A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

What is a felo-de-se?

August 17, 1973

Dear Cecil:

In reading I have come across a reference to "felo-de-se," which seems from the context to mean "suicide" -- but I'm not sure. Can you help?

Dear D.:

"Felo-de-se" is a Latin phrase meaning "evildoer upon himself," or, simply, a suicide. In England before 1870 a distinction was made between a suicide, which was the name given to an act of self-destruction committed by a person of unsound mind, and a felo-de-se, which was committed somebody who was sane. If a self-destruction was judged a felo-de-se, the deceased's estate was generally forfeited to the crown.

England has had a few interesting suicide laws. Before 1961, persons who survived suicide attempts were subject to criminal prosecution and penalty. (My dip brother used to claim that the penalty was death. He also said the penalty for successful suicide was life imprisonment. My brother is a very funny guy.) Up until 1823 the genteel British would drive a stake through the body of a suicide before burying him at the side of a road.

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