Accursed Deodands!

Bob Wallace
November 4, 2002


I never ceased to be amused by how little the human race has changed in probably the last 10,000 years. We still believe in idols (like the State), talismans (like the Constitution) and spells (which we now call propaganda). And we still believe in curses and deodands.

The first time I read the word "deodand" was in Jack Vance's book, The Dying Earth. He used it to describe a totally black, man-shaped cannibalistic monster with red eyes. His vivid description of this creature, coupled with the almost poetic sound of the word, imprinted it on my mind.

At first I thought Vance had created the word (he also referred in his writings to tossing someone in a lake as "subaquation"). Years later, I found that he hadn't. But his use of it – an evil object – was accurate.

A deodand is a medieval superstition that actually made its way into the law in those days. It's based on the concept of "the guilty object." If an object, say a weapon or cart, killed or injured a human, it was declared a deodand and forfeited to the king.

It wasn't uncommon during that time for an animal that had been involved in injury to a person to be condemned, dressed in clothing, then burned at the stake or hanged. The last time this happened was in Switzerland in 1906.

The word deodand is from the Latin "deo dandum," which means "given to God." Its origin is often attributed to the passage in Exodus that reads, "[i]f an ox gore a man or woman, that they die, then the ox shall surely be stoned and its flesh not eaten..."

It's an ancient and silly superstition, yet since people today still believe in spells, talismans and idols, there is no reason whatsoever for them to not believe in deodands and curses.

I suspect the origin of the deodand lies in our inherent tendency to scapegoat, or project our problems onto something outside of us. I once caught my three-year-old nephew stealing change out of my car. When I caught him, he ran, fell on his face, then jumped up and cried, "You made me fall!" He even pointed his finger at me, as if he had a magic wand ("I curse you, Uncle Deodand!").

Apparently, destroying a deodand is revenge, although I don't think I would get any satisfaction out of hanging a cow. But then, during the '70s, I do remember seeing autoworkers smash Japanese cars with sledgehammers.

The concept of the deodand partly explains the destruction of the World Trade Center. Bring down these "evil objects," get some revenge, and then people in foreign countries dance in the streets to express their glee and satisfaction. Until, of course, we deodandize their cities.

Currently, in the US, guns and tobacco are cursed as deodands. Those who oppose them consider them to be inherently evil objects, even though a pistol or a cigarette will just quietly lie there forever without hurting anyone.

Tobacco has already legally been declared a deodand; hence, all the money tobacco companies have to forfeit to the State – that modern idol and false god. Opponents of firearms are trying to do the same with them, although so far, fortunately, they haven't had much luck.

Deodands were especially popular during the '80s, when the State was trying to steal peoples' property on the flimsiest of excuses. In one case, an innocent woman lost a $600, eleven-year-old Pontiac because her husband was caught with a prostitute while in it. The court ignored the fact this taking of her property without compensation was a violation of her rights under the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment. In fact it commented, "cases authorizing actions of the kind at issue are too firmly fixed in the punitive and remedial jurisprudence of the country to be now displaced." This court's comments reminds me of what Paul Newman said in the movie, Cool Hand Luke: "Calling it your job don't make it right, boss."

The rationale behind a deodand was that all property "derived from society," and if people violated the law they forfeited any right they had to it. Supposedly, returning the property to the king (or the State) somehow removed the curse from the property. How taking property from the rightful owner and giving it to someone else removed the curse has never been explained. The reason, I believe it is obvious, is because it doesn't. It's just a money-grab by greedy people working for the State. This is what Thomas Hobbes meant when he wrote, "Unnecessary laws are not good laws, but traps for money."

The gun "buy-back" programs so popular several years ago were a case of the State buying "cursed" deodands and then punishing them by destroying them. Looked at this way, it isn't that much less silly than executing a horse. Since many more people are killed a year in carwrecks than by guns, perhaps it really isn't such a bad idea to bash cars with sledgehammers.

The idea of the deodand didn't make much headway in the US until the War Between the States, when the Confiscation Act of 1862 authorized seizing the properties of rebels who owned property in the North. After that, it escalated to ridiculous levels.

In one case in 1926 a man lost his automobile because he lent it to the dealer from whom he had bought it, who then lent it to someone else, who used it to illegally transport liquor – all without the owner's knowledge.

In a more recent case, a yacht-leasing company lost a yacht because the lessor, or a visitor, left a marijuana cigarette butt on the ship.

The '70s and '80s saw legislation really get out of hand (but then, those last five words describes what always happens to the government). Here's some of the laws passed: the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO); the Continuing Criminal Enterprise Act (CCE); the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970; the Psychotropic Substances Act of 1978; the Comprehensive Forfeiture Act of 1982; the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984; the Comprehensive Drug Penalty Act of 1984; and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986: the Comprehensive Anti-Ugliness and Anti-Stupidity Act of 1989 (okay, I made the last one up). Altogether, more than 200 federal forfeiture laws have been passed.

None had the slightest effect on crime, which is understandable when it is realized these "laws" do nothing more than lay curses on objects and then try to remove them by stealing them from the owners. I suppose this means politicians are actually witches. Thieving witches. Although I suspect that in their minds they somehow see themselves as priest-kings.

Fortunately, after an almost decade-long effort an unlikely coalition of organizations (the ACLU and the National Rifle Association among others) headed by Representative Henry Hyde, pushed through the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act (CAFRA), which was signed by President Clinton in April 2000. It helped to stop some of the abuses. What should be done is that the legal concept of the deodand should be gotten rid of completely.

What actually is evil is not the deodand, but the State. Consider this case: Donald Scott, a 61-year-old millionaire wrongly suspected of growing marijuana on his 200-acre ranch in Malibu, California, was shot and killed in front of his wife when 30 local, state, and federal agents burst into their house to serve them with a search warrant.

Awakened by the commotion and his wife's screams, Scott grabbed his handgun and was descending the stairs when he was murdered. After a five-month investigation, the Ventura County attorney concluded that the evidence of Scott's "drug cultivation" submitted to obtain the warrant was non-existent. Testimony also revealed that Scott was "fanatically anti-drug."

Ominously, Scott had refused to sell his ranch to the U.S. National Park Service. His refusal made especially frightening the district attorney's finding that U.S. National Park Service police were present during the raid, that at the final police briefing before the raid, the possible government seizure of Scott's ranch was discussed; and that documents reviewed at an earlier meeting included a property-appraisal statement. In other words, the State's curse on marijuana was used to "bear false witness" against Scott so his property could be declared a deodand and stolen from him.

If the saying, "the love of money is the root of all evil" applies to everyone, then even those who try to use the State as a magic amulet to protect themselves are not exempt from it, no matter how much they pretend they are. And while this is no such thing as a cursed object, I have no doubts at all that there are cursed people.


Bob Wallace, a former newspaper reporter and editor, and an incurable lover of puns from St. Louis, is now traveling the country.
Copyright 2002 LewRockwell.com

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6 nov 2002