3 Jones & S. 314 35 N.Y. Super. Ct. 314

ELIZABETH R. COFFEY, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. THE HOME LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendants and Appellants.

Sanity of mind will be presumed until the contrary be proven, is a general rule. The law does not presume that a person who has taken his own-life was insane at the time. (Conclusion of the court.)

The most that can be said is, that inasmuch as many, perhaps most, persons who destroy their own lives are insane at the time, the fact of self-destruction removes the general presumption of sanity.—Opinion of Barbour, Oh. J.

The law has not made any presumption on this specific subject.—Opinion of Sedgwick, J.

"What is life ? What is suicide ? See the views of Judge Freedman in his dissenting opinion, favoring the position that a person who commits suicide was insane at the time.

*315Before Barbour, Ch. J., Freedman and Sedgwick, JJ.

Decided February 1, 1873.

Appeal from a judgment. The facts and the main point in the case appear fully in the opinion of Barbour, Ch. J.

George W. Parsons, for appellants,

arguedThe court, on the trial, considered itself bound by authority in this State to hold, that if an insured party was insane at the time of committing the act of self-destruction, then, as matter of law, he did not die by his own hand : and it is not proposed to discuss the soundness of that doctrine in this court, nor to attempt to distinguish this case from the authority referred to.

But in declining to charge the jury as requested by defendants’ counsel, in the fifth and sixth requests, at page 97, and in charging the jury, as he did on pages 100 and 101, and at fol. 334, in substance, that as matter of law the jury must presume, from the fact of suicide, the deceased, when he took his life, was not in a sound state of mind, and that the burthen of removing such presumption of insanity was upon defendant, the court announced a doctrine which we respectfully submit cannot be sustained, either on principle or authority.

1. It is elementary law, and long established, that the law presumes that a faét continuous in its character, still continues to exist, until a change is shown; and a leading elementary work, in illustrating this principle, lays down the proposition—“ so sanity will be presumedand cites numerous adjudications to sustain it (1 Phil Ev. [4 Am. Ed.], p. 604; vide Jackson, ex dem., Cadwell v. King, 4 Cow. 207; Jackson, ex dem., Van Dusen v. Van Dusen, 5 Johns., and cases cited at latter, pages 144 and 158; White v. Wilson, 13 Ves. 87, 88, 89; Den. ex. dem., Stevens v. Van Cleve, 4 Wash., C. C. R. 262, 269; Atty.-Genl. v. Paruther, 3 Bro. C. C. *316441, 443; Lessee of Hoge v. Fisher, 1 Pet. C. C. R. 163 Lee’s Heirs v. Lee’s Ex’rs, 4 McCord [S. C.] 183; Kinloch v. Paleyer, Mills’ Rep., Const. Court [S. C.], at p. 225; Donnay v. Borradaile, 10 Beav., at p. 342; Sutton v. Sadler, 3 C. B. [N. S.], 87.

2. In a recent work, the author having carefully collected all the authorities on this subject, concludes that “ the burthen of proof of insanity is on the plaintiff,” in such cases (Bliss on Life Ins. § 378; vide also §§ 224 to 226, 233 and 238).

3. In Nimick v. Ins. Co., a case in the U. S. Circuit Court, reported in 10 Am. Law Reg., at p. 101, also in 3 Brewster P. 502, McKennan, J., carefully reviews-the whole subject and cases, and concludes that the-proviso against liability in case the assured “shall die-by his own hand” includes all kinds of voluntary destruction. That if the assured commit suicide, comprehending the physical nature and consequences of his own act, and intending to destroy his life, the policy is-void, though he may not have been able to comprehend the moral nature of the act; and finally, that defendant having shown the fact that the insured died by his own. hand, the burthen is on the plaintiff to prove that the-assured was of such insane mind, that he did not commit the act with the knowledge and intent that it should result in death.

To same effect is the case of Dean v. American Life Ins. Co., 4 Allen (Mass.) 98.

