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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

In a second trial, Canning was convicted of perjury and "transported" to the American Colonies. There, she married the great-nephew of a former governor of Connecticut, bore five children and died in 1773, before she turned 40. (No one ever discovered what had really happened to her during her disappearance.) Squires was pardoned and released.

The stories in the Proceedings evoke the mean streets of Moll Flanders, the waterfront of Jim Hawkins, Black Dog and Long John Silver and the dank alleyways where Fagin and the Artful Dodger ran gangs of "blackguard" orphan cutpurses.

In 1741, for example, highwayman John Car was sentenced to death after mugging a man in a park for four shillings and shooting him in the eye. Passersby ran Car down, and when one of his pursuers asked why he had done it, the thief offered an explanation worthy of Dickens: "Money, if you had been here, I would have served you the same."

In 1761, Thomas Daniels was convicted of murder for throwing his naked wife, Sarah, out of a third-story window one August night after returning from a pub. But he won a pardon after documenting his spouse's vicious temper and claiming that, on the night in question, she whacked him over the head with an unidentified object, then ran to the window and "flew out."

The Proceedings have long served as primary source material about daily life in 18th-century London, but their riches were laid bare only to those dogged enough to leaf through hard copies in the bowels of research libraries or, since 1980, to squint for hours at microfilm. "I read them page by page," says University of Toronto emeritus historian John Beattie. He began in the 1980s, researching Crime and the Courts in England 1660-1800, and finished in the '90s, while writing Policing and Punishment in London 1660-1750.

But by transforming the Proceedings into Oldbaileyonline.org, Shoemaker and Hitchcock have brought them to the laptop of Everyman and demonstrated how computer science can make the past come alive.

It is now possible to place software "tags" in large bodies of digitized data, allowing researchers to find something simply by asking the computer to retrieve it. Such high-speed searches have been used not only to sort archives but also to search telephone records, catalog fingerprints or accomplish virtually any other task requiring navigation of immense masses of data. But it wasn't that way when Shoemaker and Hitchcock began their careers in the late 1980s.

"When I interviewed for my first lectureship, they asked me if I could teach 'computing in history,'" says Hitchcock. "I said 'yes' because I wanted the job, even though it wasn't true. On the computers of that time they had developed programs that allowed you to flit from page to page. You could see the potential, but not the mechanism."

Hitchcock, who is from San Francisco, and Shoemaker, who grew up in Oregon, met in 1982 as doctoral candidates in the Greater London Record Office in the basement of County Hall. Both were interested in what Hitchcock calls "history from below"—he was writing a dissertation on English workhouses in the 18th century, and Shoemaker was studying the prosecution of petty crime in the Greater London area during the same period. The two helped edit a book of essays published in 1992, then developed a tutorial on 18th-century English towns on CD-ROM in the mid-1990s. Within a few years, the Internet had provided the "mechanism" Hitchcock needed. "The Old Bailey proceedings seemed a natural," he says.

The pair conceived the idea of digitizing them early in 1999, then spent a year doing background research and writing grant proposals. They got $510,000 from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the British equivalent of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and $680,000 from the New Opportunities Fund, established for "digitization of learning materials." The universities of Sheffield and Hertfordshire contributed staff, equipment and space.

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