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Death by Effigy

On July 21, 1578, a small Mexican town awoke to the news of a scandal. Nailed to the door of its church was a double-faced effigy denouncing a neighbor as a Jew who should burn at the stake. Nine trials over the course of four years revealed a story of dishonor, revenge, and the Inquisition's relentless determination to defend its symbols.

Death by Effigy
A Case from the Mexican Inquisition

Luis R. Corteguera

2012 | 240 pages | Cloth $39.95 | Paper $28.95
American History / Latin American Studies/Caribbean Studies
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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations
Prologue: The Crime of Tecamachalco

PART I. 1578
Chapter 1. False Start
Chapter 2. Trial and Failure

PART II. 1581
Chapter 3. Surprise Witness
Chapter 4. The Mother, the Son, and the Stepson
Chapter 5. Mistrial

PART III. 1582
Chapter 6. New and Old Leads
Chapter 7. The Scribe
Chapter 8. The Interpreter
Chapter 9. The Farmer
Chapter 10. Under Torment
Chapter 11. Conspiracy
Chapter 12. More Torment
Chapter 13. The Wife
Chapter 14. Reconciliation

List of Key Names

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

This book centers on a scandal that took place on 21 July 1578 in the Mexican town of Tecamachalco (in the present state of Puebla), the four-year investigation that followed, and nine trials conducted by the Inquisition. For more than two centuries, the documentation for these events belonged to the secret archive of the Mexican Inquisition, located inside the large building that served as the tribunal's headquarters, now a museum on the Plaza de Santo Domingo, near Mexico City's cathedral. After the abolition of the Mexican Inquisition in 1820, some of its papers became available for purchase. In 1909, an antiquarian bookseller based in Mexico City sold thirty-two volumes of inquisitorial papers to the Arizona mining engineer Walter Douglas, who, in 1944, bequeathed them to the Huntington Library in California. One of these manuscripts (HM 35097), still in its original leather binding, contains the main group of documents dealing with the Tecamachalco scandal. The Huntington manuscript and other documents from the case that remained in Mexico add total almost seven hundred pages of detailed information about what was little more than a minor, one-day incident in a provincial town. Still, the documentation is incomplete, since one of the nine trials is missing and presumed lost.
My research on the Huntington manuscript began as part of larger a project on the power of images and symbols in the Spanish empire in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The manuscript's description in the library's inventory was intriguing: a trial for "stealing" a "statue" and a number of sambenitos—garments that the Inquisition imposed on those found guilty of acting against God and the Catholic Church (see Figure 1). The theft of the statue and the sambenitos recalled other Inquisition trials in Mexican and Spanish archives dealing with cases of sacrilege, blasphemy, and superstition involving sacred objects. Catholics who otherwise did not challenge Church dogma had nonetheless stolen consecrated hosts, attacked crucifixes, or destroyed religious paintings. Rather than deny useless "idols," as Protestant iconoclasts did when they attacked sacred objects, sacrilege in those Inquisition cases reflected more "credulous forms of belligerence and delinquency." In other words, a desire to appropriate the power believed to be in those objects inspired sacrilegious acts for aims as diverse as gaining protection from evil, making someone fall in love, or taking revenge for losing at cards on the Virgin Mary. Similar actions were not restricted to religious objects. Angry subjects took away royal symbols from officials, and rebels attacked royal paintings to denounce tyranny. Such acts and the response of authorities can reveal much about different forms of power and authority underpinning monarchies, religious persecution, and prejudice of all kinds. Even though religious and secular authorities used images and symbols to exert their power and inculcate beliefs, those symbols and images were susceptible to falling into the wrong hands and being used in all sorts of ways not intended by the authorities. With these issues and questions, I approached my reading of the Huntington manuscript.