4. In the case of the St. Louis Mutual Life Ins. Co. v. Graves, reported in 6 Bushnell, 268, also in Bigelow’s life Ins. Rep. at p. 736, the court, after a most exhaustive examination of most of the prominent cases in this country and in England on the subject, decide in substance, that an instruction given by the judge to the jury on the subject of insanity, similar in principle to that given in this case, was erroneous, and the verdict *317was set aside. See also Cooper v. Mass., etc., Ins. Co., 102 Mass. 227.

The recent case of Terry v. Mutual Life Ins. Co., tried at U. S. Circuit Court, in May, 1871, before Mr. Justice Miller, of the U. S. Supreme Court, and Dillon, Circuit Judge, now reported in 1 Dillon's Rep., at p. 403, seems to be very full and decisive. The case was similar to ours, and language of the policy precisely the same. Mr. Justice Miller distinctly charged the jury that “ the burden of proof to establish the insanity is, in “ such cases, upon the plaintiff. . . . That there is no “presumption of Ism, prima facie or otherwise, that “ self-destruction arises from insanity.”

This, it will be seen, is exactly the reverse of the propositions charged by the learned judge on the trial of this action.

Wheeler H. Peckham, for respondent,

presented the following points on the main question :—The important .and meritorious question in the case is, as to the charge of the court in respect to presumptions of insanity. The court charged, that while in cases of murder the presumption is that the defendant is sane, when a man takes his own life the presumption of law is otherwise, and so far as there is any presumption, it favors insanity at the time of committing an act of self-destruction.

The charge of the court was correct.

It is the settled law of this State, that the phrase “ die by his own hand,” does not mean a death while the prisoner is insane (4 Seld. 299). The law is now the same in England (How v. Anglo, etc., Life Ins. Co., 7 per N. S. 673; 30 L. J. Chane, 511; 9 W. R. 359; 4 L. T. N. S. 142).

If, therefore, the deceased took poison, but was insane when he did so, there is no breach of the condition.

*318The court charged that suicide itself was evidence of insanity. That, in itself alone, unexplained, it raised a legal presumption of insanity. Was the charge correct %

It is obvious that in the solution of this problem a clear idea and statement of what is the legal definition of the term insanity is primarily and essentially important.

There have been various definitions of insanity—medical and legal.

So widely have definitions varied, that “some,” says Dr. Grood, “are so narrow as to set at liberty half the “patients at Bethlehem or the Biritre; and others so “loose and capacious as to give a straight-waistcoat to “ half the world ” (Dean, 457).

Prof. Dean then proceeds to give a number of the definitions propounded by writers and thinkers on the subject (q. v. p. 458). John Locke considered madmen as not having lost the reasoning faculty, but that, in j oining together incongruous ideas, they mistake them for truths, and err as men do that argue right from wrong principles. Dr. Battie defines madness to consist in false perceptions. Dr. Chrichton defines the disease as consisting in general derangement of the mental faculties, in which deceived perceptions are mistaken for realities. Dr. Connolly considers it to consist in the impairment of any one or more faculties of the mind, accompanied with or inducing a defect in the comparing faculty. Dr. Heville defines it to consist in disordered functions of the brain generally, or of one of its several parts, without consciousness of this derangement on the part of the individual affected. Dr. Spurzheim defines it to be “an aberration of any sensation or intellectual power from the healthy state, without being able 'to distinguish the diseased state; or again, an aberration of the manifestations of the mind from their ordinary normal healthy state.” This last seems to be specially approved by Prof. Dean, pp. 458, 459.

*319But, however defined, it is now conceded to "be a disease, and substantially conceded to be a disease of the brain (Dean, p. 459).

In its characteristics and manifestations, insanity has been divided into intellectual and moral insanity (Dean, p. 488), according as the disease is manifested, more particularly in the intellectual power and faculties, or in the emotions, passions, and feelings (Ib.).

