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Digitizing the Hanging Court

Cutpurses! Blackguards! Fallen women! The Proceedings of the Old Bailey is an epic chronicle of crime and vice in early London. Now anyone with a computer can search all 52 million words

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By the time the hangman finished him off, Jonathan Wild had few friends. In his own way he had been a public servant—a combination bounty hunter and prosecutor who tracked down thieves and recovered stolen property, a useful figure in 18th-century London, which had no formal police force of its own. Such men were called "thief-takers," and Wild was good at his work. But along the way, he became more problem than solution.

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He called himself the "Thief-Taker General of England and Ireland," but he became London's leading crime boss, specializing in robbery and extortion. He frequently encouraged or even set up thefts and burglaries, fenced the booty for a relative pittance, then returned it to its owner for the reward. If his cronies tried to double-cross him, he had them arrested, to be tried and hanged—then collected the bounty. It was said that he inspired the term "double-cross," for the two X's he put in his ledger beside the names of those who cheated him.

Daniel Defoe, a journalist as well as the author of Robinson Crusoe, wrote a quickie biography of Wild a month after he was hanged, in 1725. Henry Fielding, the author of Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews, satirized him in The History of the Life of the Late Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great. John Gay took him as his inspiration for the villainous Peachum in The Beggar's Opera.

But by the time that work had morphed into the Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill hit The Threepenny Opera two centuries later, Wild had all but faded from memory. And when Bobby Darin made a hit out of "Mack the Knife" 30 years after the play opened, Wild was largely a forgotten man.

But thanks to a pair of expatriate Americans fascinated by the way England's other half lived during the Age of Enlightenment, anyone with a computer can now resurrect Jonathan Wild and his dark world. The original record of his trial is in the Proceedings of the Old Bailey, the digest that described and often transcribed the more than 100,000 trials that took place in the criminal court of the City of London and the County of Middlesex between 1674 and 1834. Working with grants totaling some $1.26 million, historians Robert Shoemaker of the University of Sheffield and Tim Hitchcock of the University of Hertfordshire have digitized the 52 million words of the Proceedings—and put them in a searchable database for anyone to read on the Internet.

Built in 1539 next to Newgate Prison, the justice hall was nicknamed after its address on Old Bailey Street, where London's "bailey," or wall, once marked the city's Roman boundaries. The court tried felony cases—which included any case that carried the death penalty—and in a city where criminals' biographies and elaborate ballads routinely chronicled the exploits of famous malefactors, the Proceedings were a tabloid-style sensation.

The Proceedings' first issues were thin, cheap and focused on sex and violence, but as time passed, they became more comprehensive and formal, eventually acquiring the stature of an official record; Shoemaker and Hitchcock call them "the largest body of texts dealing with non-elite people ever published." Non-elite indeed! The court records document a tough, teeming London just beginning to flex its muscles as the commercial center of the Western world. The Proceedings made a profit virtually from the first pamphlet issued and thrived for decades afterward. It's easy to see why.

Take the case of 19-year-old Elizabeth Canning, who vanished in 1753, only to stumble home a month later dressed in rags, half-starved and bleeding from the head. She said she'd been robbed and kidnapped by gypsies and held in a hayloft at a rural brothel for 27 days after refusing to become a prostitute. "There was a black pitcher not quite full of water, and about 24 pieces of bread" in the loft, she testified in a case that riveted the public for months. She claimed to have subsisted on these meager rations until she escaped by tugging a plank from a boarded-up window and dropping about ten feet to the ground, cutting her ear in the process.

Mary Squires, the accused ringleader in the crime, maintained that she had never laid eyes on Canning before the trial, but was convicted of robbery—a more serious charge than kidnapping at the time—and sentenced to death anyway.

It then became clear that Canning's story had serious holes. Besides the implausibility of her prolonged survival on so little food, evidence revealed that neither Squires nor her accused accomplices were anywhere near the farmhouse at the time of Canning's purported kidnapping. Investigators visited the loft and said it bore little resemblance to the room Canning had described, and tenants there testified that they had been in residence during the time Canning said she had been locked up. The loft indeed had a small window, but it also had a second, much larger, unboarded one that offered easy access to the yard four—not ten—feet below.

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