August 3, 2009

British Website To Publish Historic Criminal Trials

A new British website is set to publish for the first time famous criminal trials in England dating back to the 18th century, including the infamous "Jack the Ripper" suspect, AFP reported.

Around 1.4 million documents on trials, verdicts and sentences including executions handed down to criminals in England and Wales from the late 18th through the 19th centuries will be available on the site.

Genealogy website Ancestry.co.uk said the files include the trial of Roderick McLean, who in the late 1800s attempted to assassinate Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle with a pistol.

The legendary trial of Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, who was hanged in 1892 for poisoning several people and who allegedly confessed to being Jack the Ripper, although he was in prison at the time of some of the gruesome killings, will also be featured.

Other published trials include the fate of Isaac "Ikey" Solomon, who was considered to be the inspiration for author Charles Dickens' character Fagin in "Oliver Twist".

Managing director of the site, Olivier Van Calster, said the collection would be of great use to social historians as they "contain a variety of in-depth information about crime and criminals in England and Wales during a period of great poverty, change, and ultimately, reform."

Some 900,000 sentences of imprisonment, 97,000 transportations, some to British colonies at the time such as Australia, and 10,300 executions, including a boy aged just 14, are among the documents that users will have instant access to.

In earlier centuries, the death penalty was imposed for crimes ranging from stealing anything worth more than five shillings (the equivalent of $50 dollars), theft of livestock, poaching of rabbits and cutting down trees.

It was also considered a capital offense to be caught at night with a blackened face, because authorities assumed that the accused was a burglar.

Executions by hanging had become a popular event by the 1860s, with people traveling from far away to see them. Wealthy spectators even hired balconies of houses and pubs to get a better view.

Van Calster said the registers testify to the fact that crime and punishment was and always will be a controversial subject.

"They also highlight the often colorful nature of crime, and in particular how creative criminals could be, even in less sophisticated times," he added.

Britain's National Archives collaborated with the website to make the records available online to subscribers.