In strictly legal definitions, Lord Hale seemed to regard insanity as diminishing the mental faculties instead of deranging them. In Arnold’s trial, the doctrine was stated that total deprivation of understanding and memory, so that the accused knew what he was doing no more than an infant, than a brute, than a wild beast, were necessary to exempt from punishment (Dean, pp„ 532, 533). In Hadfield’s case the definition was greatly enlarged. Total deprivation of reason was held not necessary, and derangement sufficient (Dean, 355). In Percival’s case, Lord Mansfield held that the test was whether the accused had sufficient understanding to distinguish good from evil, right from wrong (Dean, 537).

This seems generaEy to have been the received doctrine since, except as it has in some cases been modified by requiring a knowledge of the wrong of the particular act he was then doing (Dean, 539, 540, and see a résumé of the different doctrines held on p. 544 of Dean).

The test is, are the suspected actions the offspring of a healthy or a diseased brain % If of a healthy brain, the person should be held responsible, no matter how extraordinary the act. If of a diseased brain, not responsible, no matter how simple or common the act.

And if we are right in our definition of insanity, the question presented by the charge is, whether the act of suicide is primá-faeie evidence that the relations of the suicide to external nature has been changed by disease of the brain.

On that point we must first remember the wonderful *320strength in the natural, sane man, of the. love of life. “All that a man hath will he give in exchange for his life.” “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friend.”

Of course, the fact of suicide is conclusive evidence that in the patient this love of life is extinguished— conclusive evidence that the relations of the suicide to external nature had "been changed. The simple question then is, is it fair to presume that such change was induced by disease of the brain %

We apprehend that few would deny that by far the greater number of cases of suicide are cases of insanity.

All writers on insanity state that a tendency to suicide is one of the most frequent manifestations of insanity (Dean, p. 508, and see the curious cases referred to.)

So far as there is any direct judicial decision on this point, it would seem to be in accord with the charge as delivered.

In Borradale v. Hunter, 5 Mann and G. 647, the jury found that deceased threw himself into the water, intending to destroy himself, but added that previous to that time there was no evidence of insanity. Mr. Justice Erkskihe, however, told them that they must lake the act itself into consideration in connection with his previous conduct, and then say whether, at the time of its commission, they thought him capable of knowing right from wrong. They then found him incapable. That direction does not seem to have been questioned in the further progress of that case.

The question appeals to the knowledge of the court derived from whatsoever source it may be, and founded upon human experience, as to whether, in the majority of cases of suicide, the cause is not mental disease. *

If it be so, then the conclusion is correct, that from the mere naked act of self-destruction, with no statement of surrounding circumstances, the presumption is that insanity was the cause.

*321Barbour, C. J.

This was an action upon a life insurance policy, which contained this condition : “In case he” (the person whose life was covered) “shall die by his own hand . . then the said company shall not be liable for the payment of the sum insured, or any part thereof.” Upon the trial, evidence was given, tending to prove the following facts: Just previous to the

taking of the policy, Coffey, the person whose life was insured for the. benefit of his wife, the plaintiff, was insolvent and out of business, and had a wife and several children dependent upon him for their support. While thus situated, he procured insurances upon his life to the amount of some $40,000, mostly in favor of his wife, borrowing the money from his friends to pay the premiums thereon upon the false statement that he wanted the same for his expenses in carrying into effect some pretended land sales. A short time after he effected those insurances, Coffey took his passage on a steamboat from Louisville to Cincinnati, where during the trip he went into his stateroom, and although the weather was quite warm, locked and fastened the doors and windows. After the arrival of the boat at Cincinnati, the next morning, the door of the stateroom was broken open, when he was found to be in a comatose state, and the next night he died from the effects, as then appeared on examination, of an overdose of morphine. Other evidence was also given of circumstances which tended to prove that his death was caused by his own voluntary act in a sane state of mind, and in pursuance of a preconceived plan.

The judge, before whom the cause was tried, charged the jury inter alia, thus : When a man takes the life of another, and alleges insanity as an excuse and defence, he is met by the presumption of law that he was sane, and he must remove or rebut such presumption, by showing affirmatively, and by competent and sufficient proof, that he was insane when he committed the deed. *322 But when a man tafees his own life, the presumption of law is otherwise. The law does not and cannot preñóme that a man in the full possession of his mental , faculties, in that normal condition of mind which we call sanity, will deliberately tafee Ms own life; and therefore, so far as there is any presumption, it favors insanity at the time of committing an act of self-destruction.

