Unearthing criminal pasts

Research Brief 4


For those infected with the historical research bug, there are few more satisfying experiences than delving into the original records held in private, national or state archives. Almost every researcher I have encountered at such institutions – be they family, local or academic historians – insist that it is this treasure-hunting aspect of the work that is the most rewarding. Like others with a passion for history, I too take an ordinate amount of joy from the ‘aha!’ moments that records searching provides when one stumbles across a significant or surprising piece of information that offers fresh insights, or confirms an historical hunch. I am thus very pleased to be spending the month conducting research for The Prosecution Project at the Public Records Office of Victoria.

PROV holds the accumulated paperwork generated by the state of Victoria’s various governmental departments since it was declared an independent colony in 1851. It thus holds a wide variety of material related to crime, from police correspondence and prisoner records, to judge’s notebooks and the results of public inquiries into law and order. On this trip, what I am particularly interested in retrieving is the trial briefs for the sample of theft cases my project will examine. These trial briefs, prepared by the Crown Solicitor’s Office to inform attorneys about the cases they would be required to prosecute, often offer the fullest details available about the evidence on which a person was tried.

Such files invariably contain the depositions that were taken by witnesses at the lower courts and any statement made by the accused, as well as correspondence by police and other officials about the case. Moving into the twentieth century, some briefs even contain transcripts of the trial itself, and information on appeals against the conviction or sentence. They also occasionally contain documents, the sight of which instantly brings on that satisfyingly tingly ‘Aha!’ moment. For instance, police reports by the criminal investigative branch on the overall ‘character’ of the accused, that sometimes go into considerable detail about the family history, employment record, educational background, prior convictions, and the detective’s personal opinions, of the defendant. In other files, letters written by defendants themselves will appear, pleading with the presiding magistrate to show them clemency by outlining the personal difficulties that led to their criminal actions and arrest.

Blog imageMore whimsically, the documents also frequently contain information expressed in non-linguistic form with little apparent relevance to the criminal matters at hand: that is, doodles by idle officials engaged in the compilation of the briefs. Anyone interested in the semiotics of such scribbling would undoubtedly have much to say about the hidden psychological meaning of the geometric patterns left by legal clerks, the strange faces drawn by attorneys, perhaps while in court, or the image of a Texan cowboy I once found decorating a policeman’s notebook. To me, however, the doodles are a reminder that the persons who created and are mentioned in the documents would have had little expectation that they would eventually be used for the purpose to which historians put them.

While the history of law was a familiar genre by the late nineteenth century, the history of crime only emerged as a distinct field of inquiry in the late 1960s, born out of the desire of social historians to study ‘history from below’ by delving into the lives of the ordinary masses. Those who absent-mindedly doodled on trial briefs would have expected them to be preserved so that future legal personnel might revisit a point of law, not so that historical researchers might take a wide-ranging look at the criminal past, and in doing so dig up the pasts of the individuals involved in particular cases. This begs the natural question of what the actors who generated these documents would have thought about their stories being retold in this way.

Police and court officials would likely be happy that their activities are still remembered. This is the impression received from my research at another institution, the State Library of Victoria, where the memoirs and papers left by such persons suggests they considerably enjoyed the personal publicity received during their own lifetimes. Many kept scrapbooks containing newspaper clippings of the cases on which they were involved – from the Australian Sherlock Holmes and master-of-disguise Detective John Christie through to the man who famously sent Ned Kelly to his end, Justice Redmond Barry. Even Jesse Dowsett, the railway guard who helped overpower Kelly during the siege at Glenrowan, kept such a portfolio, collecting articles on the bushranger that made mention of himself into the 1920s.

But what of defendants themselves? Thieves and other criminals were certainly not unaware of the notoriety they attracted at the time of their exploits. Some even took advantage of it. In 1915 two women accused of picking a man’s pockets tried to get him to drop the charges by threatening to ‘swear all kinds of lies imaginable’ against him at trial and to the Sunday scandal sheet Truth that avidly covered court business. Perhaps the few who actively embraced a criminal identity kept scrapbooks of their own at one time, now lost to us. Other individuals who believed their convictions were unjust might have seen historical research as a chance for their side of the story to be heard. One of the state library’s treasures, rescued by an alert garbage-collector some years ago, comprises a number of notes written on scraps of newspaper by a prisoner protesting his innocence while he was serving time in Pentridge Prison for breaking and entering in the 1870s. Then there were those who even the police described in their character reports as not being ‘real’ thieves, the otherwise respectable individuals who committed crimes in a moment of desperation or weakness. Such persons would want us to remember a lesson all historians should hold dear: that the records they left behind only tell a fraction of their entire story.


Author: Dr Alana Piper, Postdoctoral Research Fellow

To cite this research brief: Alana Piper, ‘Unearthing criminal pasts’, The Prosecution Project, Research Brief 4, https://prosecutionproject.griffith.edu.au/unearthing-criminal-pasts (20 November 2014, viewed 19 July 2016).