone who had been banished to appease the wrath of the gods. Even when all exiled people were back in the city, the famine continued. The oracle then revealed that they had forgotten to bring back Theagenes. His statue was recovered from the sea, and the famine ended.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen