Friday, May 29, 2009

Trial Transcripts, Both Gruesome and Educational

Researchers might consult the transcript of a trial for many reasons-- perhaps even entertainment. Although it might be hard to believe if you've ever slogged through the volumes of a modern trial transcript, the proceedings of high-profile cases were popular reading material in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. (Of course, the retellings were often a bit more sensationalized than your modern court reporter might like...resulting in a "transcript" that was more akin to today's true-crime genre.)

The Goodson Law Library collection includes many historic accounts of notorious trials. Today, we've added even more with the new database The Making of Modern Law: Trials 1600-1926 ( The database includes searchable page-image versions of more than 10,000 published trial proceedings from all over the world. The publications offer unique historical perspective into legal systems and the lives of those involved in the cases.

For example, did Lizzie Borden really give her mother "forty whacks" and her father forty-one, as the popular jump-rope rhyme would have us believe? Not according to Edwin H. Porter's 1893 book The Fall River Tragedy: A History of the Borden Murders, which tells us on page 13 that "Medical Examiner Dolan and a corps of physicians held an autopsy on the bodies in the afternoon and found that thirteen blows had rained upon the head of the unsuspecting Mr. Borden, and that no less than eighteen had descended upon the skull of Mrs. Borden. The cuts were deep and long and any one of them would have produced instant death." (If you're already logged in to the database with your NetID and password, see for yourself.)

The Trials database is fully searchable, including the full text of publications. Titles may be internally browsed by an electronic table of contents, which includes separate entries for any illustrations (The non-squeamish--and logged-in-- can test this feature with a crime scene photo of Mr. Borden's body). Pages can be printed in batches of 50 at a time (although for this particular title, you can also pick up a 2006 reprint in the Law Library at the call number KF223.B6 P67 2006).

For additional sources and strategies for locating historic trial transcripts, visit the Goodson Law Library's research guide to Court Records and Briefs (, which has been updated to include the new database.