What is a deodand?

A newspaper story from the 1820s tells of a young woman being killed by a runaway horse in the village where I live. It says that the inquest jury “returned a verdict of accidental death with a deodand of one shilling on the horse”. What’s a deodand?

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The common law of deodand (sometimes ‘deodant’) stated that if the property of one person caused death or injury, it, or its value, was forfeit. If you study old newspapers, you will find plenty of accounts of inquests in which the law is invoked following a death caused by horses, oxen, boats, carts or machinery.

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The property was forfeit to the Crown, or a fine was levied. This was then supposed to be donated to some religious or charitable cause, usually alms for the poor.

By the early 19th century, the property was rarely confiscated; usually a fine, often just a token sum (as in the case of your story), was imposed. Things started to change with the arrival of the new railways – these caused a lot of deaths, and coroners’ juries started awarding deodands, often amounting to quite heavy fines, against rail companies they felt had been negligent. The crusading journalist and social reformer Thomas Wakley (1785–1862) also used the law against negligent factory owners when he was coroner for the west Midlands.

Parliament abolished deodands in 1846 while at the same time passing the Fatal Accidents Act, which enabled families of those killed to claim compensation.

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Answered by Eugene Byrne, author and journalist.