Just over a week ago, I came up with an idea for a campaign to raise my Twitter presence and share some of my research. I decided to tweet each of my new followers with a historical murder trial made available to the public on the Old Bailey Online, which documents all trials held at the London court of the Old Bailey between 1674-1913. Each new follower would therefore get a murder from the year that matched the number follower that they were:
For the first few days this trundled along, with each of my five or so new followers a day responding pretty favourably to the campaign. Then, last Monday night, the project was promoted by legal blogger @JackOfKent to his +50,000 followers. Then next morning I had one hundred new followers, then fifty more, then another hundred. On Sunday night, I passed the 1913 mark, and the project ended. While a lot of work, the project was also a great learning experience. Here are the five main things I’ve learned from it about doing popular history:
- Personal Connections Matter
Given that essentially I was greeting each new follower with a story of horror and violence, I was surprised at how many people felt connections with the stories I shared with them. Some commented that the murders had taken place near their house, or that some detail of the crime chimed with their own personality. Selection of the murders was almost entirely random (see second point), and yet people’s instinct was to forge a personal connection with the stories of those of the past arbitrarily hooked onto their twitter feed.
- Not all history is fun
I quickly realised that I had to be very careful about the kinds of murders that I assigned. Drunken brawls, duels, and murders that took place in an unusual place worked well because they were exotic enough to not stir up too many emotions and to place a distance between the reader and the past. So many of the murders on the Old Bailey Online are stories of desperate and horrific violent acts, extreme personal tragedy and disaster, in particular repeated cases of abusive men killing women, and desperate women killing their children. Such cases, though framed in the words of the past, have such emotive power as to forge unnerving connections to the present. None of these made it into the project.
- Murder is a great way to learn about society
Yearly homicide cases proved a great way to trace social change. Early eighteenth century murder trials were awash with duels and heavily ritualised fights. By the later eighteenth century, as concepts of male honour changed, the number of male brawls fell, and cases of domestic violence rose. This was a trend which continued throughout the nineteenth century, making selection of murders much harder. In the early nineteenth century there was a brief surge in murders that took place in boxing matches. Cases of manslaughter caused by dangerous driving continued throughout the period, but the vehicle changed from a horse and cart, to trams and trains. The late eighteenth and early nineteenth century saw a dramatic rise in testimony from medical experts, but by the late nineteenth century this had been replaced by policemen and early forensic analysts, who brought models to recreate the scene of the crime in the courtroom. The language of street violence also changed: early cases involved fights over insults such as ‘rascal’ and ‘I give thee the lie’, but by the early twentieth century this had been replaced with ‘bloke’ and ‘punter’. In this way, many of the major social changes of the eighteenth and nineteenth century (the rise of technology, the development of the police force and medical science, and changing male public behaviour) came out even through this small group of trials.
- You don’t need a lot of information to engage with the past
While the Old Bailey Online has done a great deal of work in seeking out other pieces of information on those found within its cases, many cases exist by themselves, with very little else known about perpetrators. I thought when I began the project that I would get lots of questions about the workings of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century justice, and that this would be a good way to share my own knowledge. But in fact, such questions were rare. Instead, followers were able to see past all the alienating language and judicial jargon to discern the human and societal drama at each case’s core.
- Archives are for everyone
When I first thought up the project, it was really envisaged as a way of connecting with other academic scholars, sharing a resource that we were all familiar with. But the huge surge of followers I got through @JackofKent’s promotion meant that the project attracted a much wider range of people. There were teenage boys, BBC journalists, teachers, doctors, housewives, family historians, and one clearly rather bored group of barristers all from the same chambers late on a Friday night, from all around the world. Thirteen years ago, the archives of the Old Bailey Online could only be accessed through travelling to archives and libraries. Now, they can be read by anyone in any place at any time. And that is the way it should be.
Anna Jenkin is a third year PhD student at the University of Sheffield, specialising in women accused of murder in eighteenth-century London and Paris. You can see a storify of #newfollowerhistoricalmurder made by @OldBaileyOnline here. Follow Anna on Twitter @acjenkin
Cover Image: William Hogarth, Humours of an Election, (1755) via wikicommons