It did not take long to see that the Tecamachalco case was unlike cases of credulous sacrilege. Whereas many of these cases typically ranged from five to twenty pages, the Huntington manuscript is almost 190 folios, or 380 pages. More important, the original cover page of the Huntington manuscript, which is damaged on the right side, does not mention that the trial involved a theft, as claimed in the inventory. Rather, the trial was "for the sambenitos put up in Tecamachalco"—or, more exactly, the sambenitos placed on the facade of the town's church. The "statue" mentioned in the inventory turned out to be no sacred image but a doll-like dummy, or effigy, with two faces and two mouths with different tongues and other symbols, accompanied by enigmatic signs slandering a town resident by labeling him a Jew. No sacrilege or other heresy had taken place, but the authors of the Tecamachalco scandal had insulted a neighbor by appropriating the power of symbols used by the Inquisition to dishonor heretics.
The scandal of Tecamachalco offers an eloquent example of the very real power of images to dishonor. The sixteenth-century French jurist Pierre Ayrault explained: "Of course, just as one may be honored with an image [effigie], by displaying, and by making an image, one may just the same suffer punishment and shame." The loss of honor was therefore a serious matter. Fama and reputación—fame and reputation—influenced all aspects of people's lives, from the way men and women interacted with others, to the activities and work they engaged in, their prospects for marriage, and even access to credit. Not surprisingly, an attack against someone's honor through the spread of false rumor constituted a punishable crime. The effects of the loss of honor were comparable to suffering bodily harm—or worse. According to the Siete Partidas, the thirteenth-century Castilian legal compilation and the basis for Spanish law in the Americas, "Two crimes are equal, to kill a man or to accuse him of wrong-doing; for a man once he is defamed, although he be innocent, is dead to the good and honor of the world; and besides, the slander may be such that death would be better for him than life." As we will see, the authors of the Tecamachalco scandal chose to defame their victim with the effigy and the sambenitos precisely because they considered it worse punishment than a beating or even death.
The Tecamachalco case is therefore unlike most inquisitorial trials bent on rooting out heresy or disciplining behavior that did not conform with Catholic dogma. The Inquisition never investigated the charge that the victim of the scandal was a Jew. Serious as it was to dishonor a man, such concerns lay beyond the Inquisition's authority. The tribunal's decision to prosecute the authors of the scandal responded exclusively to the fact that the actions involved the misuse and misappropriation of the sambenitos and the effigy associated with the tribunal and its exclusive authority. As I will argue, the scandal took place at a time when the new tribunal of the Mexican Holy Office was intent on persecuting actions that it saw as a challenge to the respect owed to it. The Mexican inquisitors therefore deployed all their available resources to find out who was responsible for illegally using their symbols. It did not matter to the inquisitors that mundane passions, rather than a desire to challenge the tribunal or its officials, motivated the authors of the scandal. The culprits would still have to pay a heavy price for their unintended disrespect.
The strange "statue" and the sambenitos of Tecamachalco lay at the intersection of two very different stories, one about passions in a colonial Mexican town and the other about the authority of the Inquisition. On the one hand, the scandal revealed secrets and rumors that touched on the racial and sexual anxieties of Spanish society in colonial Mexico. On the other hand, the inquisitors had to immerse themselves in these rumors about friendships and love affairs, personal reputations, lies, and enmities to punish those guilty of challenging the tribunal's authority. As the historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie showed nearly four decades ago in his magisterial Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error, the inquisitors' determination to find out the truth pried open a community to reveal the otherwise secret loves, hatreds, and prejudices of men and women. However, the Tecamachalco case also reveals the pitfalls of such information, which often proved unreliable and misleading. Rumor became central to resolve the mystery behind the scandal, but it led inquisitors down a tortuous path that delayed that resolution. On several occasions, the tactical spreading of rumors and lies nearly derailed the investigation and almost allowed the culprits to get away with their actions.
It would be misleading to assume that understanding this case only requires summing up the documentation available. It is important to remember that the Tecamachalco case consisted of several investigations carried out by different officials, resulting in nine separate trials. Although all these trials were part of the same case, they do not always add up to a single coherent whole.
The secretary Pedro de los Ríos was the Inquisition's notary who compiled and filed the documentation for the Tecamachalco case, including the Huntington manuscript, which looks like a book with nearly four hundred pages numbered successively, except for the last fourteen pages. Yet the secretary did not organize the documents in this manuscript with the aim of telling a story from beginning to end; rather, he organized them in the order in which he received them. The Huntington manuscript is therefore not a single document but many produced by multiple authors copied in several different hands. Most of the first eighty pages of documents consist of an initial investigation conducted by royal officials, which ended abruptly in the last days of July 1578, when the Inquisition took over the case. Next, we find the papers from the Inquisition's first investigation and trial, which stops without warning or explanation on 18 September 1578. Turning to the next page (f. 61, or p. 122), the