Themed Set: Executions in Effigy

One of the weirder epiphenomena of death penalty history is the imposition in absentia not only of death sentences, but of executions themselves.

Executions in effigy, practiced in many European countries well into the 18th century, featured paintings or dummies of absconded malefactors which were “executed” in place of their flesh-and-blood models.

The belief that an effigy and the person ‘effigiated,’ to use an old word, were sympathetically identified, and that hurt done to the former reached the latter, lived on to a very late time in Europe. We are by no means sure that this belief is not at present being traded on by the hole-and-corner magicians and sorcerers who are at times dragged out into the light, and made to disgorge their robberies from simple servant-girls …

Execution by effigy seems to the practical minds of the English (as it did to the Romans) too puerile to be used by a serious nation.* We should find no satisfaction for our own indignation, and see no indication of the majesty of our law, in punishing a criminal’s picture, because we could not punish the criminal himself.

Hanging of Traitors in Effigy, by Jan Piotr Norblin de la Gourdaine – an incident during the Targowica Confederation.

The French, however, have always treated symbols with gravity … Execution by effigy was a solemn legal institution in France prior to the first Revolution …

The French law vindicated its outraged honour upon the effigy of a criminal in cases of contumacy, that is, when the criminal absented himself or took to flight. It is not impossible that the condemned sometimes secreted himself in the crowd, and saw with comical relief his picture or his doll suffering in his stead.

While rooted in medieval superstition, this bizarre practice (one thinks of self-conscious executioners conducting such farcical operations) had its benefits: “death” sentences could be carried out without the unedifying spectacle of actual mass bloodletting. One correspondent, lightly reflecting on a spate of executions-in-effigy reflected:

It was amusing to see such a number of pictures exhibited in the place of execution, all beheaded by the hangman — as many as thirty in one day. These bloodless executions and decent representations, which inflicted only a little disgrace, were a sight the more agreeable because there was justice without blood. These pictures were exposed for one day, and the people thronged to see this regiment of criminals — dead without dying. It is a device of the law to disgrace those it cannot punish, and to chastise the crime when it cannot reach the criminal.

For the next few days, Executed Today remembers the chastisement of such criminals, beyond the reach of the law.

* It’s not that clear-cut. And, of course, the English have an entire holiday built around re-executing effigies of their most famous traitor. These, however, are popular ceremonies rather than juridical outcomes. Like this:

On this day..

7 thoughts on “Themed Set: Executions in Effigy

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