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.

The Tumultuous History of Tinsel

PoppyPixels/iStock via Getty Images
PoppyPixels/iStock via Getty Images

When December rolls around, we find ourselves asking the same questions: What’s in figgy pudding? Why do I need to make the Yuletide gay? And what is tinsel exactly?

That last question is only slightly less mystifying than the first two. Many of us have seen tinsel—if not in person, then in one of the countless holiday movies and television specials that air this time of year. It’s the stringy, shiny, silvery stuff that’s hung up as decoration, primarily on Christmas trees. But what is it made of? And why is it associated with the holiday season? This is where the seemingly simple decoration gets complicated.

Tinsel is one of the cheaper items used to trim trees today, but that wasn’t always the case. In 17th century Germany, the first Christmas trees were embellished with tinsel made from real silver pressed into strips. These early Christmas trees were also decorated with real, lit candles, and the silver combined with the flickering firelight created a twinkly effect that worked as a precursor to modern-day string lights.

Silver tinsel did have its drawbacks. It was expensive, so only the wealthiest families had access to it. And those who did have enough money to own tinsel had a limited window to use it, as the metal often tarnished before December 25.

By the early 1900s, the Christmas traditions imported by German immigrants had become mainstream in the U.S. Americans were looking for affordable ways to beautify the evergreens in their living rooms, so manufacturers started making tinsel out of aluminum and copper. The updated decorations produced the same festive sparkle as the silver versions, but for a fraction of the price; also, they could be reused year after year. But they weren’t perfect: The aluminum paper in tinsel was extremely flammable, making it a disastrous choice for dry trees decorated with lights. When World War I began, copper production was funneled toward the war effort and tinsel disappeared from holiday displays.

Its absence turned out to be temporary. Despite centuries of hiccups, makers of holiday decor still believed tinsel deserved a place in modern Christmas celebrations. They just needed to come up with the right material to use, something that could be hung in every home without any backlash. In the early 20th century, the clear choice was lead.

Lead revived tinsel from obscurity, and soon it was embraced as a standard Christmas component along with ornaments and electric lights. It became so popular in the 1950s and ‘60s that tinsel is often thought of as a mid-century fad rather than a tradition that’s been around as long as Christmas trees themselves.

With so many synthetic decorations becoming available around Christmastime, tinsel made from metal was considered one of the safer items to have in the home. A 1959 newspaper article on holiday safety reads: “Tinsel is fairly safe, because even if kiddies decide to swallow it, it will not cause poisoning.”

As we know today, tinsel made from lead isn’t “fairly safe.” Lead that gets ingested or absorbed through the skin can cause headaches, vomiting, constipation, and in extreme cases, brain and kidney damage. Young children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning.

In the 1970s, the U.S. government started setting limits on how much lead can be in consumer products, and in 1972, the FDA came to an agreement with tinsel manufacturers that production of the lead product would cease.

It may not be as en vogue as it was 60 years ago, but tinsel still resurfaces every holiday season. So if the tinsel we use today isn’t made from silver, copper, aluminum, or lead, what is it? The answer is polyvinyl chloride. Industrial machines shred shiny ribbons of the plastic to make the wispy strands that add a bit of glamour to Christmas trees. Plastic tinsel isn’t as elegant as the kind made from real metal, and it’s lightweight, so it’s less likely to stay put after it’s hung over a pine branch. For these reasons, PVC tinsel never caught on to the degree of its predecessor, but it still succeeds in bringing vintage bling to the holidays without poisoning your family.

26 Fascinating Facts About Fossils

Mental Floss via YouTube
Mental Floss via YouTube

If you’ve never visited the Big Bone Room, you’re in luck. Check out our visit to New York City's American Museum of Natural History for a rundown on fossils, which provide invaluable insight into our understanding of history and its once-living occupants.

In this edition of "The List Show," editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy explains the ins and outs of excavation, fossil follies (extinct giants were a big miss), and the terrorizing prospect of a 3-foot-tall parrot.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here!

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