Post-Mortem Trials.

By George Neilson.


IT might be thought that a man’s death made an end of him, and that his mere body had no rights or duties except that of getting decently buried. The middle age had other ideas. The dead still had status and duties. Continental laws recognised acts of renunciation in which a widow laid the keys on her husband’s corpse, or tapped his grave with the point of a halberd. The body of a murdered person, or, it might be his hand merely, might be carried before the judge to demand vengeance. By English thirteenth century law legal possession of real estate was thought to remain in a man, not until he died, but until his body was borne forth to burial. The dead might be a very potent witness, as shewn by the ordeal of bier-right, a practice founded on the belief that the murderer’s touch would cause the victim’s wounds to bleed afresh. Thus variously qualified to act as witness or prosecutor as occasion required, it is not surprising to find the dead as defendant also.

English history remembers the strange scene enacted in the monastery of Caen in 1087, when William the Conqueror lay dead there, and the ceremonials of his interment were interrupted by a weird appeal. Ascelin, the son of Arthur, loudly claimed as his, neither sold nor given, the land on which the church stood, and, forbidding the burial, he appealed to the dead to do him justice. More than one old English poem turned its plot round the ancient canon law, by which a burial might be delayed for debt. The dead was arrestable: a law afterwards set aside, “for death dissolved all things.” But in more codes than one death did not dissolve liability for the consequences of high treason.

In Scotland, in the year 1320, at the “black parliament” of Scone, several Scotsmen were convicted of conspiracy against King Robert the

Bruce. Most of them were drawn, hanged, and beheaded. But a Scottish historian of the time tells us that Roger of Mowbray, one of the accused, having died before his trial, “his body was carried to the place, convicted of conspiracy, and condemned to be drawn by horses, hung on the gallows, and beheaded.” It is to the credit of Bruce that he did not allow the corporal part of the sentence to be carried out, although many entries in the charter rolls[24] shew that the consequent escheats of the traitor’s lands served to reward the loyalty of others. His body convicted of conspiracy! How came this singular procedure into Scottish practice?

In England, towards the close of the fourteenth century, although escheats were not less keenly looked after than in Scotland—and that sometimes in cases where men had died unconvicted,—the purpose of attainder appears to have been effected without the expedient of calling the dead to the bar. The dead, however, was convicted. In the case of Robert Plesyngton, for instance, in 1397, the judgment of Parliament bore an express conviction of treason, “noun-obstant la mort de dit Roberd.” In 1400, John, Earl of Salisbury, challenged for treason by Lord Morley, was killed before the day appointed for the duel. The court not only adjudged him a traitor, but on grounds eked out by Roman law subjected his sureties in costs to his accuser—said costs including the handsome fee of 100s. and twelve yards of scarlet cloth to the lawyer Adam of Usk.

In all features save perhaps that of the actual presence of the body in the trial, warrant can be found for the Scottish practice in Roman law. The offence of “majesty,” or high treason, formed an exception to the great humane general rule that responsibility for crime ended with the criminal’s breath. Under the Lex Julia death was no defence to a charge of “majesty;” proceedings could be raised to stamp the dead man’s name with the brand of treason; his kinsmen might if they chose deny and defend; but if they failed to clear him his goods were confiscated and his memory damned. There is in the annals of Rome at least one instance of a death-sentence of this sort pronounced after the accused was in his grave. Nor was its scope confined absolutely to high treason. The Church had a quiet way of appropriating tit-bits of barbaric policy for pious uses. The Emperor Theodosius said that the inquisition for heresy ought to extend to death itself; and as in the crime of majesty, so in cases of heresy, it should be lawful to accuse the memory of the dead. The Popes endorsed the analogy, for heretics had goods, which sometimes were worth forfeiting. The spiritual authority however was of more moment. The Church claimed the power to bind and loose even after death, and a Welsh twelfth century bishop did not stand alone when he carried it so far as to scourge the body of a king who had died excommunicate. On the same principle dead heretics—dead before sentence of heresy—were burnt.

It was by a close following up of Roman jurisprudence, with, peradventure, some added light from the law and practice of the Church, that the French devised their procés au cadavre, by which the memory of a dead traitor was attacked. Its special application was to lesemajesty described as divine and human, the former an elastic term covering offences against God and religion. Allied to this latter category, though not exactly of it, was the mortal sin of suicide. Self-slaughter was so deeply abhorrent to mediæval thought as not only to be reckoned more culpable, but to call for more shameful punishment, than almost any other crime. So coupling the traitor and the self-slayer in the same detestation, the law assailed both by the same strange post-mortem process, and (by methods of reasoning which Voltaire was one of the first to ridicule) consigned their souls to perdition, their memories to infamy, and their bodies to the gibbet. The treatment of the suicide was peculiar in its refinements of symbolic shame. The body was, by the customary law (for example, of Beaumont), to be drawn to the gibbet as cruelly as possible, pour monstrer l’experience aux aultres. The very door-step of the house in which he lay was to be torn up, for the dead man was not worthy to pass over it. Impalement, transfixture by a stake, though well enough known on the continent as a punishment of the living, became there and in England alike, the special doom of the suicide. Yet the procés au cadavre had no footing in English law, and although it was already in 1320 received in Scotland, we shall find reason for thinking it not wholly welcome.