I therefore charge you as matter of law, that as affecting this case, you must presume that the deceased when he toofc his life was not in a sound state of mind.

It is, however, but a mere presumption, and may be removed by evidence. But as I have said before, the burthen of removing it lies upon the defendants, and it is for you to say whether they have done so.

The question raised by the exceptions to this portion of the charge of the learned judge is somewhat novel and important. It has long been a well-settled rule in the law of evidence, that where the deed or act of a party is sought to be avoided on the ground of his insanity, he will be presumed to be of sound mind until the contrary shall appear, and therefore that the burthen of proving such party to have been insane, rests upon him who alleges it. Indeed, the rule that sanity is to be presumed until the contrary be proven, is a general one, applicable to all cases, and its reason is obvious.

It is founded upon the fact that general sanity is the natural and ordinary condition of the human mind, and that mankind, considered as a class or whole, are sane (the exceptions being comparatively few and rare), followed by the natural conclusion that each individual may well be assumed to be like the great mass of his fellow-men in that regard, unless proven to be otherwise (1 Greenl. Ev. §42; 2 Id. §§ 689, 373; 3 Id. § 5 ; 2 Kent's Com. § 451; Bliss on Life Ins. § 378 ; McNaghtin’s Case, 10 Clarke & Fin. 210; Gardner v. Gardner, 22 Wend. 526. Aside from extrinsic facts and circmn*323stances, therefore, the law presumes that every person who destroys Ms. own life is sane up to the very moment when he does the act which causes his death. Can it properly be said, then, that the commission of that act not only removes the presumption of sanity, but establishes a legal presumption that he was then insane 1

Ho presumption that insanity exists in the case supposed, can be deduced from the mere fact that the death of the person was caused by his own physical act; for every legal presumption of a fact of that character must be founded upon and derived from some other fact or facts with which it is usually or always found, as the result of general experience and knowledge, to be connected in a certain relation (1 Greenl. Ev. § 33).

There can be no doubt, however, that if courts were at liberty to assume as a fact established by experience, that all persons who intentionally deprive themselves of life are insane, or diseased in mind, or even such a majority of them, that it might properly be said that persons who thus destroy their lives are, as a general rule, insane, and that sanity is a mere exception; the legal conclusion that insanity or derangement of mind must be presumed in every case in which it appeared that the man intentionally caused Ms own death, would necessarily follow. But that fact is not so established. Hot only is the history of the world in former times filled with instances in which great and sound-minded men, such as Cato and Hannibal, have committed suicide, and where others have for the purpose of saving their estates from forfeiture, submitted themselves to the peine forte et dure, but the most learned men of the present day in this branch of mental science, not mere lawyers, are still groping for the truth in the twilight of doubt and peradventure. Indeed, it is by no means settled, either among educated men or in the common mind, that even a majority of those who deprive themselves *324of life by their own physical act, do so because of insanity. The fact cannot be legally presumed, therefore, that a person who has killed himself was not sane at the time, and consequently the charge in question was erroneous.

The most that can be said is, that inasmuch as many, and perhaps most persons who destroy their own lives, are insane at the time, the fact of such self-destruction of itself wholly removes the presumption of sanity (see Cooper v. Mass., etc., Ins. Company, 102 Mass. R. 227; Terry v. Mutual Life Ins. Company, 1 Dillon’s R. 403).

Judgment reversed with costs, and new trial directed.

Sedgwick, J.

I amobliged reluctantly to differ with the learned judge, in charging the jury that the law presumed that a man was insane who killed himself.

First. I do not think the law has made any presumption on that specific subject. The only presumption it has made on the general subject, is, that every man is sane until the contrary is shown.

Second. A judge, as such, cannot determine, nor has he the means to determine, whether an individual case of suicide is the result of insanity—especially when the cause of the insanity is to be confined to suicide. Therefore he cannot 'make a presumption on the subject, which is a generalization, more or less perfect, from individual cases.

