The speech of the criminal is equally damaging to him or her, whether it is accepted word for word as an account of that person's misdeeds (and therefore a cast iron proof that their wrongdoing deserves punishment), or disbelieved as the dishonest language of an inherently untrustworthy person. Further added to this problem of questionable legitimacy of narrative is that of the authenticity of the narrator: how do we know that a document published as, for example, the last words of a hanged man, was actually written by him or her? The answer is, of course, that we often cannot know, but what these documents reveal about contemporary conceptions of criminality is arguably even more fascinating if we acknowledge the currents flowing between crime fact and crime fiction. On reading most of the confessions gathered here, it is hard to believe that they have lain unexamined for so long. Certainly, the intrinsically riveting content of any criminal confession has guaranteed most such texts a place on the "front page" in their own moment. However, the same sensational quality has meant that criminal confessions - amongst them, many eloquent autobiographies - have been dismissed as pulp-journalistic productions in later periods. Perhaps for this reason, the vivid stories contained in this web anthology are contextualized and analyzed together for the first time. In this collection of confessions, we explore the authenticated thoughts and personal narratives of self-described as well as convicted criminals, chiefly from earlier centuries, alongside journalistic recreations of these narratives in which facts are embroidered or invented. They reveal much about the conceptions of criminality in each period; they also reveal the difficulty of defining, from one century to the next, what demarcates the transgressive from the law-abiding, as well as the complex interplay between crime history and literature.
Copyright © 2005 by Katharine Horsley