Happy Halloween from “Law’s Picture Books”

♩ ♪ ♫ ‘Tis the season to be grisly—and here at “Law’s Picture Books,” we can rise to the occasion! Our next case—“Inflicting the Law”—happens to be the next stop on our digital gallery tour.

For your ghoulish delectation, consider this:

Or this:

Or this:

Or, lordy knows, this:

And, really, we’re just getting started. (Scroll over all the images for links to full illustrations.)

This was not an easy case for us to assemble. It features images of torture and corporal and capital punishment, and they were difficult to contemplate at length. Ironically—and fortunately—many of them were appropriated in struggles against capital punishment and torture. The explicit, graphic nature of the images made it impossible for citizens to ignore what was being inflicted in their names and by their authority.

Interestingly, most of the images on display come with a twist. They place the bodies-in-pain they depict in direct visual relationship with text—with words, letters, or books.

In Franz Kafka’s disturbing, enigmatic short story “In the Penal Colony,” a prison camp officer proudly demonstrates an execution machine to a perplexed visitor—“the Traveler.” The machine uses a collection of needles to inscribe the body of a condemned man with the text of the law he has violated. The images in this case often show just that.

We leave you with a final one:

A bigamist is branded with the letters TF—for travaux forcés, or forced labor—while a crowd watches. The branding of convicts in France was abolished by the French Assembly in 1832. Once common throughout Europe, the practice likely traces its ancient origins to markings of slave ownership. The same letters appear on the shoulder of Balzac’s character Vautrin in his series La Comédie humaine.

Happy Halloween! Sleep tight!


Edme Théodore Bourg. Dictionnaire de la pénalité dans toutes les parties du monde connu: tableau historique. Paris: Rousselon, 1824-1828. Volume 4 of 5.

Mark S. Weiner & Mike Widener


Next up on our gallery tour: “Worth a Thousand Words.”

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