I think the judgment should be reversed.

Freedman, J. (dissenting).

This is an action upon a policy of insurance for five thousand dollars, made by the defendants upon the life of Benjamin S. Coffee in favor of the latter’s wife, the plaintiff in the action. The policy, among other provisions to avoid it, contained a clause that, in case the assured should die by Ms own hand, the company should not be liable for the payment of the sum insured or any part thereof. .In *325Breasted v. The Farmers’ Loan, and Trust Co. (4 Seld. 299), the policy contained precisely the same clause, and the Court of Appeals, in sustaining the decision of the Supreme Court in the same case (4 Hill, 73), and disapproving the English doctrine of Borradale v. Hunter, 5 Man. & Gr. 648, and Cliff v. Schwabe, 3 Man. & Gr. 437, settled the law of this State to be, that the phrases “death by his own hand,” and “death by suicide,” mean the same thing, and that both, unless qualified by some other expressions, import a criminal act of self-destruction, whicli can be committed only by the free will of a sane man.

The learned judge who presided at the trial was correct, therefore, in charging that, if Coffee, at the time he took the poison, was insane, if he was then laboring under either permanent or temporary insanity, he did not die by his own hand within the true meaning of that phrase, and that consequently there was no breach of the condition of the policy in that respect. Indeed, no error whatever seems to have been committed in giving and refusing instructions to the jury, provided the learned judge was justified in refusing to charge, that the presumption of sanity attaches to the commission of suicide, and in charging, in place thereof, as follows:

“The law does not and cannot presume that a man “ in the full possession of his mental faculties, in that “normal condition of mind which we call sanity, will “ deliberately take his own life; and therefore, so far as “ there is any presumption, it favors insanity at the time “of committing an act of self-destruction. * * * *
“I therefore charge you as matter of law that there is “no such presumption, and that as affecting this case “you must presume that the deceased, when he took “ his life, was not in a sound state of mind.
“It is, however, but a mere presumption, and may “be removed by evidence. But as I have said before,
*326“the burthen of removing it lies upon the defendants, “ and it is for you to say whether they have done so.
“ The defendants, to strengthen their position that the “assured died by his own deliberate and criminal act, 16 have given some evidence which they claim shows- a “motive, and, as they say, a sufficient motive for the “ criminal act. They have shown that the assured was “in a pecuniarily embarrassed condition ; was in debt, “and prosecuted and harassed by his creditors. They “ have also shown that at or about the time he effected “ the insurance in this case, he procured other policies “ upon his life in other companies, all for the benefit of “his wife, and amounting in the aggregate to forty “thousand dollars; and they have further proved the “substance of a conversation between the deceased and “a lawyer of Cincinnati, in which he sought information and advice respecting the legal effect of the con- ‘£ dition against self-destruction in the policy.
“These facts and circumstances are submitted to you “ as tending to show, as is claimed, a motive, and there“by to repel the presumption of insanity, and it is for “you to say whether you believe they are sufficient.”

The question thus presented is an important, novel, and difficult one. It is an open one in this State, and as the few adjudications made elsewhere upon it (Nimick v. The Mutual Life Ins. Co., 10 Am. Law Reg., N. S. 101; Terry v. The Mutual Life Ins. Co., 1 Dillon, 403; St. Louis Mutual Life Ins. Co. v. Graves, reported in 6 W. P. D. Bush, 268, and also in N. Y. Daily Transcript of March 7th, 1871, in which last-named case the Kentucky Court of Appeals stood equally divided) are conflicting,' it must be decided on principle. Fortunately, in this case its consideration is not embar rassed by other questions, which are usually connected with it and relate to the different forms or species of insanity known to the law. For the charge has not been excepted to in that respect; nor has the definition *327of insanity, which was laid down for the guidance of the jury, been complained of in any manner, tío, by omitting to move for the direction of a verdict, the defendant has conceded the sufficiency of plaintiff’s evidence to carry the case at least to the jury.

