Animals on Trial

Animals on Trial

Jeffrey Kastner

Cabinet:Issue 4 Animals Fall (2001)


In the image, the crowd is thick around the gallows. Townspeople fill the foreground of the medieval view; some turned toward their neighbors in conversation, most focused on a raised platform in the middle distance and the three figures arrayed on it. At the left edge of the group stands an official of some sort—a prelate reciting the last rites for the condemned perhaps, or an officer of the court, reading out the charges. At right, the hunched and hooded shape of the executioner looms, knee bent and back arched as he sets to his task. And in the middle, the star of the entire scenario (and the narrative it illustrates): the doomed head thrown back in terminal agony; the mouth a thin frowning spasm beneath a blunt nose. A really blunt nose. A pig’s nose, actually—a sow’s, to be exact—attached to a porker that inexplicably seems to be sporting a man’s shirt.

The scene comes to us courtesy the frontispiece engraving for an oddball gem of social history, The criminal prosecution and capital punishment of animals.. Written by Edward Payson Evans and drawn from a pair of articles he originally published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1884—“Bugs and Beasts before the Law” and “Modern and Mediæval Punishment”—the text (revised and expanded, utilizing both historical and contemporary research by other scholars) was first brought out in book form in 1906.1 A remarkably detailed piece of research and interpretation, Evans’s volume includes dozens and dozens of documented proceedings brought against animals by either governmental or religious bodies—from his earliest citation, discovered in something called the Annales Ecclesiatici Francorum, noting the prosecution of a number of moles in the Valle D’Aosta in the year 824 to the charges lodged against a cow by the Parliament of Paris in 1546 to the 20th-century conviction of a Swiss dog for murder, reported in the New York Herald the same year the book came out.

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