How (and where) To Research Historical Crime

By SUE COLETTA

A few regular readers of TKZ requested tips to help research criminal cases from the past. If the crime occurred in the 18th or early 19th century, the task becomes much more difficult. My hope is that these tips will aid you in finding reliable information.

Let’s say you only have a name, place, and approximate year for your victim or killer. The first logical step is to conduct a Google search to see what’s available online. Someone must have written about the case, right? Well, not necessarily. Sometimes you get lucky and find a couple articles, other times … *crickets* Which I happen to like, because it means the industry isn’t saturated with books on the same topic. But it’s also harder to find what we need. Not impossible; we just need to think like an investigator.

GENERAL TIPS

If you find an online article about the crime, do not solely rely on that information. Instead, within said article search for the author’s sources. Most true crime writers will either link to another source or cite where they gathered their facts from, and that’s where the gold resides.

My overly suspicious crime writer brain tends to question where bloggers and/or journalists get their facts. To satisfy my own curiosity I use a three-source rule. Meaning, if I can’t verify a fact with two other sources, then I don’t consider it a historical fact.

By the way, this is my personal rule, not an industry requirement. Although, some publishers do ask that you verify each major fact with one other source. Even if they never request the citation, their legal department might. So, be sure to keep a log of where you find information, both primary and secondary sources. It’ll save you from having to go back to find where the killer said something, or whatever.

There’s one exception to my three-source rule…

Suppose I find a newspaper article that I am able to authenticate with a trial transcript, deposition, or other court document. Because I have the primary source (court document) which says the same thing, then the newspaper article gains credibility. If I don’t have access to a primary source for verification, then I need two secondary sources to substantiate the fact(s).

True crime readers expect the truth, not our fictional interpretation. It’s our job to question a reporter’s research and not take what s/he says at face-value. They want to sell newspapers, so facts can often be embellished or sensationalized. When I first started searching through old newspapers (I’ll share where you can find them in a sec), I was shocked to find misinformation, discrepancies, untruths, and rumors stated as fact. Embellishments help to create eye-popping headlines but can also hinder a true crime writer/researcher if we’re not careful.

For example, there’s a lot of online content about one of my five female serial killers due to the fact that she rocked the nation with her cold-bloodedness. But all these articles weren’t ideal. If anything, they muddied the water. In order to separate fact from fiction I had to wade through opinions, theories, innuendoes, and rumors. You may have to do the same. My best advice is to roll up your sleeves, consider it a challenge, and dig in. 😉

PRIMARY vs. SECONDARY SOURCES

Think of research as a bullseye, with the killer and/or victim at the center. The first ring around the bullseye includes eyewitness accounts, investigative reports, court testimony, the killer’s journal and/or confession — primary sources. Moving outward, the next ring would be secondary sources, such as a newspaper article written by a journalist who interviewed someone involved with the case (killer, detective, juror, DA).

The third ring includes newspaper articles written by someone with no first-hand or second-hand knowledge. To get the article written on time they simply regurgitated information from other articles — that’s where you’ll find the most mistakes. In this ring you’ll also find bloggers, some credible, some not.

See why I created a three-source rule? If we were to write historical nonfiction using only the third ring as our primary source, the book and its author would lose all credibility among historical nonfiction readers as well as writers. I’ve read numerous snarky remarks about true crime writers who play fast and loose with the facts. Since I would never advocate to spotlight another writer’s inadequacies, I’ll leave it at that. My point is, research as though the whole world is watching. It’ll keep you honest. 🙂

HOMING IN ON PRIMARY SOURCES

One of the best places to gather historic information is the National Archives. Once called the Archival Research Catalog (ARC), which retired in 2013 and was replaced with the Online Public Access (OPA) prototype, the National Archives Catalog searches all web pages on Archives.gov and lists articles, pdf documents, books, and periodicals on a search result page. Along with catalog records, researchers are able to add notes that may cite additional sources, so during your search also be mindful of gold nuggets hidden in research notes.

The current catalog provides access to over two million electronic records in the Electronic Records Archives (ERA). These digital records aren’t available elsewhere. The National Archives is a fantastic place to find reliable primary source material.

Now, suppose the case you’re looking for hasn’t been digitalized. In that case you’ll need to Google “National Archives of [insert the state capitol where the crime occurred].” Note the email address and send a formal record request. The more information you provide, the greater your chances of gaining results. Record requests take about ten business days to complete.

If the crime you’re researching was not heard in federal court, then you’ll need to drop down to the state level. Google: “[state where crime took place] State Archives.” Example: Massachusetts State Archives. This may sound like the same place as above, but it’s not. State Archives house court records on the district court level.

Then there’s the Supreme Judicial Archives. In Boston, it’s a separate building with a separate email address. This may not always be the case, though. You’ll need to find out how it works in the state you’re researching, but you can use this example as a guide.

Prepare to spend time on the phone with law libraries and historical societies. The folks who work in these places are extremely helpful, and they love writers. The law library directed me to a wealth of information that I wouldn’t have gotten on my own, because they have access to databases that the public does not. Search for the county where your crime was committed, then add “law library.” For example, I searched for “Barnstable Law Library” for one of my female serial killers.

For my New Hampshire killer, the local historical society had diaries tucked inside an old box, with daily logs written during the string of murders. The gentleman who wrote these diaries knew the victims and the killer. Scoring a firsthand account of a centuries old murder case is difficult to find, but when it happens, it’s the best feeling ever.

See why it pays to keep digging? You never know what you might uncover next.

Most police departments are useless, as they don’t keep investigative records that long. It’s still worth sending a quick email, though. If I didn’t contact one particular department, I would have never known that the town where my killer operated housed their own independent archives that were a lot more detailed than the records I’d acquired elsewhere. It also gave me two primary sources to check facts against.

