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Crime's Digital Past

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Old Bailey Courthouse, London.

Old Bailey Courthouse, London.

Image credit: Google

Eight interdisciplinary groups of digital humanists recently met to discuss the results of research on London's Old Bailey courthouse's digitized archive. The researchers, including philosophers, historians, and computer scientists, used sophisticated software to probe the digitized records of trials that took place there from 1674 to 1913.

"We don't want to quantify everything, but our toolkit now includes powerful techniques for probing data," says George Mason University's Dan Cohen. The tools include two programs that enabled Cohen and his team to search the 127-million-word Old Bailey trial record for criminal trends and language patterns.

The researchers found that defense lawyers increasingly instructed their clients to plead guilty in the second quarter of the 19th century. "Finding a revolution in legal practice at that time came as a complete surprise," says University of Hertfordshire's Tim Hitchcock.

The researchers also found patterns in bigamy trials held at the Old Bailey. Hitchcock says that although many historians are dismissive of digital humanists, trends identified in huge databases have led to important insights. Harvard University's Jean-Baptiste Michel and Erez Lieberman-Aiden have called the application of scientific methods to humanities studies culturomics.

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