6 People Executed in Effigy

Jean-Pierre Norblin de La Gourdaine, Hanging of Traitors, 1794
Jean-Pierre Norblin de La Gourdaine, Hanging of Traitors, 1794
ART Collection/Alamy

In early modern Europe the justice system wasn’t quite what it is today, and there were times when a community decided someone was guilty of a crime even though he or she wasn't in custody—usually because they'd already escaped. To mollify the public (or royalty's) desire for revenge, in some situations a representation of an individual, crafted of straw or wood or in the form of a painting, would be "put to death" in their stead. Over the course of history many people have been executed in effigy, including these sorry six.

1. DON FELIPE, HERESY // SPAIN

During the Spanish inquisition a great number of convicted heretics who had evaded capture were executed in effigy to act as a warning to others. One such example was Don Felipe de Bardaxi, who in 1563 was executed in effigy in Saragossa, Spain, for “very great blasphemies and things resembling heresy of the Lutheran sect.” (In reality, his biggest crime was probably dealing in contraband horses.) Don Felipe managed to escape before being arrested, and eight years later the Saragossa tribunal annulled his sentence and he was "restored in honor and good reputation" in exchange for some religious penance—proving that it was lucky he had only been executed in effigy.

2. MARQUIS DE SADE, SEXUAL DEVIANCE AND POISONING // FRANCE

In 1772 the Marquis de Sade and his servant Latour engaged a number of young prostitutes in sexual excess, rewarding them with candies laced with the aphrodisiac Spanish fly. The prostitutes later fell ill and accused the Marquis of poisoning them. It was not the first time the Marquis had abused his position to fulfill his urges and an order was sent out for his arrest. De Sade and Latour fled to Sardinia, but meanwhile a court in France found the pair guilty of sodomy and poisoning. In a public show of their disgrace, straw effigies of them were beheaded and then burnt.

3. KAJ LYKKE, INSULTING THE QUEEN // DENMARK

Danish noble Kaj Lykke was an incorrigible ladies’ man, and around 1656 he started an affair with a servant girl. Gossip and cruel jibes soon beset the young girl and she broke off the affair, but not before Lykke had written to her to reassure her, noting that even Queen Sofie Amalie was being gossiped about for her affairs with her servants. The letter was to be his undoing. Sofie Amalie of Denmark was not a monarch to be trifled with, and unluckily for Lykke, his slanderous letter ended up in the queen’s hands after his relationship with the servant girl soured. Outraged by the slight, the royals ordered his death. By then Lykke, sensing danger, had already fled, and so desperate courtiers instead built a life-sized wax doll version of him in the hope that the queen would not be able to tell the difference. The ploy worked and the queen, watching from some distance, was pleased to see the punishment carried out—the doll had its hand cut off (the executioners making the doll appear to writhe in agony for effect) and then was beheaded. The effigy's head was then displayed on a spike as a warning to any other unruly subjects. After Sofie Amalie’s death Lykke smugly returned from exile, and reveled in the celebrity his “fake” death had created.

4. MARIE-ANNE LE BLANC, MURDER // FRANCE

Paintings were often used to represent criminals who had evaded justice and to take their punishment. In some cases artists were actually commissioned to paint a likeness of the guilty party being executed, but in other cases the painting itself was "put to death." This public showing of disgrace allowed the community to feel that at least some form of retribution had been meted out. In 1706 in Caen, France, Marie-Anne Le Blanc was found guilty in absentia of murder. The guilty party having fled, her abandoned house was searched and there a fine portrait of her was found. The painting of the murderer was put on display on a gibbet at the pillory for all to see, and after 24 hours it was publicly "executed" by burning.

5. PIERRE-PAUL SIRVEN AND WIFE, MURDER // FRANCE

During the religious schisms between Catholics and Protestants in 18th century France, Catholic leaders accused Protestants Pierre-Paul Sirven and his wife of murdering their daughter, who had been found drowned in a well. The evidence of murder, however, was scant—and the Sirvens fled to Switzerland, where Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire proclaimed their innocence and gave them sanctuary. Not letting the absence of the accused deter them, the local courts found the Sirvens guilty and on September 11, 1764 they burned effigies in their place. Voltaire continued to campaign for their innocence, and in 1771 Pierre-Paul returned to the town of Mazamet and was exonerated.

6. CORFITZ ULFELDT, TREASON // DENMARK

Corfitz Ulfeldt, known as Denmark’s most famous traitor, repeatedly plotted intrigues against the Danish monarchy. Ulfeldt was married to King Christian IV’s daughter, Leonora Christina, and enjoyed wealth and privilege, but this was not enough for him—he fomented rebellion against the Danish crown on several occasions. In 1663 Ulfeldt was convicted of high treason and sentenced to death, but he evaded capture. To sate the king's apparent appetite for his humiliation, a mannequin likeness of Ulfeldt was beheaded and cut into four pieces, and its head was then displayed on a spike for all to see. Ulfeldt did not get off scot-free, however, and a year later died in Switzerland in mysterious circumstances.

How Did These Famous Figures Die?

Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?

iStock/bonchan
iStock/bonchan

The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

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