Freed, therefore, from all embarrassments which the intervention of other questions might occasion, I think the examination of the point at issue may be commenced in the most fitting manner, by considering for a moment what IAfe is. The definitions of it given by philosophers and biologists are almost innumerable. But none of them commends itself so much to my mind, as that given by Professor Herbert Spencer, who deservedly ranks in scientific circles as one of the greatest of modem thinkers. It is, that Life consists in the definite combination of heterogeneous changes, both simultaneous and successive, in correspondence with external co-existences and sequences, or in other words, in the continuous adjustment of internal relations to external relations. Consequently, Life is a continuous struggle. All vital actions, considered not separately, but in their ensemble, have for their final purpose the balancing of certain outer processes, by certain inner processes. There are increasing external forces tending to bring the matter of which organic bodies consist, into that state of stable equilibrium displayed by inorganic bodies ; there are internal forces by which this tendency is constantly antagonized ; and the perpetual changes which constitute Life, may be regarded as incidental to the maintenance of the antagonism. So strong is this antagonism in the human organism, that while there is life there is hope. The strength in the natural, sane man, of the love of life is indeed proverbial. Drowning men will catch at straws. All that a man has, will he give in exchange for his life.

From individual organisms thus struggling for life, small aggregations were formed, which soon felt the *328want of alliance and union with each other. This led to the formation of civil society, and the formation of that necessarily led to the establishment of government, for the express purpose of preserving and keeping that society in order. Thus it came, that every member of the society had to submit to a restraint by human laws of his natural liberty, to do as he pleased in his struggle for life and existence ; and that judges, juries, and all the instruments of the law came into being. Whenever it was found necessary or expedient, on account of new manifestations of the tendency on the part of the strong to subjugate the weak, in spite of existing law, to extend and perfect the prevailing system of law, it was done. In the course of the general improvement which our system has thus undergone, the doctrine of presumptive evidence became engrafted upon it. The presumptions recognized by the law were founded, either upon the first principles of justice, or the laws of Nature, or the experienced course of human conduct and affairs, and the connection usually found to exist between certain things. Under these circumstances it was found indispensably necessary for the proper enforcement of the whole body of the law, and essential to the safety of society, to establish the rule that, because sanity is the normal condition of the intellect, every man should be presumed to be sane, and that under the effect of such presumption, he who seeks to avoid responsibility for an act on the plea that he was insane, and hence not responsible, should take upon himself the burden of proving that condition of his mind. The rule was accordingly established, and upon it has since been built the further one, that every sane person must be presumed to intend that which is the ordinary and natural consequence of his own purposed act. Both these presumptions have ever since been firmly maintained, and rigidly enforced. They are applied, and justly so, to the murderer, the homicide, the parricide, and the living *329animal of every grade ; for the experience of mankind has demonstrated that even the most atrocious crime is generally perpetrated in the course of the struggle for life and existence, with the deliberate purpose of effecting by its commission' an adjustment of internal relations to external relations. The presumption of sanity attaches, therefore, to a man in all his dealings with his fellow-men.

But in case of suicide, the reason for the rule fails, and the necessity for its application disappears. Suicide is self-destruction. It is a self-inflicted, violent, and summary severance of relations, contrary to the ordinary laws of Nature. It is a refusal to obey Nature’s law, and, therefore, in the light of the present state of science, such an unnatural proceeding, that eminent men of great learning and research insist that suicide is necessarily an insane act, while others contend that it is only prima facie evidence of insanity. The first proposition has never been accepted to any great extent; but the second is quite prevalent among scientific men, and is daily gaining ground (Winslow’s Anatomy of Suicide, ch. 11, p. 237; Esguirol's Maladies Mentales, vol. 1, pp. 559, 560; Ellis on Insanity, London Edition of 1838, pp. 114,115; Prichard, London Edition of 1842, pp. 134, 141; Bernard & Tuke on Insanity, Philadelphia Edition, 1858, pp. 88, 153, 202, 204, 331; Dean’s Medical Jurispr. pp. 508, 509).

