“In 1336, a drunken sailor climbed the mast of his ship at anchor in the Thames by means of a rope, presumably part of the rigging. When he tried to descend the same way he fell and died. A coroner’s jury decided that the rope was the cause of death and that it should be forfeited to the Crown. The rope was the inanimate casualty of an already ancient principle called deodand.” (World Wide Words)
A coroner of the Regency period and before did more than hold inquests on dead bodies. All buried treasure had to be reported to him. Also, he could profit by the seizure and sale of a deodand [[dee-uh-dand] . A deodand was any item of property, which caused the death of a human. If a hay stack tumbled over and smothered a man, it was the cause of death and could be claimed as property of the Crown. A tree topples over and kills someone, it is deodand. A runaway horse and carriage? You got it, deodand. Juries often decided on the spot whether the “property” was to be forfeited. Supposedly in one recorded the case, a pot of boiling water caused a death: the water was not deodand, but the pot was. (World Wide Words)
Whatever item caused a person’s death was forfeit to the Crown, and the coroner had part of the value of it. So, if a sword was used to kill someone, the sword was forfeit and sold. If the family really wanted that sword because it was a family heirloom, they had to pay a fine equal to its value. Needless to say, rocks and tree limbs, boards and bricks had no value for the coroner so were often ignored. However, if a person was killed — accidentally or on purpose– by a runaway horse or a horse and carriage or a dray, the vehicle was forfeit. So, an expensive carriage and team injures a man so that he dies. The carriage and horses would be forfeited to the Crown– and eventually earn the inspector a tidy sum.
According to Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, E. Cobham Brewer, 1894, “Deodand means something “given to God” (deo-dandum). This was the case when a man met with his death through injuries inflicted by some chattel, as by the fall of a ladder, the toss of a bull, or the kick of a horse. In such cases the cause of death was sold, and the proceeds given to the Church. The custom was based on the doctrine of purgatory. As the person was sent to his account without the sacrament of extreme unction, the money thus raised served to pay for masses for his repose. Deodands were abolished September 1st, 1846.” (Infoplease)
“Strictly speaking, a deodand is something that has been forfeited to God, from Latin deo dandum. [1520-30; < Medieval Latin deōdandum (a thing) to be given to God < Latin deō to God (dative singular of deus) + dandum to be given (neuter gerund of dare to give)] In practice in medieval England it meant being given up to the Crown to be put to some pious use such as alms. As a stone or haystack was an inconvenient item to deal with in this way, in practice the coroner’s jury decided the value of the item and its owner was required to pay that instead. (In the case of the rope, the jury appraised it as worth 10 shillings, a considerable sum at the time, roughly the price of a good horse.)” (World Wide Words)
This law remained on the books for years. It wasn’t repealed until sometime in the Victorian age and the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Why was it repealed? A person or persons were killed in an accident with a train, an expensive piece of property to forfeit to the Crown under the law. The railroad company blanched at the idea of forfeiting their railroad, but neither could they afford to pay a commensurate fee. As a result, a law in 1846 abolished the concept of deodand.