After the trial in 1320 before alluded to, the records in Scotland are silent for over two centuries, and it is not until 1540 that the process is heard of again. In that year the heirs of one Robert Leslie were summoned to the court of parliament to hear his name and memory “delete and extinct,” for certain points and crimes of lesemajesty, and his lands and goods forfeited to the king. Legal authorities, obviously forgetful of the fourteenth century instance, follow one another in the mistake of regarding Leslie’s as the first of its kind. The legality of the procedure was called in question at the time. Indeed, so loud was the murmur that it can still be heard in the act passed to put it to silence. “It is murmurit,” says the enactment, “that it is ane noveltie to rais summondis and move sic ane actioun aganis ane persoun that is deide, howbeit the commoun law directly providis the samin.” The three estates of parliament therefore on the motion of the lord advocate, declared unanimously “all in ane voce, but variance or discrepance,” that the cause was just and conform to common law. In another case of the following year the charge and judgment were enrolled in the Acts of Parliament. The widow and the heir of the late James Colville were summoned “to see and hear that the said deceased James, whilst he lived had committed the crime of lesemajesty.” The deliverance of parliament as tribunal was by its terms an actual sentence upon the dead—that the deceased James “hes incurrit the panis of crime of lesemajeste” for which causes the court decerned “the memoure of the said umquhile James to be deleit,” and his possessions confiscated to the crown. Parliament which had unanimously voted the procedure well based in law, found that it was dangerous. It was necessary to restrict its scope. In 1542, it is on parliamentary record[44] that “the lordis thinkis the said act [i.e., of 1540], ower generale and prejudiciale to all the barions of this realme.” This would never do:—an act prejudicial to the barons! So it became statute law in 1542, that it should apply only to cases of grave treason, public and notorious during the offender’s life, and that prosecution for the future must be raised within five years after the traitor’s death. It was a reasonable restraint, not always observed.

During the reigns of Mary and James VI. a number of trials occurred in which this singular process was resorted to, and in some, if not all, of which the body of the dead appeared at the bar. Occasionally it was embalmed for the purpose. It had been a part of the border code, prevalent on the marches of England and Scotland, that an accused should, although dead, be brought to the place of judgment in person. In 1249, the marchmen of both realms had declared the law in that sense. They said that, in any plea touching life and limb, if the defendant died the body of him should be carried to the march on the day and to the place fixed between the parties, because—concludes this remarkable provision —“no man can excuse himself by death.” And in the end of the sixteenth century the borderers had not forgotten the tradition their forefathers had inherited in the thirteenth, for in 1597, when Scotsmen and Englishmen were in fulfilment of their treaty obligations presenting their promised pledges, the custom was scrupulously observed on the English side. All were there,—all, though all included one that was no more. “Thoughe one of the nomber were dead, yet was he brought and presented at this place.” They evidently believed on the borders, which Sir Robert Cary with some reason called an “uncristned cuntry,” that a man could best prove that he was dead by attendance in person.

In trials for treason this principle was pushed in some instances to strange extremes. Probably one underlying reason of this, at a date so late, was to make sure that no formality should be lacking to make the forfeiture effective. But the main reason one must believe lay in its being a traditional observance. In the trial in 1600, of the Earl of Gowrie and his brother for an alleged attempt on the king’s life, the privy council on the preamble that it was necessary to have their corpses kept and preserved unburied, issued an act to that effect, and the treasurer’s accounts contain an entry “for transporting of the corpis of Gowrie and his brother.” Their bodies were accordingly produced at the trial, and the sentence which pronounced them guilty of treason and lesemajesty during their lifetime, declared their name, memory, and dignity extinguished, and ordained that “the dead bodeis of the saidis Treatouris,” should be hanged, quartered, and gibbetted. Their “twa hedis,” a grim diarist tells, were set upon the tolbooth, “thair to stand quhill the wind blaw thame away.”

The last case in the annals, in which this revolting Scottish “practick” was put into effect, occurred in 1609. Robert Logan, of Restalrig, had been nearly three years in his grave when it was given out that he had been a party to the alleged Gowrie conspiracy against King James. A process was at once taken in hand to proscribe his memory and escheat his property. As death was no excuse, neither was burial; and the ghastly form was gone through of exhuming the bones for presentation at the trial. It was a case plainly within the exception provided for in the act of 1542, for the man was not “notourly” a traitor, he had died in repute of loyalty: but the Crown was eager for a conviction. Much incredulity had been rife with regard to the Gowrie conspiracy. The evidences now adduced were—on the surface at any rate, although, perhaps, as many critics still think, on the surface only,—circumstantial and strong. The prosecution was therefore keenly pressed, and the reluctance of some of the judges overcome. A jocular jurist-commentator on these post-mortem trials, has remarked that the bones of a traitor could neither plead defences, nor cross-question witnesses. But in the dawn of the seventeenth century they could turn the sympathy of the court against the charge, as it appears they did in Logan’s case. The proofs, however, looked overwhelming, and the forfeiture was carried without a dissenting voice from the bench—from the bench, because it was, as all Scots treason-trials then were, a trial by judges only, not by judge and jury. Logan’s memory was declared extinct and abolished, and his possessions forfeited. The judgment, however, wreaked no vengeance on the exhumed remains. Humanity was asserting itself even in the trial of the dead, and that institution itself was doomed. Although in disuse ever after, it did not disappear from the theory of law until 1708, when the act 7 Anne, chapter 21, prescribing jury-trial for treason, assimilated the Scots law on the subject to that of England, and thus brought to an unregretted end one of the most gruesome of legal traditions.




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