Deodands, Scapegoats, and Whipping Boys

Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at

When I was a child, I frequently crashed my scooter and came home crying with a skinned knee or elbow.  My mother consoled me by pretending to spank the bad scooter that “made me fall.”  I realize now that she was perpetuating a superstition known as the deodand, the “guilty object.”

In medieval times, an animal or a thing that caused the death of a human being was punished as if it had human feelings.  Pigs, bulls, horses, dogs and snakes were hauled before ecclesiastical courts where they were tried, convicted, and sentenced to be stoned, burned at the stake, or hanged.  If the clapper of a church bell fell on a man’s head or a cart tipped and tossed its driver onto the road, the evil instrument had to be destroyed.  Eventually the king recognized the wastefulness of such practices and required instead that all offending animals and property be forfeited to his treasury for resale.  Deodands became an important source of revenue for the British crown until 1846.

It’s human nature to want to shift the blame for our accidents and mistakes, but the desire to take revenge on insensate objects and dumb animals seems irrational.  It’s nevertheless a fact that human beings aren’t always rational and kindness isn’t a universal trait.  In 1916 in Kingsport, Tennessee, a five-ton circus elephant named Mary was hanged for trampling a trainer who prodded her sore tooth while she was eating a watermelon.  It was a cruel execution, but animals that harm people are usually destroyed, regardless of human carelessness or provocation.  A few years ago, a mountain goat gored a hiker in Olympic National Park.  The man died and rangers tracked the goat and killed it.  Animal rights advocates called it a “scapegoat” for poor park management, but the original scapegoat got away Scot-free.

The idea of the scapegoat derives from a Bible story in the Book of Leviticus.  Aaron cast lots upon two identical goats – one designated as an offering for the Lord and one for the fallen angel, Azazel.  The priest transferred all of the sins of the people onto Azazel’s goat and sent it skipping off into the wilderness, symbolically burdened with the sins of a nation but alive and kicking.  The Lord’s blameless goat was then cooked and eaten.  The Bible is rich in irony, but the good luck of that [e]scape goat blows me away.

The ancient Greeks, Hittites, and Romans held similar rituals to appease the gods and preserve a sense of their own righteousness.  The only difference was that they preferred human scapegoats.  Whenever a plague or public calamity occurred, the crowd demanded a sacrifice – a slave or someone of the lower classes – to take upon his head all of the evils afflicting the community.

Who’d believe that anyone would volunteer to take the blame for crimes he didn’t commit?  Yet in the 15th and 16th Centuries, volunteers abounded.  Whipping was a common form of discipline used by tutors, but the lofty status of nobles and monarchs exempted them from corporal punishment.  To prevent royal delinquents from repeating their misbehavior, the king decided they should witness the punishment that they deserved meted out to an inferior.  A need arose for proxies, or “whipping boys.”  The position came with a package of great benefits, provided a boy had a high pain threshold and the prince he served wasn’t unreasonably trouble prone.  Whipping boys were educated in the same schools as the royals and enjoyed many of the same privileges.  When his master got out of line, the whipping boy deemed it an honor to take a beating for him.  Although the job no longer carries the same title, modern day examples exist.  The office of Attorney General springs to mind.

The “fall guy” is a plot staple in murder mysteries.  He is an unwitting pawn, a patsy, an innocent sap set up to take the fall.  The etymology is ambiguous, but Dashiel Hammett popularized it in The Maltese Falcon when Sam Spade tells the villain he needs “a fall-guy, somebody the police can stick for those three murders…toss them a victim, somebody they can hang the works on.”

In life and in fiction, there will always be fall guys.  Sometimes the fall guy is an entire race.  Sometimes it’s a cow.  In 1871, Mrs. O’Leary’s cow allegedly knocked over a lantern and Chicago went up in flames.  The cow wasn’t hanged, but the Irish caught hell.  Scapegoating allows people to vent their frustrations on some other person or group or guilty object.  Every day we read about stone statues toppled and smashed, titanium tennis rackets stomped, and polyester sneakers set ablaze.  I wish my mother had taken a hammer to that hateful scooter that made me fall.  Accursed deodands!


3 thoughts on “Deodands, Scapegoats, and Whipping Boys

  1. Pingback: Member news: February 2019 – Puget Sound Sisters in Crime

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