Crime's Digital Past: Computer Science Makes History in a Victorian-Era Courthouse

Article excerpt


Henry Howard was in big trouble. Down on his luck, the family man stood in the dock of London's Old Bailey courthouse facing a forgery charge. A Bank of Scotland clerk had just confirmed that a month earlier, on March 14, 1879, Howard bought furniture with a check belonging to someone else. He signed the check with James McDonald's name.

With the defense counsel's blessing, Howard abruptly switched his plea from not guilty to guilty. He begged for mercy to a row of judges. Too late: A forgery conviction bought Howard a year in prison.

Little did the litigated Londoner know that, more than a century later, tech-savvy scholars would consult his case and those of a quarter of a million other Old Bailey defendants. With sophisticated software, historians, philosophers and computer scientists are today probing digitized records of the more than 197,000 Old Bailey trials--some with two or more defendants--that took place from 1674 to 1913.

Predominantly working-class citizens trooped into the Old Bailey courthouse accused of murder, rape, extortion and many other misdeeds. And the legal procedures developed at the London facility heavily influenced criminal law in Colonial America. Among other insights into the history of crime and punishment, digital searches of Old Bailey court records offer a glimpse of the rapid rise of plea bargaining and of a growing tendency within the legal system to treat marriages as partnerships of love, not convenience.

"The Old Bailey, like the Naked City, has 8 million stories," says English professor and digital humanist Stephen Ramsay of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Carving up a massive information resource with the help of digital tools and scientific methods offers a way to retrieve such stories and represents the cutting edge of what has come to be known over the last decade as the digital humanities. Historians and other scholars trained for contemplation rather than computation increasingly plumb collections of newspapers, books, music and maps, as well as other information troves.

Eight interdisciplinary groups of digital humanists, winners of a grant competition organized by the National Endowment for the Humanities, convened in June in Washington, D.C., where researchers working with Old Bailey's digitized archive reported their findings.

"The humanities attempt to understand people's lived experience," says team codirector Dan Cohen, a historian at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. "We don't want to quantify everything, but our toolkit now includes powerful techniques for probing data."

Innocence lost

Those techniques include two software programs that allowed Cohen and colleagues to search the 127-million-word Old Bailey trial record for criminal trends and language patterns.

When the team used digital court transcripts to calculate trial lengths in words for guilty and not-guilty verdicts over 239 years, an unexpected finding popped out. Trial lengths diverged around 1825, for offenses ranging from murder to disturbances of the peace. One set of trials maintained a previous drift toward lengthy proceedings, whereas a second set of hearings concluded quickly. Further analysis determined that, also around 1825, guilty pleas rapidly increased in number.

Before 1825, nearly all defendants pleaded innocent and sought a trial by their peers, historian and team member Tim Hitchcock of the University of Hertfordshire in England reported at the meeting. Trials consisting of several thousand words or more were common.

After 1825, numbers of guilty pleas soared, accounting for one-third of all cases by 1850 and 40 percent by 1913. Many of these trials contained no more than 100 words. Trial records showed that defense lawyers increasingly encouraged clients to plead guilty during the second quarter of the 19th century.

"Finding a revolution in legal practice at that time came as a complete surprise," Hitchcock says. …