Felo de se

Felo de se, Latin for "felon of himself", is an archaic legal term meaning suicide. Early English common law considered suicide a crime and a person found guilty of it, even though dead, was subject to punishments including forfeiture of property to the monarch and being given a shameful burial. Beginning in the seventeenth century law and custom gradually changed to consider a person who committed suicide to be temporarily insane at the time and conviction and punishment were gradually phased out. The term and punishments could also apply to a person killed while committing a felony.


In early English common law, an adult who killed themselves was literally a felon, and the crime was punishable by forfeiture of property to the king and what was considered a shameful burial typically with a stake through his heart and with a burial at a crossroad. Burials for felo de se typically took place at night, with no mourners or clergy present, and the location was often kept a secret by the authorities.[1] A child or mentally incompetent person, however, who killed himself was not considered a felo de se and was not punished post-mortem for his actions. The term is not commonly used in modern legal practice.

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 rather than felo de se. This meant that the perpetrator's property was not forfeited to the crown and the family could inherit the property.[2] 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."

However, a news report in 1866 concerning the suicide of Eli Sykes, a prisoner awaiting the death sentence at Armley gaol in Leeds, stated that 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]

"Felo de se" is also employed as the title of poems by fin de siècle poet Amy Levy and Georgian poet Richard Hughes. It is also the title of a book by R. Austin Freeman.

The laws relating to felo de se also applied to someone who was killed or died by other causes whilst they were committing another felony (e.g., a burglar who was killed by a householder defending his own property).

England and Wales

In England and Wales, the rule of law whereby it was a crime for a person to kill themselves was abrogated by section 1 of the Suicide Act 1961.

Restrictions on the manner of burial of persons found felo de se had previously been relaxed by the Burial of Suicide Act 1823 (4 Geo 4 c 52)[4] and by the Interments (felo de se) Act 1882.

Documented incidents of Felo de se

1854, Joseph Zillwood, Lyttelton, New Zealand.[5]

1919, John Moss, aged 44 and of 8 Foster Street, Chorley, Lancashire went missing just after 8 o'clock on the morning of Tuesday 25 February 1919. He had just been questioned by police in his workplace - Talbot Mill, Chorley - about an attack on a family in their home in Geoffrey Street, Chorley. Three weeks after he went missing, on Tuesday 18 March 1919, the body of John Moss was recovered from the Leeds & Liverpool canal near Crosse Hall Bridge, Chorley. At an inquest the following day, the Coroner, John Parker said that there was no evidence that John Moss had an unsound mind and in effect, murdered himself in his right senses, and a verdict of "Felo de se" was returned.[6] By this date the traditional ban on interment of suicides in consecrated ground was not being enforced and John Moss was buried in the consecrated section Chorley Cemetery with his late wife Louisa (information from his great-niece).


  1. Macdonald, M. "The Secularization of Suicide in England, 1660-1800", Past and Present #111, (May, 1986), pp. 50-100.
  2. Sleepless Souls: Suicide in Early Modern England by Michael MacDonald and Terence R. Murphy (1990). Chapter 4.
  3. Stamford Mercury, 12th Jan 1866
  4. Also called the Felo de se Act 1823, the Interments (felo de se) Act 1823, the Burials (Felo de se) Act 1823, and the Suicide Act 1823.
  5. "Papers Past — Lyttelton Times — 25 October 1854 — LOCAL INTELLIGENCE.". paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. 2012. Retrieved 10 January 2012.
  6. Lancashire Evening Post 20-3-1919


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