Crime’s digital past
Computer science makes history in a
Victorian-era courthouse By Bruce Bower
Henry Howard was in big trou- ble. Down on his luck, the family man stood in the dock of London’s Old Bailey court-
house facing a forgery charge. A Bank
of Scotland clerk had just confirmed
that a month earlier, on March 14, 1879,
Howard bought furniture with a check
belonging to someone else. He signed
the check with James McDonald’s name.
197,000 Old Bailey trials — some with
two or more defendants—that took
place from 1674 to 1913.
Predominantly working-class citizens
trooped into the Old Bailey courthouse
accused of murder, rape, extortion and
many other misdeeds. And the legal procedures developed at the London facility
heavily influenced criminal law in Colonial America. Among other insights into
the history of crime and punishment, digital searches of Old Bailey court records
offer a glimpse of the rapid rise of plea
bargaining and of a growing tendency
within the legal system to treat marriages
as partnerships of love, not convenience.
“The Old Bailey, like the Naked City,
has 8 million stories,” says English professor and digital humanist Stephen Ramsay
of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.
Carving up a massive information
resource with the help of digital tools and
scientific methods offers a way to retrieve
An online database offers access to
more than 200 years’ worth of proceed-
ings from the Old Bailey courthouse. A
case from 1891 is depicted here.
such stories and represents the cutting
edge of what has come to be known over
the last decade as the digital humanities.
Historians and other scholars trained for
contemplation rather than computation
increasingly plumb collections of newspapers, books, music and maps, as well as
other information troves.
Eight interdisciplinary groups of
digital humanists, winners of a grant
competition organized by the National
Endowment for the Humanities, convened in June in Washington, D.C., where
researchers working with Old Bailey’s
digitized archive reported their findings.
“The humanities attempt to understand people’s lived experience,” says
team codirector Dan Cohen, a historian
at George Mason University in Fairfax,
Va. “We don’t want to quantify everything, but our toolkit now includes
powerful techniques for probing data.”
Those techniques include two software
programs that allowed Cohen and colleagues to search the 127-million-word
Old Bailey trial record for criminal
trends and language patterns.
When the team used digital court
transcripts to calculate trial lengths in
words for guilty and not-guilty verdicts
over 239 years, an unexpected finding
popped out. Trial lengths diverged
around 1825, for offenses ranging from
murder to disturbances of the peace.
One set of trials maintained a previous
drift toward lengthy proceedings,
whereas a second set of hearings
concluded quickly. Further analysis
determined that, also around 1825,
guilty pleas rapidly increased in number.
Before 1825, nearly all defendants
pleaded innocent and sought a trial by
their peers, historian and team member Tim Hitchcock of the University of
Hertfordshire in England reported at the
meeting. Trials consisting of several thousand words or more were common.
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