"Poor Sinners’ Pamphlets"
18th-19th Century European Criminal and Execution Documents

Front Image

Excerpt from "Confessions and verdicts of 1. Anton Christoph Glaubrecht.

The "Poor Sinners’ Pamphlets" collection is a collaborative academic and educational project conducted by an interdisciplinary group of undergraduate and graduate students drawn from across the College of Arts and Letters at Michigan State University. The collection is an online, open-access repository of digital reproductions of original criminology documents from across Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries, deposited and open to the public in the Special Collections of Michigan State University's Library. 

Our collection houses and seeks to make available to a scholarly public one hundred documents from the Criminology Collection, many of which belong the so-called "Poor Sinners' Pamphlets" genre of texts. These texts in our collection were written in German, with the exception of one in French, and published between 1740 and 1850. The term "Poor Sinners' Pamphlets" (in German, Armesünderblätter) refers more broadly to a genre of sensationalist literature produced and sold in conjunction with public executions, with the word "Armsünder" being euphemism in wide usage since the Middle Ages for those sentenced to death (Grimms' Dictionary). Often a collector’s item for the reading public, the "Poor Sinners' Pamphlets" served as the written extension of the confession and sentence and offer a warning, often in the form of a "moral poem," to potential criminals; they make up a core set of texts in MSU's Criminology Collection. The "Poor Sinners' Pamphlets" offer not only a look into the state, its use of violence, the political and legal history of the book, and the fate of the body in the 18th and 19th Centuries, but also prompt us to reflect on how these practices nonetheless continue to inform and effect our society in the 21st Century. 

Our goal is to bring out historical individuals' stories contained in our collection and told by these pamphlets, but also to reveal a narrative that a past society tells about itself. The digital humanities presents methods that enable these stories to be revealed to a broader public. Far from simply replacing the material object with a data point or a digital image, this process of revelation and exhibition returns us to many of the key concepts of the humanities - the politics of exhibition and representation and the ethics of the archive, for instance - which both inform our analyses and which our analyses seek to expand.