NEWSPAPER ARTICLES

As you may have guessed, a great place to find old newspapers are libraries. Depending on your subject’s location, many libraries have transferred newspapers to microfiche. Be sure to have the month and date for the librarian. If the crime you’re researching made national headlines, you may even luck out at your local library.

But wait …

Before you truck down to the library, check out the Library of Congress. They list 15,273,703 digitized newspaper pages from 1789-1963. Always best to save the shoe leather whenever possible. 🙂

Remember, as you research, search for primary source material to verify your secondary or thrice-removed accounts. Readers will thank you for the added effort.

Researching historical crime takes time and patience, but it’s also fun to piece the puzzle together. Just don’t get discouraged. For every three or four dead ends, you’ll stumble across something new and exciting that’ll set your writer brain ablaze.

I better stop there before this post morphs into a book. Do you have any research tips to share?

 

 

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About Sue Coletta

Member of MWA, Sisters in Crime, and ITW, Sue Coletta is an award-winning, bestselling crime writer of psychological thrillers. She also writes true crime: PRETTY EVIL NEW ENGLAND is anticipated to hit stores in Fall 2020, published by Globe Pequot (Rowman & Littlefield). In 2017, 2018, and 2019, Feedspot awarded her Murder Blog as one of the Top 100 Crime Blogs on the Net (Murder Blog sits at #5). Learn more about Sue and her books at https://suecoletta.com

18 thoughts on “How (and where) To Research Historical Crime

  1. Great info, Sue. Thanks.

    Our local writers group had a guest speaker in from the Missouri History Museum. I had no idea of the records they kept in their library and how accessible they were. One such was an original diary kept by either Lewis or Clark on their journey. Talk about an original source document! Of course, it takes special permission to get access to a piece like that, but it is still possible. Plus, the library has subscriptions to places like newspapers.com, ancestry.com and several other similar online resources. All available to the general public.

    • True! Thanks for adding the subscription services, Douglas. I had no idea where to stop listing resources. LOL

      Wow. A diary of Lewis or Clark is an amazing find!

  2. Historical maps. You can find an incredible amount of them at various archives. I’ve even found a map of the sewers of Victorian London.

    Historical images. Also, a vast number of them via archives and museum websites.

    American universities have been digitalizing their collections, and most can be found online without a paywall.

    • Fabulous additions, Marilynn!!! I haven’t begun my search for photos yet. Thanks for the tips.

      Wow. A sewer map of Victoria London — amazing find!

  3. I’m in Arizona and they have online archives “DAZL” Digital Arizona Library. To my utter delight, I found them on FB, and they send out posts with historical information. This morning I got an email with a graphic comparing 1890 precipitation in Arizona with other cities in the west. I was jumping up and down. History right to my box! WOOHOO!!!! (okay, I’m calm now).

    The one thing I find tricky is that some sources for newspapers are held hostage by a subscription fee. That’s why I recommend checking a state’s archives first before you get sucked into a subscription. I’m not opposed to paying for source material when I have to, but there’s only so much money coming in and it just makes sense to exhaust other options first.

    • Congratulations, Brenda!!!!! You also make a great point. Facebook groups dedicated to historical info. in your subject area, like DAZL, is a fantastic place to find source material. Way to go!

      I agree. We need to save money where we can. Subscription costs, photocopying, and buying images can add up quickly. The Library of Congress is FREE to use. I’ve found a wealth of information there.

      Happy hunting!!!

  4. I began researching a capital crime (that occurred in the early 1900s) before the world wide web was born. I found the newspaper accounts of the crime, trial, and execution at the provincial archives (I’m in Canada), and found that the papers were mostly written by the editors. The differences in accounts between the liberal editor of the town where it occurred and the conservative editor of the town across the river were an education in itself!

    One tip: if your looking for primary information around a capital crime in Canada, you need to go to the Canadian National Archives or their website to request the information. In Canada, all trial information and evidence went to the federal Justice Minister to be considered before the execution was approved.

    I sent an email to request the information. I wound up getting three pdf files filled with information. I had to pay a few hundred dollars to get them all scanned, but those files were full of wonderful information. One file was all the RNWMP investigation correspondence and reports, one was the trial transcript, and one was the Justice Minister’s information and further investigation.

    Thanks for all the great information, Sue!

    • I’m so glad you pointed out the difference between researching a Canadian crime vs. US crime. Fantastic information, BJ. Thanks for sharing!!!

      Wow. Sounds like you hit the motherload. Congratulations!!!

  5. Thanks for all these great tips & links, Sue. I knew your new true crime/historical writing would be bountiful.

    I bet those diaries of the New Hampshire man who knew the victims AND the killer are fascinating. Give a me shivers. What a gold mine!!!

    Good stuff.

  6. Ah, research! This is great, as always, Sue. And is it free to use the newspapers from the Library of Congress?

    One of the reasons I’ve stuck to fiction is because I’m a little, um, lazy when it comes to research. But I do my best to make sure that everything I write about is backed up by historical fact if it’s appropriate. When I wrote The Abandoned Heart, I spent lots of time digging up information about the US and Japan in the late 19th century.

    Maybe someone has mentioned this already, but I find books of historical photographs very useful–especially when it comes to tools, architecture, clothing, hairstyles and other everyday things. I used to think photography didn’t really exist before the Civil War, but daguerreotypes were invented by 1839.

    • Thanks, Laura! Yes, it’s free to use the newspapers from the Library of Congress. No signing in required, either, which is nice.

      I agree. Historical photographs are very useful. I had to laugh about your comment regarding photography. Not long ago, I ran across an article that said one of my “ladies” picked up the telephone, and I was like, huh? Phones existed back then? 🙂 What I’ve discovered is life wasn’t all that different from today, in a broad spectrum type of way.

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