A Guide to Researching Fraud

Fraud is an offence that needs special attention. It is a particularly good example of the need to carry out offence-specific research within the Digital Panopticon. Fraud constituted not one but a collection of offences (which changed in nature and extent between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries). Prior to the nineteenth century the most common fraud offences were obtaining goods by false pretences and obtaining goods by false "personation" as well as more specific frauds such as obtaining naval prize monies.

The Offence of 'Fraud'

An example of obtaining goods by false pretences can be seen in the prosecution of James Dean in 1820. Dean was found guilty and transported for seven years for obtaining materials from a warehouse by pretending to be sent by a well-known Captain in the neighbourhood.

False personation differs from false pretences in that the swindler needed to pretend to be a particular person (as opposed to merely claiming to be someone’s servant) in order to obtain the goods. For example, in 1788 Maria Cartwright was accused, though not convicted, of pretending to be the long-lost sister of William Hooper for the purpose of borrowing money. In this instance Cartwright was not convicted but this example illustrates the circumstances under which fraudsters may have personated another in order to trick somebody into giving over monies or goods.

Both these forms of fraud - obtaining goods by false pretences or false personation - were misdemeanours and therefore can be found across the entire court system from lowest summary courts to the Old Bailey. Punishment for such misdemeanours ranged from corporal punishment to transportation for seven years. Because of this, fraud prosecutions and punishments for fraud convictions can be found in a number of records within the Digital Panopticon.

In contrast to these misdemeanours, a common form of fraud, obtaining naval prize monies through fraud, was a capital felony. Such frauds were committed against the Royal Navy in order to achieve sailors’ pay or bonuses from war (prize money). This type of fraud was committed through similar mechanisms as obtaining goods by false pretences and personation, but were against the Navy and subsequently were defined as felonies for which the accused could hang. Such an example is the prosecution of Hannah Mullens who was convicted of attempting to obtain the pay and prize monies of a sailor in 1786. Mullens had used a false document to pretend that she was the benefactor of the sailor’s will. Mullens was convicted and sentenced to death.

All three of those offences are most commonly found up to the early nineteenth century, after which there was a change in fraud offences. From the 1830s onwards, more recognisably modern forms of fraud began to emerge. These offences are more closely aligned to twentieth century concepts of white-collar crime and commercial fraud which broadly includes the fraudulent obtaining of monies through the breach of trust, such as bankers misappropriating customers’ money and investments.

Searching for Fraud Cases

The biggest challenge in using the Digital Panopticon to research fraud offences comes in identifying which cases are to be defined as fraud. The defining records that formed the foundation of the Digital Panopticon are those that stem from Old Bailey Proceedings. These trial reports are categorised in a number of ways. The Old Bailey Online separates trials into a number of categories relating to offence: "Breaking Peace", "Damage to Property", "Deception", "Killing", "Miscellaneous", "Royal Offences", "Sexual Offences", "Theft" and "Violent Theft". These larger categories are then separated into sub-categories such as "Deception-Fraud". This sub-category includes the most common variations of fraud listed above.

For the most part, this approach is unproblematic. It is clear which offence applied. However, there are examples within the "Proceedings of offences" which are described ambiguously and commonly have unclear indictments, such as deception, fraud, embezzlement and forgery cases.

Upon first glance, the categorisation of offences within the Old Bailey Online appears straightforward. There is a category of "deception" and within this there is a subcategory of "fraud". Unfortunately, these are far less useful than they appear and there is considerable overlap. The category of "Deception" itself within the Old Bailey Online includes forgery, fraud, perjury and bankruptcy offences.

Categorisation therefore does not overcome the considerable definition problems of fraud offences and the interaction between these offences and other property offences. There is overlap between crimes, such as embezzlement, larceny, cheating by false pretences and other such offences (both in substance and in the manner in which they were prosecuted). Because of this, in searching all fraud indictments, there are a number of false positives within the results identified by the Old Bailey Online Online. If conducting simple statistical searches of the number of fraud offences, an inaccurate picture could be gleaned. For example, the 1819 prosecution of Alexander Lauder has been categorised by the Old Bailey Online as a Deception-Fraud. The transposing of the trial by the shorthand writer is a more complete reflection of the indictment and at first glance does appear to be a fraud. However, a closer reading of the text reveals that this case was in fact relating to theft:

"ALEXANDER LAUDER was indicted for that he, on the 30th of August , being servant to David Vines ,did, upon trust and confidence, deliver unto him four sacks of flour… his property, safely to keep the same to the use of the said   David Vines ; and that he, the prisoner, after such delivery, and while he was such servant, did feloniously withdraw himself from his said master, and go away with the said goods, with intent to steal the same, and defraud his said master thereof, contrary to the trust and confidence in him put by his said master , against the statute."

This indictment is clearly larceny: firstly, because it stipulates "intent to steal"; and, secondly, because it states the offence was a felony. Statutory fraud offences were not felonies.

Another common error in categorisation of fraud came in the relationship with forgery. The trial of Joseph Marks demonstrates that such mis-categorisation can, not only categorise non-frauds as fraud, but can also mislabel frauds as other offences. The trial of Joseph Marks has been categorised by the Old Bailey Online as a forgery, when in fact it is a fraud, carried out through the use of a document.

A potential method to overcome these categorisation errors may be the use of search terms such as "swindlers", "cheats" or "artful device". Once again, though, care must be taken to recognise that shorthand writers, who took note of the trials, influenced the reporting of the trial. Researchers therefore sometimes "hear" this subjective reporting and not the voice of the actors within the trial. Word searches may, however, reflect the lexicon of the day and prove worthwhile.

Any statistical conclusions about fraud at the Old Bailey therefore needs to be significantly couched in the context of the Proceedings and their ultimate digitization. Researchers may decide that a sample with a very limited number of false positive results is more accurate than using keyword searches which would almost run the risk of false positives.

Searching for individuals using familial names and date ranges on the Digital Panopticon website is less complex and the prosecution of fraud offences should in this case be treated as other offences. It should be remembered though that fraud offences were primarily misdemeanours, most commonly the obtaining of goods by false pretences. Where a fraud was committed against public organisations (mostly, against the Navy) these crimes were defined as being far more serious and were therefore treated as capital felonies.

Author Credits

This page was written by Cerian Griffiths, with additional contributions by other members of the Digital Panopticon project team.