As,the law should always keep step with the great truths that are unearthed from time to time by science, the courts, upon these authorities, might well hold, and in my judgment should hold, in a case like the present, that—while upon the whole case the burden of proof is upon the plaintiff to satisfy the jury that a loss has occurred under the policy, that is to say, that the person whose life is covered by the policy was insane at the time of the perpetration of the deed within the true definition of that term in the law—the presumption *330to be drawn from the naked and unexplained fact of suicide is, that the perpetrator at the time of the fatal act was not in the possession of a sane and well-poised mind. Such presumption, like other presumptions of a similar character, is by no means conclusive, but may be removed by evidence. It becomes neutralized and inoperative as soon as a motive for the commission of the act is shown by evidence. Upon this latter point the charge of the learned judge below is wholly unexceptionable.

As long as the presumption of insanity is thus applied and enforced, harmony will prevail between science and law, and no evil results can accrue to society. For the danger to be dreaded does not lie in the presumption, which, as such, may be rebutted and overcome by proof in each case, but in the doctrine of moral and emotional insanity, and of temporary insane impulses ; or, to be still more specific, in the vague and unsatisfactory definition sometimes laid down by the courts for that species of insanity and that class of impulses.

The fact, which is generally alluded to, to sustain the opposite doctrine, that men of historic fame, such as Themistocles, Demosthenes, Hannibal, and Cato, committed suicide, without the imputation or suspicion of impelling insanity, cannot have much weight at this late day. Insanity, as now understood, was not known then, nor were the unerring and immutable laws of Hature then known and understood to the same perfection as they are now. So it may also be safely assumed that each of these men shared the mythological notions of his age. The ancients seem very generally to have arrogated to themselves the right to destroy their own lives, whenever, in their judgment, it should be proper. Pliny was accustomed to term it the greatest privilege the gods had left in the power of men, amid the calamities of human life. Judge Robertson, *331of the Kentucky Court of Appeals, very properly remarked of these historic men: “ Without faith in a future state of retribution, they seemed, each and all, to prefer, on rational calculation, annihilation to hopeless torture or degradation.” With the Christian era, however, came a change of views and of feeling in that respect, and Christian rulers set to work to suppress the barbarous practice. Thus it came, that under the common law suicide was declared to be a crime, and visited with punishment as such. As the criminal could not be reached himself, for the reason that by the very act of .suicide, he had placed himself beyond the reach of human punishment, the penalty consisted in denying the body of the criminal Christian burial, and in the forfeiture of his goods to the king.

Nor can I appreciate the force of the reasoning of the learned chief justice in this case, in first denying that insanity can be presumed, and then holding, that the most that can be said is, that inasmuch as many, and perhaps most, persons who destroy their lives are insane at the time, the fact of such self-destruction, of itself, wholly removes the presumption of sanity. If suicide is the unnatural proceeding I have shown it to be, and the fact of self-destruction wholly removes the presumption of sanity, because many, and perhaps most, .persons who destroy their lives are insane at the time, I can see no escape from the conclusion, that the naked and unexplained fact of suicide must be prima facie evidence of the existence of insanity at the time of the perpetration of the act.

I have also carefully examined the recent case of Fowler v. The Mutual Life Ins. Co., 4 Lans. 202, but do not consider it in point here. It seems to have been determined, on the strength of the declarations made by the assured shortly before his death, and which, in the judgment of the court, conclusively established the fact, that his subsequent suicide was *332entirely voluntary, deliberate, wilful, and with knowledge of its nature, character, and consequences.

Being unable to discover any error in the instructions given and refused on the trial, and defendants’ exceptions to the -admission and exclusion of testimony by the court having been found, on examination, to be untenable, I am of the opinion that the judgment and order appealed from should be affirmed with costs.

Coffey v. Home Life Insurance
3 Jones & S. 314 35 N.Y. Super. Ct. 314

Case Details

Coffey v. Home Life Insurance
Decision Date
Feb 1, 1873

3 Jones & S. 314

35 N.Y. Super. Ct. 314

New York



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