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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"It was an enormous amount of money, and we were lucky," Shoemaker says. They enlisted Sheffield's Humanities Research Institute to customize software for searching the Proceedings, but first they needed a digitized copy of the text.

There was no easy way to get one. Technology in 2000 wasn't sufficiently sophisticated to scan words off microfilm; even if it had been, the vagaries of 18th-century printed text, rife with broken fonts and ink "bleed-throughs" from the other side of the page, would have made the technique impossible to use.

So the researchers hired someone to take digital photographs of all 60,000 microfilm pages, then sent the images on CD-ROMs to India. There, in a process known as double re-keying, two teams of typists typed the entire manuscript independently, then fed the copies into a computer that highlighted discrepancies, which had to be corrected manually. That took two years and cost nearly half a million dollars. Then Shoemaker and Hitchcock assembled a team of researchers to embed the entire manuscript with over 80 different computer "tags," permitting searches by such categories as first name, surname, age, occupation, crime, crime location, verdict and punishment.

The Proceedings went on-line in stages between 2003 and 2005. The Sheffield techs refine and update the software continually, recently adding links to maps to help people locate crime scenes more effectively. Their next task is to link stolen objects mentioned in the Proceedings to images of them in the Museum of London.

Meanwhile, the team has obtained enough new grant money to digitize the proceedings of the Old Bailey's successor, the Central Criminal Court, whose 100,000 trial records begin in 1834 and go to 1913. These should come on-line in 2008. The two also plan to digitize an additional 30 million words of 18th-century records—among them, the records of the carpenters' guild, Bridewell Prison and the insane asylum known as Bedlam—to be integrated into the original project. "It will allow us to trace people through the system," says Hitchcock, "to create a kind of collective biography of working people in 18th-century London."

With Oldbaileyonline.org, the haystack now readily surrenders its needles. Genealogists routinely search it to trace family histories. One scholar searched it for information on the court's treatment of "idiots"—people with cognitive disabilities. A few strokes on the keyboard can yield statistics for burglary (4,754 cases in the database), murder (1,573), arson (90), forgery (1,067) and other crimes, or produce a map where crimes were committed. Oxford English Dictionary etymologists found that the expression "No way"—thought to have emanated from the University of South Dakota in the 1960s—seems to have arisen during an Old Bailey rape case in 1787.

Oldbaileyonline.org "broadens the perspective," says the University of Oregon's Randall McGowen, who is writing a history of 18th-century forgery. "You can find out that forgers were overwhelmingly male." (Most were clerks with a weakness for gambling or women and the ability to mimic the boss's handwriting in a "note of hand," the IOU's that the wealthy passed around to obtain funds.)

Traditionalists note that technology of any kind—from microfilm to the Internet—adds "distance" to scholarship, not necessarily a good thing. Though the University of Toronto's Beattie finds the Internet "indispensable" for his current research, he says, "it's a pleasure to pick up a letter actually written by Henry Fielding, and I've taken the string off bundles of documents that still had the 18th-century dirt on them."

The London described by the Proceedings was the hub of a nation that catapulted into the front rank of world powers in the 18th century. The city's population, almost 600,000 in 1700, grew to more than a million by 1800, and the economy exploded.

With no formal police force, Londoners at the dawn of the century had to protect themselves. Neighborhoods appointed householders as "constables" who had the authority to arrest evildoers or summon assistance. Citizens were required by law to heed the "hue and cry" of "Help!" or "Stop, thief!" and run the criminal to ground, as they did in the case of John Car.


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