In 1336, a drunken sailor climbed the mast of his ship at anchor in the Thames by means of a rope, presumably part of the rigging. When he tried to descend the same way he fell and died. A coroner’s jury decided that the rope was the cause of death and that it should be forfeited to the Crown. The rope was the inanimate casualty of an already ancient principle called deodand.
A deodand was an item of property that, however coincidentally, had caused the death of a human being. Horses, cattle, carts, haystacks, beer vats, boats, stones and trees have at various times been judged to be deodands. Unlettered local juries often made the law up on the spot, for example deciding in the case of a person fatally scalded by boiling water from a pot that the pot was the deodand, not the water.
Strictly speaking, a deodand is something that has been forfeited to God, from Latin deo dandum. In practice in medieval England it meant being given up to the Crown to be put to some pious use such as alms. As a stone or haystack was an inconvenient item to deal with in this way, in practice the coroner’s jury decided the value of the item and its owner was required to pay that instead. (In the case of the rope, the jury appraised it as worth 10 shillings, a considerable sum at the time, roughly the price of a good horse.)
The law of deodand survived into the nineteenth century. What ended it was the industrial revolution. Expensive pieces of machinery involved in accidental deaths were judged as deodands with consequent substantial fines. The rise of the railways meant that coroner’s juries in the 1830s and 1840s awarded large deodands against companies whose trains were involved in fatal accidents. As a result, the government of the day passed a law in 1846 abolishing the concept.