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Crime, Text, and Technology in the United States

These expansive and descriptive broadsheets, which highlight crime and public punishment in Western Europe of various means and extremes from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century, force us to consider historic and contemporary parallels to crime and punishment in the United States. Indeed, the presence of religious minorities in our archive (see the pamplets about Anton Christoph Glaubrecht and Joshua Nathan Lamfrom), suggest reading the construction of “misconduct” and “crime” across historical and even racial and religious lines. In evaluating these documents, there were obvious trends that have parallels in the history of the United States: crimes committed by women, crimes committed by elderly, and crimes committed out of necessity. At the intersections of the pamphlets in our collection and crime in the United States are striking similarities to domestic landmark cases, such as the Salem Witch Trials, Nat Turner’s Rebellion and the nadir in race relations following the Civil War, and such cases were published and publicized. 

The Salem Witch Trials occurred in Salem, Massachusetts between February 1692 and May 1693. They started with a woman claiming she had been possessed by the devil.[1] The craze led not only to documents (see left) similar to the criminology documents in our collection, but also to a trial by hysteria and the execution of twenty people. Most of the deaths were women – fourteen to be exact – and by public hanging. Celebrated playwright Arthur Miller capitalized on the frenzy and panic during a similar period, the McCarthy era, with his celebrated play The Crucible (1953), which chronicles the Salem Witch Trials.

On August 21, 1831, Nat Turner, a preacher, led a slave rebellion with roughly sixty enslaved Blacks in Southampton, Virginia, the southeastern arm facing the Atlantic - see the broadside "Horrid massacre in Virginia" told from the white planation owners' perspective (1831). As with many of the pamphlets in our collection, this broadside announces its own immediacy "Just printed" and authenticity, "authentic and intersting." According to George Mason University, “Turner and sixteen others were tried executed”[2] for their participation in the uprising. When Turner was captured and finally faced trial—he was hung, his corpse skinned, beheaded and quartered. Indeed, that the restoration of justice occurs on the body of condemned is as operative in the 1830s in the United States as it is in the German-speaking portions of Europe explored in our collection. Turner’s actions had deadly and costly repercussions for enslaved Blacks for hundreds of miles in either direction. Race and the politics of the body played a critical role in stricter slave codes and its consequences for violation of these laws.

"Horrid massacre in Virginia: Just published..." (New York : Warner and West, 1831), hosted at University of Virginia Libraries. 

Following the failed attempts at reconstruction after the Civil War, what should have been the brightest days for the formerly enslaved, as they were to gain freedoms that they didn’t have, were indeed the darkest days from 1890 to 1920, roughly. During this time, southern states enacted laws that oppressed and suppressed the rights of the newly freed despite the passing of the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth amendments that abolished slavery, granted citizenship to all, and afforded all the right to vote, respectively.[3] These civil freedoms were met with bodily violence of the extreme — lynchings, beatings and mob assaults attempted to maintain some semblance of the old order and hierarchy. The violence of lynchings reached its climax in 1892 when it claimed the lives of 230 people.[4] Although this may not fit the bill of crime and punishment according to the model of the state we see in our collection, the nadir reveals an even more problematic concept of “crime” in which the “crime” is associated with skin color, “guilt” measured by biological difference, and “justice” exerted by mob violence as revenge, spectacle, and warning. Similar to most unmet change, the nadir altered the chronology and landscape of the country—the pinnacle event—The Great Migration when scores of Blacks left the South looking in the North for hope, jobs, and opportunity.

Crime and public punishment in the U.S. with the advent of technology has not ushered in some sort of “Golden Age”. Instead, in the era of social media, the press and the unforgiving public play judge and jury, allowing for all with a smartphone and WIFI capabilities to write one’s fate before and/or hearing all or none of the evidence. Moreover, the punishment that is doled out can be, and has a tendency to be much more severe, because your crime lives in perpetuity. In the eyes of the public, one is always guilty, even after they have served their time.


 [1] “Salem Witch Trials,” Eyewitnesstohistory.com, accessed April 27, 2016 http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/salem.htm

 [2] “Nat Turner Rebellion,” GeorgeMason.edu, accessed April 27, 2016 http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6811/.

[3] “The Nadir,” NationalHumanitiesCenter.org, accessed April 27, 2016


[4] “Racial Prejudice,” Vassar.edu, accessed April 25, 2016