The Old Bailey online

There is porn aplenty on the Internet but I’m continually surprised, as a result, perhaps, of the web’s rather dark reputation, at just how much else is going on as well.

Browsing through a news site the other day, I came across mention of a recently-launched archive of the trials held between 1674 and 1913 at the Old Bailey, London’s Central Criminal Court.

The information in the archive consists of digitised versions of the periodicals which were published after each sessions of the court and which contained details of the cases which had been tried.

The periodicals were initially published under the title The Proceedings of the King’s Commission of the Peace and Oyer and Terminer, and Gaol-Delivery of Newgate, held for the City of London and the County of Middlesex, at Justice-Hall, in the Old Bailey, but are thankfully now known as the Old Bailey Proceedings or just as the Proceedings.

The site, at oldbaileyonline.org, seems ideal from my point because it allows me to indulge, in one place, in my twin passions of history and crime stories. It contains details of over 210000 trials and other interesting things such as the Ordinary of Newgate’s Accounts, which include biographical details of about 3,000 prisoners who were condemned and executed.

The Ordinary of Newgate was the chaplain of the prison who ministered to the condemned, but who also had the right to publish and sell the details of the prisoners’ lives, their last dying speeches, and their behaviour on the scaffold.

The project to put all the info on the web was a collaboration between the Open University and the Universities of Herfordshire and Sheffield. The work consisted of scanning the 190000 surviving pages of the Proceedings and the 5000 Pages of the Ordinary’s Accounts into digital picture format.

Having all the pages as pictures would not have allowed users to search the archive and so, using various methods including retyping, the periodicals were converted into computer-readable text. Some of the text conversion was done by computer and is not faultless, but one can always view the image of the page as it was scanned, if there are errors.

One of the cases I looked up immediately was that of the infamous Dr Crippen who murdered his wife and, after being interrogated by police, fled to France with his new girlfriend. According to wikipedia.org, he had the distinction of being the first person to be arrested through the use of radio.

According to the Proceedings, Crippen’s trial began on October 18, 1910, and he was found guilty and hanged on November 23, 1910. Which was swift justice indeed, if you discount a couple of modern theorists who believe he was innocent.

While looking for background on Dr Crippen on wikipedia.org, I found it is also a treasure trove of crime stories. I found one article of particular interest on Albert Pierrepoint, the most prolific British hangman of the 20th century, and another on gas chambers; I didn’t know that they were almost as dangerous to their users as their victims.

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