Serial Crimes

The Serial Crimes exhibit explores serialized offenses and recidivism in the archive - the stories of criminals who charged with multiple, serial offenses or those who replace into crime. As a selection criterion, we have decided to classify as "serial" those documents which depict at least three crimes or murders committed by the same offender/s. Often, these crimes are committed over a longer time span such as decades.

The crimes in this exhibit range from poisoning, arson, theft, and murder. These crimes were also committed by a wide range of offenders including men and women of all ages, socioeconomic, and religious backgrounds. The pamphlets are often very thorough at recounting the crimes committed, their frequency, and the punishment and execution incurred by the criminal. Yet they also raise multiple questions in what they don’t tell us, especially regarding the serial theft – were these thefts the product of social opportunity or a by-product of economic hardship? Take the example of Johann Georg N, who was 37 years old, single father of a 14 year old girl when he was executed in August, 1791. Although Johann Georg N. had spent many years prior in prison, he confessed to numerous further allegations under the influence of torture. As in the exhibit that explores Confessions in our collection, we ask ourselves to what extent we can meaningfully apply the term “serial” or “repeat,” when the multiplicity of these crimes results from confessions obtained under duress. 

Timeline of the Serial Crime Pamphlets: 

Many of the serial crimes described by these pamphlets involved theft and robbery, yet all resulted in death for the named criminals. The pamphlets are written from the perspective of the legal system in place at the time. The stories they give of the individuals named here are the official records of their crimes and the pronouncement of their sentencing. 

Yet the pamphlets also include details that call the official narratives into question, as in the cases of so many criminals who, like Anton Pettenhofer, confessed "under interrogation." This timeline invites us to explore the troubling spectacle enacted by the pamphlets themselves by reading the two stories together: the stories of the serial criminals' actions, and the story of the historical practice of using the body to demonstrate state power. 


Serial Crimes