Confessions, Sentences and Punishment
Historically, it was not necessary for someone to confess to a crime to be sentenced and punished, which explains why not every single item is included in this collection. It is worth mentioning, however, that confessions were a very important aspect of trials and capital punishment during the 18th and 19th centuries. The nature of discursive implications of such confessions forms a central argument of Michel Foucault’s chapter "The Spectacle of the Scaffold," in his work Discipline and Punish.
One reason why confessions played such a crucial role for not only trials, but also the entire penal process is due to the fact that “the confession constituted so strong a proof that there was scarcely any need to add others, or to enter the difficult and dubious combinatory of clues; the confession, provided it was obtained in the correct manner, almost discharged the prosecution of the obligation to provide further evidence (in any case, the most difficult evidence)" (Discipline and Punish 37).
Not only were confessions important in terms of evidence for the trial, but they also added a personal dimension and admission of responsibility, seemingly originating directly from the criminal him or herself. Foucault explains the personal effect of a confession on the "wrong-doer," in as much as if a “wrong-doers [must] be justly punished," then "they must if possible judge and condemn themselves’" (Discipline and Punish 38). By giving an oral confession, especially in public, these “wrong-doers” proclaim their own guilt by "condemning themselves," making the trial on the final fulfillment - so the logic of confessions in this judicial economy goes - of a punishment brought on, and admitted to, by the "wrong-doer."
Some public confessions would retell the account of the crime from the perspective of the perpetrator, and this act of retelling creates different dimensions to the trial and Foucault relates these dimension to the establishment of a more general notion of truth: “the criminal who confessed came to play the role of living truth. The confession, an act of the criminal, responsible and speaking subject, was the complement to the written, secret preliminary investigation.” (Discipline and Punish 38). The "truths" related to confession are not just the account of what happened but also the embodiment of such "truth," leading to the notion of "penal truth." According to Foucault: "Through the confession, the accused himself took part in the ritual of producing penal truth" (Discipline and Punish 38).
Confessions thus purport to represent and embody the "truth" of a particular crime, but, to do so, they had to be "obtained in the correct manner." This is important to keep in mind because many of the individuals in these pamphlets did not just simply confess, but they were tortured. Foucault addresses the links between torture and confessions when he writes that "the confession of the guilty person" was "also the battle, and this victory of one adversary over the other, that ‘produced' truth according to a ritual. In torture employed to extract a confession, there was an element of the investigation; there also was an element of the duel” (Discipline and Punish 41).
Confessions played crucial aspect in bringing to light the severity of the crime and, in turn, justified the severity of the punishment. "In so far as it must bring the crime before everyone’s eyes, in all its severity, the punishment must take responsibility for this atrocity: it must bring it to light by confessions, statements, inscriptions that make it public; it must reproduce it in ceremonies that apply it to the body of the guilty person in the form of humiliation and pain” (Discipline and Punish 56). In this collection, we invite you to explore how these pamphlets not only tell the stories of individuals and crimes from the past, but also partake in a sort of confession that as a physical object establishes the “truth” of the story it purports.