Tuesday, November 8, 2011

My New Favorite Toy

If you like reading stories about crime, deception, betrayal, murder and the human nature associated with such things (and what mystery fan doesn't?), you'll find an impressive, searchable source for these tales at www.oldbaileyonline.org

That's right, Old Bailey, London's Central Criminal Court. Their archives, from 1674 through 1913, have been digitalized. On the righthand side of their home page, just drop a keyword into the search box and see what comes up.

My first search was on the word "witch." The first result, pictured above, was the proceedings for the trial of 60 year-old Jane Kent, accused of practicing witchcraft and the "Diabolick Arts" in 1682 after one man's pigs, wife and 5 year-old daughter fell ill and the little girl died. A woman who supposedly searched the prisoner swore that she had a "Teat on her back" and unusual holes behind her ears.

And that was just a random search.

You can use the Advanced Search function to find trials by, say, offence or punishment. I searched on death by burning and discovered that it was the go-to sentence in the 17th century for coin clipping (that is, shaving or clipping silver from around the edges of coins. Isaac Newton was the dude who came up with the idea of putting ridges around the rims of coins as a way to detect clipping).

I found this website from an article in Science News dealing with one of the site's creators, Tim Hitchcock of the University of Hertsfordshire. One of his analyses showed how guilty pleas soared from less than 3% to nearly one third around the year 1825. At the same time, the length of a third of the trials dropped from about 5000 words to less than 100. The concept of "plea bargaining" had been born.

If you're writing historical crime fiction that takes place in England or the Americas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this site is an amazing primary source.

Oh, and if you're wondering, the Jury found Jane Kent not guilty. Still, I can't help but wonder if that growth on her back eventually killed her.


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