Capturing a Narrative

In this interview, Guy Gugliotta, author of “Digitizing the Hanging Court,” talks about the Old Bailey’s influence on Dickens, Defoe and other writers

An Old Bailey trial, circa 1808
An Old Bailey trial, circa 1808 Wikimedia Commons

What was the most interesting case you came across in the proceedings of the Old Bailey?
I like the one about the guy who went out to a bar and came home and his wife started needling him and needling him and needling him and then she hit him over the head with a frying pan and then took off all her clothes and leaped out of a window. That caught my attention. I read two or three of these forgery cases, and they were really interesting. I found out that forgery was a capital crime because there were no safeguards for the monetary system back then. People just passed around notes, so that if you borrowed money you gave whoever you borrowed it from a note, and that person would sell your note to somebody else, and it would get passed around. And if somebody dishonest did it, it was hard to catch them. So if the authorities did catch forgers, they treated them very harshly.

What was most interesting to you about the Old Bailey?
How much like novels of the time it was. I felt like I was reading Charles Dickens or Robert Louis Stevenson or Daniel Defoe. It's astonishing how captivating the narrative is. I got such a kick out of reading the cases, it was like reading stories.

Did those novelists have personal experience with the Old Bailey?
Daniel Defoe was one of the most famous journalists at the time, and Moll Flanders was patterned after a famous case. Henry Fielding was actually a judge in the Old Bailey—he was the judge in the Elizabeth Canning case, which was mentioned in the story. I also found out that Charles Dickens was a court reporter at the Old Bailey.

You said that traditionalists think technology "adds distance to scholarship, not necessarily a good thing." How do you feel about it?
I'm not really a traditionalist. I think it's a good thing.

Have you ever done old-fashioned historical research, where you leaf through the pages of musty books?
I have indeed, I did it in graduate school. I can remember going through the diplomatic dispatches from the State Department and just leafing through these one by one and reading them. It was okay, but I think it would have been much easier to sit and do it online, to dial up the words and phrases and everything I wanted.

Are you more interested in this kind of gritty plebian history than in "history book" history?
The way I approach history is—well, I call it the "holy shit" factor. If I see something and I think to myself, "Holy shit, this is really interesting!" then I figure somebody else will think it's interesting. And that's pretty much the only criterion I have. The history of dentistry, for example—the father of modern dentistry is a Frenchman, and he began to systematically study teeth and dentistry in the 18th century. Before that the dentist was just this guy with really powerful fingers who would pull diseased teeth out of your head. And this guy introduced toothbrushes and the idea that if you took care of your teeth you could make them last longer. It was apparently no accident that the Mona Lisa had this very prim smile—it was because she didn't want to show her teeth.

Now that I think of it, you don't see many old portraits with the teeth showing.
No, you don't.

Are there other databases you would like to see online like this?
Yeah, I'd love to see photographic and artistic databases. The Bettman Archive, this collection of old photographs, has been stowed away in this old cave in Pennsylvania. I'd love to see that digitized. The Department of Labor commissioned dozens and dozens of paintings by out-of-work artists in the WPA in the 1930s. They keep most of them up in their attic, and some of them are just superb—some of the artists are famous today.

What do you think of the idea that cutting-edge modern technology can bring this history alive?
It's not the first thing that you'd think of, but it's a tremendous resource. I would never in my life have dipped into the proceedings of the Old Bailey, and I think you can probably count the number of scholars who have in the dozens. But now anybody can go in there and look at it. It's spectacular—you can go there and get totally lost.

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