The Craft of True Crime: When Old News is Good News
By Dean Jobb
Picture a crowded courtroom in London’s Old Bailey, in the waning years of Queen Victoria’s reign. The judge is in the midst of his instructions to the jury in a sensational murder trial when a window, opened for ventilation, slams shut like the drop of a guillotine. It’s an ominous sign for the man in the prisoners’ dock, Thomas Neill Cream, a Canadian doctor who faces the gallows if the jurors vote to convict him of poisoning a prostitute.
To recreate this climactic scene for an upcoming book on Cream, a notorious serial killer dubbed the Lambeth Poisoner, I scoured the London newspapers for details that would bring his trial to life. Cream’s aloofness as witnesses portrayed him as a monster. The stifling atmosphere in the courtroom, relieved by the opened window. The judge, in a freshly powdered wig, stabbing a pencil in Cream’s direction as he spoke. Court officials pocketing a shilling at the courtroom door from people desperate to witness the spectacle.
The trial made headlines worldwide and there was no shortage of journalists in the courtroom. But only one, a reporter for Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, appears to have recorded the crashing window that ramped up the tension as Cream waited to learn his fate.
Newspapers are an essential resource for recreating crimes, whether for true crime accounts or as inspiration for crime fiction. In the nineteenth century, an era when few courts produced official transcripts of their proceedings, journalists often came through with verbatim reports of testimony and legal arguments. And they excelled at describing people and events and capturing courtroom drama, from the mood of spectators to the nervousness of a key witness.
The Baltimore Sun’s coverage of the 1910 trial of Hawley Harvey Crippen, an American doctor accused of murdering his wife in London, offers some examples. Crippen arrived at the Old Bailey in a stylish black suit coat and gray trousers “creased as though they had just come from the tailors.” The court was “packed almost to suffocation” but he sat alone, in a dock that could accommodate forty prisoners, as if he had been washed up on an island surrounded by a sea of faces. He pleaded not guilty to the charge, the paper reported, “in a clear voice that penetrated to every portion of the courtroom.”
Searching for nuggets such as these has never been easier. Thousands of newspapers have been digitized and collected in online databases, and many can be accessed for free. Researching past crimes and trials once meant spending weeks parked in front of a microfilm or microfiche reader. Now, a few keyword searches can accomplish the task in a matter of hours.
In the recent book The Man from the Train, authors Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James scoured digitized newspapers for evidence that a single, axe-wielding serial killer might have been responsible for more than 100 murders across America in the early twentieth century. Databases allowed them to search for patterns impossible to spot in isolation—among them, that the murders were committed in remote areas and close to railroad lines, affording the killer a quick getaway.
But newspaper databases, for all their scope and convenience, have their limits. There’s no single, comprehensive online resource, so it can take time and patience to unearth details such as crashing windows, crisply pressed trousers, and court officials who expected to have their palms greased. And many news reports of past crimes can still be found only in libraries and archives.
Here’s a guide to searching newspapers for vintage murder and mayhem, for writers as well as true crime enthusiasts interested in trying their hand at some sleuthing:
- The best place to start is the digital archive of the New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/search), which offers keyword access to coverage since the newspaper’s founding in 1851. There’s a modest fee for full access—a few dollars a month—but many articles can be downloaded or printed for free. As well, the “TimesMachine” feature (https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/browser) allows scanned editions to be accessed and searched by date. It’s the only source I found that recorded the price of admission to Cream’s trial.
- Newpapers.com (www.newspapers.com) is the best pay-for-use newspaper database. The collection is vast—more than 8,000 newspapers from the 1700s to today. A reasonable monthly fee buys unlimited access to almost 400 million pages drawn from papers published in the United States, the British Isles, Canada, and Australia. Keyword searches are reliable, individual papers can be reviewed issue-by-issue, and it’s easy to clip, download, print, and e-mail articles.
- Created by the Library of Congress, Chronicling America (https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov) offers free access to American newspapers published between 1789 and 1963—from the Weekly Messenger of St. Martinsville, Louisiana to the San Francisco Call. The database boasts more than thirteen million scanned pages, and new titles are being added. It can be searched by keyword and queries can be narrowed to a specific date or to papers published in a single state.
- It turns out you can Google anything, even the pages of old newspapers. Google Newspapers (https://news.google.com/newspapers) offers free access to a collection of hundreds of U.S. and Canadian papers dating back more than two centuries. A few tips for users: Keyword searches can be unreliable, so it’s a good idea to compile a list of significant dates and review each paper day-by-day, page-by-page; some papers are indexed by name and not city, while others are mislabeled; and issues described as “missing” may be appended to the previous day’s edition. A little extra digging may pay off.
- ProQuest Historical Newspapers (https://www.proquest.com/libraries/academic/news-newspapers) is a user-pay database of more than 3,000 newspapers published from the mid-1700s to today. The collection’s fifty-five million digitized pages includes the archives of the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, and Chicago Tribune as well as papers in Canada, Britain, and India.
- On a budget? University and public libraries offer on-site access to commercial databases of news coverage, old and new, and library cardholders may be able to sign up for online access.
A few notes of caution when using newspaper databases:
- Check every article listed in the search results. I plowed through more than a dozen almost identical accounts of the final day of Cream’s trial before finding the one that mentioned the crashing window. And articles that appear in multiple papers may be incomplete in some—after editors cut paragraphs to fit page layouts—and run full-length in others.
- Keyword searches are never foolproof. Search engines and software can miss names or other words if the original printed page or digital scan is faint or of poor quality. Searching digitized newspapers page-by-page for key dates ensures nothing is overlooked. And typos and spelling mistakes often make it into print, so search for common mispellings. I’ve found Cream’s name published as “Crean” in several news accounts.
- It’s worth bearing in mind, too, that “fake news” is nothing new. Errors, distortions, and even bogus confessions have received wide publicity, especially in high-profile cases, and the record may never have been set straight. In H.H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil, Chicago writer Adam Selzer meticulously researched news coverage of the serial killer featured in Erik Larson’s best-selling The Devil in the White City. Gossip and speculation, he discovered, were often reported and accepted as fact, especially in newspapers published far from the scene of his crimes.
With thousands of newspapers and hundreds of millions of pages available in digital form, it’s tempting to think an online search will catch everything. But many titles remain available only on microfilm. Thomas Neill Cream committed at least three murders in Chicago in the early 1880s, but only two daily newspapers published in the city at the time—the Tribune and Inter-Ocean—have been digitized. Locating the extensive coverage of these crimes in the muckraking Chicago Times and other papers required a trip to the library and a refresher course in using a microfilm reader.
Sometimes, the bricks-and-mortar world can compete with the speed and convenience of the internet. Files of yellowing clippings tucked away in libraries and archives may include articles from newspapers that have vanished without a trace. And the hard work of assembling coverage of a specific case may have been done long ago. On a recent visit to New York City’s Municipal Archives I discovered scrapbooks filled with newspaper coverage of major court cases, clipped from the city’s many dailies a century ago by staff of the district attorney’s office.
“If there is one thing more than another of which the average man likes to read the details,” the Chicago Daily Tribune noted in 1880, “that thing is a first-class murder with the goriest of trimmings.”
Luckily for true crime fans, the press of the day gave the people what they wanted. Crime news, as the American media historian Mitchell Stephens once noted, has always been prime news.
Dean Jobb’s book on the crimes of Dr. Thomas Neill Cream will be published by Algonquin Books in the U.S. and by HarperCollins Canada. He teaches nonfiction writing at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanJobb.