Crime’s digital past

Computer science makes history in a Victorian-era courthouse

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.

DIGITAL HISTORY Some historians are turning to computer analysis to understand the past: An online database offers access to more than 200 years’ worth of proceedings from the Old Bailey courthouse. A case from 1891 is depicted here. Hulton Archive/Getty Images
LET’S CUT A DEAL Researchers have found that around 1825 some trial transcripts continued their trend toward lengthening while others became much shorter (top, trials involving killing are in red). The change has been linked to a concurrent increase in the number of guilty pleas as a portion of all verdicts (bottom). Data Mining with Criminal Intent Team

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.

Scholars have noted various reasons for plea bargaining’s popularity, including the gradual rise of a powerful legal profession and growing concerns about prison overcrowding. But the timing of a transition from jury trials run by judges to out-of-court deals arranged by lawyers has attracted virtually no attention.

Love and marriages

Another tale from the Old Bailey concerns the growing independence of Victorian-era women, as witnessed by records from bigamy trials.

Roughly equal numbers of male and female defendants appeared in court during the 1700s, Cohen said at the meeting. But adjudicated crime became a man’s world during the next century, when eight times as many males as females appeared as defendants. As part of that trend, the number of bigamy cases brought against men progressively increased after 1820, regularly reaching 20 to 30 cases annually by the end of the century.

At the time, marriages were often arranged or instigated by male suitors or their families, and men were expected to rule over their wives. Legal divorces were difficult and expensive to obtain, but many people accepted informally agreed upon divorces as valid.

Given that spouses could lose contact for months or years and legal records of past marital unions often could not be located, perhaps it’s not surprising that Victorian-era men increasingly got hauled into court facing accusations of having two or more wives. Unexpectedly, though, the number of cases of female bigamy rose from virtually nil to an average of six or seven annually after 1880.

“It’s not clear why female bigamy cases increased at that time, but Victorian England witnessed cultural changes in the latitude granted women to control their lives,” Cohen says.

To test the possibility that in the late 1800s a rising number of frustrated wives started seeking new husbands based on mutual affection, Cohen and colleagues combed through trial records to determine frequencies of different adjectives applied to the word marriage over time. The big winner among marriage modifiers as the Victorian era played out: loveless. Other words that increasingly described marriages in Old Bailey trials included clandestine, forbidden, foreign, fruitless and hasty.

That’s only suggestive evidence for a new strain of female independence, Cohen cautions. But it’s striking, he adds, that the few early female bigamy trials found in the data included long, nasty attacks on defendants’ characters by prosecutors and judges. Toward the end of the 19th century, women accused of having two husbands received quick trials and little legal grief.

“Female bigamy trials went from drawn-out cases where women were incredibly disparaged to slap-on-the-wrist verdicts,” Cohen says.

History’s future

Cohen and his colleagues know that many humanities scholars hold digital humanists in as low esteem as Old Bailey prosecutors once held women accused of bigamy. That’s certainly true of historians, in Hitchcock’s view. “About 90 percent of them sit quietly in an archive for a decade and then write a book with their names printed as large as possible on the cover,” Hitchcock says. In their world, data-crunching makes rude noises with no apparent historical meaning.

Change is brewing, though. An analysis of the frequency with which different words appeared in more than 5 million books in Google’s digital archive has yielded insights into language changes and other cultural trends and attracted much interest (SN Online: 12/16/10). Harvard biologist Jean-Baptiste Michel and bioengineer Erez Lieberman-Aiden, who conducted the analysis, call such attempts to use scientific methods to explore questions in the humanities “culturomics.”

But trends identified in huge databases, such as a link between increases in female bigamy cases and marriages described as loveless in Victorian England, require confirmation with independent lines of evidence, Michel and Lieberman-Aiden cautioned in a joint e-mail.

Cohen plans to compare cultural trends gleaned from Google’s digital book bin with Old Bailey findings. Hitchcock wants to construct a thief’s-eye view of Victorian London from court records, charting how often various goods were stolen during the 1700s and 1800s.

Somewhere Henry Howard, foiled, furniture-seeking forger of stolen checks, is smiling.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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