investigation suddenly resumes more than three years later, in October 1581. Pedro de los Ríos simply attached the new documents to the old ones without bothering to note the long interruption between them. As the case progressed in the course of the next two years and spawned new trials, the secretary copied and attached extracts of varying lengths from those trials. Nearly 360 pages later, a final entry from 13 July 1582 indicates the sentencing in the case, which brings to an end the main story in the Huntington manuscript. The last fourteen pages contain a final summation of the entire case, but introducing new information, and even new names. The last document dates from 23 July 1582. The stories told by the rest of the trials, located at the Archivo General de la Nación in Mexico City, are even more disjointed than the story in the Huntington manuscript. They are part of different volumes that add up to about three hundred pages—roughly a hundred pages shorter than the Huntington document. Secretary de los Ríos did not find it necessary to provide background or context for each of the trials. The less important trials are virtually incomprehensible without taking into account the documentation from the other trials. Fortunately, Pedro de los Ríos had key passages from the now-missing trial transcribed in the trials in the Huntington manuscript and the other documents in Mexico.
Twice, the Inquisition summed up the story behind the Tecamachalco case. In both cases, the author of those summaries was almost certainly Secretary Pedro de los Ríos. In 1583, the Mexican Inquisition sent a brief report (relación) of the case to the royal council in Madrid that oversaw the work of the Inquisition across the Spanish empire, the Council of the Supreme and General Inquisition, known as the Suprema. The report is little more than an abbreviated summary—about one paragraph long—of the final sentences in the case. In a couple of lines, it offered to the Suprema a cursory background to the case, the identity of the victim of the scandal, and the names of the principal culprits. This short summary underplays the difficulty and length of the case. A longer summary, and the only attempt at something close to a narrative of the case, appears in the last fourteen pages of the Huntington manuscript. Secretary de los Ríos probably wrote it for the pronunciación, or the publication of the final sentences in the case, read at a ceremony on 22 July 1582 in Mexico City's cathedral. Unlike the short report sent to the Suprema, this longer summary more accurately reflects the complexity and length of the Tecamachalco case. It provides numerous excerpts, some quite long, from the trial depositions. Yet the sheer volume of information packed into these few pages makes it very difficult to follow by anyone not already familiar with the case.
Secretary de los Ríos had no interest in telling a story the way in which, say, the sixteenth-century French judge Jean de Coras used his knowledge of the strange case of Martin Guerre to create a gripping tale marked by surprising twists that would interest all kinds of readers. In Secretary de los Ríos's summary of the Tecamachalco trials, the numerous unexpected twists read like a long line of non sequiturs. More important, Judge Coras described his reactions to his extraordinary story and thus shared the stage with his big cast of characters. In Pedro de los Ríos's accounts, the inquisitors remain off stage and virtually silent. The fault does not lie entirely with the Inquisition's secretary; even if he had wanted to write an account of the Tecamachalco case, the tribunal forbade publication of its secret documentation. De los Ríos therefore wrote for an audience of other officials of the Inquisition, more interested in an accurate summation of the case than in enjoying a good tale.
If understanding the Tecamachalco case cannot rely solely on summing up the documentation, its analysis in narrative form is the best way to resolve one of the greatest challenges of this case, namely, the unexpected twists that turned a seemingly mundane affair into a case hundreds of pages long. Following closely the evolution of the investigation reveals much about the inquisitors' approach to the investigation, as well as where they made mistakes or drew the wrong conclusions. The shifting directions in the investigation also reveal the inquisitors' confusion about the evidence and their false assumptions about the suspects. Without this information, one cannot understand the inquisitors' decision to begin each trial, whom to torture, and when. In addition, following the various turns in the investigation shows how remarkably skilled the authors of the execution in effigy were at hiding their tracks and creating false leads—something concealed in the Inquisition's summaries of the case. Narrative and analysis therefore intersect in my retelling of this fascinating case.
Virtually everything known about the Tecamachalco case comes from the Mexican Inquisition's documentation. Ordinary men and women were involved in the case and, in most cases, did not leave additional documents to supplement what we know from the inquisitorial trials. Therefore, it is largely through the eyes of the Inquisition's officials that we must reconstruct the events of July 1578 and thereafter. Of course, suspects were well aware of the potential dangers of revealing the whole truth. It is not always possible to confirm the validity of testimony collected through torture or under its threat. This does not mean that an objective analysis of the evidence lies beyond our reach. The Inquisition encouraged suspects and witnesses to tell the truth and threatened them with severe punishment for lying. Moreover, despite their quest for the truth, the inquisitors were not neutral judges; they had a mission to stamp out what they considered to be threats to the Catholic Church and to the work of the Inquisition. Fortunately, the carefully collected records left by the specialized staff of the Inquisition make these documents extremely valuable, providing a window into the past not matched by most historical records. The inquisitors were often highly professional bureaucrats rather than fanatics.

