Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Crime and punishment.

Recently I was doing some editing of a story set in 1827. It is remarkably hard to get the voice and tone right for such a distant period, so I did lots of research; this included reading relevant books and novels that had been written at around that time.

Old newspapers are also a good source; both local papers from the time and the nationals. For instance, the Times has a brilliant if expensive online archive that gives lots of stories about what is going on in the relevant periods (or as long as the Times has been published).

I have, however, found another, free source. The Old Bailey Online Archive, which details proceedings of the court between 1674 and 1913. I started reading this a few months ago and found it absolutely fascinating. It details the cases that were held in the Old Bailey, and the results. As well as crimes, it gives lovely little period details; dialect, names etc.

For instance, here is a gentle description of a prostitute from April 1827:
" I sometimes take walks at night to maintain myself..."
Wouldn't that make a great line to use in a period book? It is both deep in meaning and sad. Another example is of hot to carry a sheep:
"...he had hold of the two fore-feet, the head hung before and the legs behind; "
Again, I would love to write that sort of detail into a book.

What is interesting is that in the nineteenth Century manslaughter may only get a three-month term in prison, whilst a crime that would be seen as being lesser nowadays, such as petty theft, could have the death penalty. Why this difference? Perhaps it is because, at least before the twentieth century, both the Jurors and the Judges would be from the propertied classes. A case of manslaughter amongst the working classes may have been seen as being morally reprehensible, but posed no direct threat the the jurors. However, theft was a threat. You can only steal from someone who has something to steal, and therefore cases of theft would be a direct threat to the monied classes.

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