The public's fascination with the human drama of the courtroom has a long history, and cases involving the relationships between men and women, within or outside the bonds of marriage, have long engaged the popular imagination.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, published accounts of sensational trials provided the public with both entertainment and cautionary tales.
These trials are especially rich sources for the study of the history of women and gender relations in the 19th and early 20th centuries. For the legal, social, or gender historian, a popular trial account can reveal intriguing details about legal and courtroom practice and procedure, as well as the motivations, manners, and mores of another era.
The Studies in Scarlet collection, held by the Harvard Law School Library, includes American, British, and Irish cases from 1815 to 1914 involving domestic violence, bigamy, seduction, breach of promise to marry, child custody, rape, and murder.
Included are a number of trials of the wealthy and renowned, such as:
- an account of the adultery trial of Caroline, Queen Consort of George IV;
- the sodomy trial of Oscar Wilde;
- and the trial of Harry Thaw for the murder of Stanford White, a famous architect and Evelyn Nesbit Thaw's lover.
The larger part of the collection, however, consists of the stories of ordinary men and women thrust into the public eye when their marriages and love affairs went wrong, or their relationships did not conform to social standards.
Accessing These Materials
- All Studies in Scarlet trial narratives are available online.
- Since the trials have been digitized, the Harvard Law School Library's Historical & Special Collections generally does not allow access to the originals.