Thursday, September 8, 2011

Thunderstruck by Trial Transcripts

The Goodson Blogson is a few years behind on its leisure reading, but just finished Erik Larson's Thunderstruck (2006), a fascinating nonfiction work which interweaves the notorious 1910 North London Cellar Murder case with Guglielmo Marconi's struggle to perfect his wireless telegraph (the technology which eventually led Scotland Yard investigators to ambush their suspects aboard a transatlantic steamer ship).

American doctor Hawley Harvey Crippen and his wife Cora, an aspiring singer, moved to England in 1900. A decade later, Cora disappeared from the quarreling couple's North London home; the doctor informed concerned friends that she had returned to America and later died of an illness. Unconvinced by Crippen's story (particularly since his young secretary, Ethel Le Neve, moved into the home almost immediately, and was frequently spotted around town wearing Cora's furs and jewelry), Cora's friends alerted the police, who eventually discovered human remains buried in the doctor's coal cellar. Thanks to Marconi's invention and an eagle-eyed ship captain, inspectors were able to intercept Crippen and Le Neve on the S.S. Montrose, as they sailed toward America. Both were tried for murder in London during the fall of 1910; Crippen was found guilty and later executed by hanging, while Le Neve was cleared of all charges.

Larson's work is carefully crafted from historical accounts: newspaper reports, letters and other personal papers, and court records. Historical works like these typically require authors to consult a large number of previously-published books (like The Trial of Hawley Harvey Crippen (1920)) and also travel to specialized archives in person to view manuscript collections. But what a difference a few years makes – transcripts from the North London Cellar Murder trials are now freely available to the public on Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online, a massive electronic archive of cases from London’s famed Central Criminal Court. The archive now spans a staggering 240 years, from 1674 to 1913, although Larson could not take advantage of it while researching Thunderstruck: the site launched in 2003 with the years 1714-1759, and gradually expanded its years of coverage until the project's completion in 2008, well after the book's publication.

The Old Bailey site is searchable by a number of options (party names, verdicts, time period, etc). Quick links to the North London Cellar Murder proceedings:
The Old Bailey database has just been added to the library's research guide for Court Records & Briefs, in the "Trial Transcripts/Oral Arguments" section. For help locating transcripts in other trials, from any time period, be sure to check out the research guide, or Ask a Librarian.