Was your ancestor a criminal? : A World-First Survey on Crime History and the Public

Recently the GSV Writers shared their writing about topics such as ‘a skeleton in the family’. A number of interesting stories emerged, of forgers and even a murderer. How do we deal with those in our family who have become entangled with the law?

Old portable police lockup, Chewton, Victoria, 1860s. (Photo. W. Barlow 2017)

Dr Alana Piper, Research Fellow of the University of Technology Sydney researches criminal justice history and is conducting a survey on the public’s engagement with crime history. The purpose of this online survey is to find out about public interest in and understandings of criminal justice history. The online survey is run through SurveyMonkey and takes 5-10 minutes to complete. The survey is completely anonymous.

The survey can be found via the following link – https://criminalcharacters.com/survey/

In this project Alana is using digital techniques to map the lives and criminal careers of Australian offenders across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Her research interests draw together the social and cultural history of crime with criminology, legal history and the digital humanities. Her PhD thesis examined female involvement in Australian criminal subcultures across the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Castlemaine prison, Victoria, built 1857-61 on the Pentonville Model (Photo. W. Barlow 2017)

Dr Piper outlines the project:

A World-First Survey on Crime History and the Public

‘One of the things I love about my job as a criminal justice historian is talking to people about my research. It does not matter who they are – or even if history in general is not a particular passion for them – most people are interested in hearing the stories I’ve uncovered about nineteenth and twentieth-century crimes and criminals.

Some people like to chat about the celebrity criminals whose lives have been immortalised in fiction and film, like bushranger Ned Kelly or Sydney crime queen Tilly Devine. Others like hearing about the quirkier or more unexpected tales I have come across, such as the fact that book theft was made a special offence in Victoria in 1891 after a spate of book stealing from public libraries. Or that until relatively recently fortune-telling was a criminal offence across Australia, with police intermittently cracking down on fortune-tellers throughout the twentieth century, in particular during the World Wars when people were desperate for reassurance about their loved ones.

These are not one-way conversations either. Family historians have often encountered at least one ancestor who had an entanglement with the law. It is fascinating to hear how sometimes those actions or events ended up changing the course of the lives of the entire family. Other people have developed an interest in local cold cases, such as the unsolved murders of three adult siblings that occurred in Gatton, Queensland in 1898, but still generate frequent speculation today.

The sense that I am left with from these encounters is that crime history is a subject in which the public is highly engaged. Anecdotally I know that other crime historians – both in Australia and overseas – have similar experiences. However, to date there has been no empirical research into public attitudes and interest towards crime history.

I am trying to change that by running an anonymous online survey about community perceptions of crime history. The survey only takes 5-10 minutes to complete, but will generate data that provides insights into the sources of information that inform public understandings of crime history, and how public attitudes about crime history vary across different national contexts.

Any participation in or promotion of the survey is much appreciated. It can be found via the following link – https://criminalcharacters.com/survey/– along with more details about my research project.’

Alana Piper, University of Technology Sydney. 

You can follow Alana on Twitter on @alana_piper

Post expires at 8:06pm on Friday 1 February 2019

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