Apparently our modern fascination with crime and criminals, especially serial killers, is not a new thing. More than three centuries ago crime literature expanded in the 1670s and the periodical Proceedings was published for a commercial audience.
Proceedings published accounts of the trials held at the Old Bailey, London’s Central Criminal Court. These are not actual transcripts of the trials, but rather summations with the really boring parts removed. The court was open to the public, but I imagine most people couldn’t take the time to sit and watch all day and had to rely on written accounts of what happened in court. Since 2003, the Proceedings of the Old Bailey from 1674-1913 have been available and searchable online.
Because this website is packed with information and links to even more information, it includes tutorials that explain how to get the most out of the site. There is an introduction, a guide to effective searches, how to save your results, how to organize your research, and even how to read and understand a trial report.
Also included are Community Histories that detail information about various ethnic and cultural groups to better understand some of the issues facing different communities and their trial resolutions. Because language changes over the centuries, each section has specific search strategies. For example, in the section about Gypsies and Travellers they explain the history of these groups in London, the stereotypes about them, the legal context of their appearances in the Proceedings, and the search terms and alternative spellings to help you find what you need.
The section about Advertisements is a history lesson all by itself. The advertisements reflect not only what was being sold at any particular time, but also the audience for the Proceedings. They advertise everything from medical remedies to religious books. As with the trial data, the contents of the ads are searchable on this site.
And then there are the actual published issues of this periodical. All available issues of Proceedings have been entered into this searchable website, so you can click on any issue and browse. In one issue from 1727 there were trials for breaking and entering, stealing cheese, bigamy, murder, stealing sheep, assault, forgery, rape, and stealing hogs. If you write historical fiction, this is a goldmine of information. Besides that, it’s just really fun to read these accounts.
Whether you are interested in crime, legal procedures, changes in law, language changes, or even cultural changes during this 239 year period, the Proceedings are an amazing primary resource. The nature and disposition of the crimes changed as the culture changed. A crime in 1674 may no longer be a crime in 1851. Evidence that is allowed in 1723 may not be allowed in 1899.
I recommend this site for teachers, students and writers. The raw data available in this publication can take your research in so many different directions. The stories within those pages can be a great source of research ideas. But I also recommend it for history enthusiasts of all types. Most of the entries are quick reads, so you can check them out while on hold or while waiting in line. And if you find a really interesting summation, please mention it in the comments so the rest of us can check it out.