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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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With such rudimentary policing, the government focused on deterrence, and under the so-called "Bloody Code," a succession of laws enacted through the mid-18th century, more than 200 offenses carried the death penalty. These included not only violent crimes, but also everything from forgery to shoplifting and pickpocketing.

"Execution was used to scare people by example," Shoemaker says, but since neither the authorities nor the public wanted to hang people for relatively insignificant crimes, only about a third of death sentences were actually carried out during the 18th century, and public enthusiasm for hangings waned as the century progressed.

"Nobody wanted a blood bath," Shoemaker says. Instead, many capital offenders were branded and some were pardoned, while others were "transported" to the North American Colonies, and, later, to Australia. Imprisonment became a more frequent alternative only in the 1770s, when the American Revolution disrupted transportation.

Even with the Bloody Code, there was no formal system of investigation or prosecution, so the government began offering large bounties for conviction of those guilty of serious offenses. London attracted young working people, who were busy in boom times but idle and often dangerous during busts. Wars were fought serially, and each treaty brought a wave of demobilized soldiers whose most marketable talent was skill with weapons.

Crime became more violent, and new methods of law enforcement were needed. One of the innovators was Henry Fielding, who, with his half-brother John, served as a mid-century magistrate at Bow Street, near Covent Garden. The Fieldings induced the government in 1753 to fund the Bow Street Runners, a corps of ex-constables, to track down miscreants and bring them to justice. "They were real detectives going after criminal gangs," says Beattie, who is writing a history of the runners.

And they supplanted the thief-takers, who, thanks to Jonathan Wild and others, had become hopelessly corrupt holdovers from simpler times.

The crime that undid Wild, which began January 22, 1725, was modest enough. Irish immigrant Henry Kelly testified that he and his friend Margaret Murphy had been drinking gin at Wild's house when Wild suggested the two rob a shop run by a blind lacemaker. "I'll go along with ye, and shew ye the door," he told them.

Wild waited outside while Kelly and Murphy went in. Shopkeeper Katharine Stetham later testified that the pair were "so very difficult" that none of her samples "would please them." She went upstairs and found others more to their liking. But "we could not agree about the price," Stetham testified, so Kelly and Murphy left. A half-hour later, Stetham "miss'd a tin box of lace."

After leaving the shop, Kelly and Murphy met back up with Wild. Kelly later testified that Wild offered to pay them on the spot "three guineas and four broad pieces" (a bit over seven pounds—a year's wages for a housemaid) for the box of lace, or they could hold out for the possibility of getting more if Stetham offered a reward. Kelly said they took the cash.

Stetham, not surprisingly, turned to Wild for help. She advertised a reward of 15 guineas and, according to her testimony, told Wild privately that she would give 20 or 25.

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