Home > Research > Projects > Criminal Confessions
View graph of relations

Criminal Confessions

Project: Non-funded ProjectProjects

1/11/06 → …

Lee and Katharine Horsley's proposed book, Criminal Confessions, is contracted to Edwin Mellen Press, due for submission in September 2009. It will provide a selection of criminal confessions from four centuries of British and American criminal history, drawing from sensational stories and rogue biographies, autobiographies, pamphlets and broadsides, trial transcripts, press accounts, interviews and letters. Some pieces will be reproduced in their entirety, others are extracts. In all of these pieces there is a complex interconnection between the history and literature of crime. They reveal the difficulty of establishing what divides the transgressive from the law-abiding and they shed light on each era's image of the criminal and on changing models of the individual's relation to the law.

The interplay between crime fact and crime fiction is one of the most fascinating aspects of confession. How have writers of detective and crime fiction incorporated true crime narratives into their novels? To what extent do real-life confessions emulate contemporary crime fiction? How has this feedback loop changed over time? In the selections that follow, we will illustrate and explore the choices made by those who give confessions or who confect or ghostwrite them for others. Confession-makers of all kinds are inclined to choose familiar plot lines, furnishing the narratives with details that conform to the expectations of their audiences. Even where all the 'facts of the case' are genuine, confessions tend to fit established models, resembling, for example, other well-known stories of sincere penitence, criminal lunacy, heroic outlawry or demonic possession.

From the outset, narratives married to the actual words of the accused have been able to claim greater authenticity. Confessions, it is believed, allow us to understand people's real motives and to grasp the whole sequence of events leading to the crime. They reveal what is concealed even from first-hand witnesses. They also, however, cause us to examine the motivations behind the act of confession. There is an inevitable tension between the pressures brought to bear in an interrogation and the ideal of the 'sincere' expression of 'what really happened'. Does a person confess out of fear and shame or out of the desire for spiritual and social forgiveness? Or does he simply hope to put an end to a prolonged official examination? Is the accused struggling to make clear his actual motives or is he trying to deflect blame on to someone else? Is he hiding a large part of the truth, or is he inventing and exaggerating in the hope of achieving notoriety?

The proposed book is structured around these centrally important questions about the pressures to confess and the motivations behind confessions. It reveals patterns in the allocation of blame; it explains the creation of criminal celebrity through confessions and considers their role in justifying or challenging the status quo. The book will contain some thirty to forty confessions, arranged in a way that will offer readers a strong sense of both the variety and the continuity of this form of expression. It will introduce each piece, describing the crime and relating the confession to its historical background and to analogous material. There will, in addition, be overviews accompanying each main section, plus a general introduction. Total book length: approximately 100,000 words.