Conveying the richness of inquisitorial documents poses important challenges. Although the depositions often have the feel of verbatim declarations, what we have are copies of the original statements taken down during the actual interrogations. Scribes, notaries, and secretaries made great efforts to be accurate, but they were not foolproof recording machines capable of total accuracy. In addition, these depositions are legal documents and, as such, are often repetitive and formulaic. Since the Tecamachalco case involved nine different trials, the Inquisition's officials treated each one as a separate unit requiring the transcription of relevant testimonies from the other trials. This practice further contributed to the repetitiveness of the documentation.

An English translation of the inquisitorial documents as they are in the original would prove frustratingly confusing for other reasons as well. Even something as simple as the identity of the men and women in the case poses problems for anyone not familiar with Spanish. The recurrence of popular first names—Juan, Juana, Francisco, and Catalina—and of common surnames might cause confusion. Though this was not generally a problem for those living in the community, they, too, occasionally got their names mixed up. Inquisitorial documents try to avoid the confusion by writing down the first and last names; they also included additional information, such as the individual's race, the name of a woman's husband, and which of two men with the same name was the father and which was the son (el mozo, "the younger"). I have compiled a list of names at the end of this book to help identify the numerous men and women who took part in this case. I have also followed the practice of other historians and changed the third-person singular, as recorded in the depositions, to the first-person singular, to re-create the sense of the original depositions.

The narrative moves mostly chronologically from July 1578 to July 1582. The preface describes the scene of the crime and provides background about the town of Tecamachalco, the Mexican Inquisition, and the practice of executions in effigy. The long history of the investigation has three parts. The first part examines the initial, failed, investigation of the scandal in 1578, begun by a royal official, and soon after taken over by the Inquisition, which lasted only weeks. The second part focuses on the resumption of the investigation in 1581, following an unexpected testimony made before the inquisitors. But a barrage of often contradictory and confusing testimonies soon threatened a similar outcome as in the first investigation. The third part focuses on the trials of the main suspects in 1582. By January of that year, the inquisitors thought that the investigation would soon end. Instead, the number of suspects and trials multiplied, until the final sentencing in July 1582, four years after the scandal. The epilogue presents the final analysis of the case and offers lessons drawn from it about the very real power of images in the sixteenth century.

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