Murder, Mayhem, and a Dash of Treason: An Interesting Collection in UNC Law Library's Rare Book Room

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If you’re anything like me, you probably find yourself reading more mysteries and crime novels as Halloween approaches. From Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Robert Galbraith (a.k.a. the infamous J.K. Rowling), there is something for every reader in the ‘whodunnit’ genre. But, did you know that long before Sherlock Holmes nabbed his first criminal in 1887, 18th and 19th century readers actually read law books to get their mystery-crime fix? 

Trial books were a unique publication of the 18th and 19th centuries that chronicled the procedure and outcomes of high-profile or otherwise sensational criminal trials. Though technically law books, they were often written by nonlawyers, cheaply printed as pamphlets, and intended for sale to the general reading public of the time. However, they can offer the modern legal reader a fascinating look into criminal procedure from the period!   

The UNC Law Library’s Rare Book Collection includes several trial books from both England and the United States. From charges of high treason to murder to the scandalous case of the theft of nine silk stockings, this collection has a bit of everything for the crime novel fan!

Here is a sampling of the titles that you can find down in the Rare Book Room:

Old Bailey Trial Book (1678)

An Exact Account of the Trials of the Several Persons Arraigned at the Session-House in the Old Bailey, reported by Roger L’Estrange (1678).


Our first book takes us to the Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales, in 1678. Among the hundreds of trials recorded in this book, we read about a man charged with the theft of nine silk stockings. According to the report, the accused was “an old Man, with a very grey head, by Trade a Silk Stockin [sic] Trimmer, and of a plentiful Fortune, [and] had nothing to say for himself, but that he took them for money they owed him.” That is certainly one way to collect your debts!

The Trial of Mrs. Ann K. Simpson (1851)

The Trial of Mrs. Ann K. Simpson, Charged with the Murder of Her Husband, Alexander C. Simpson, by Poisoning with Arsenic, reported by William H. Haigh (1851).


Our next book covers a murder trial from Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 1851. Here you can read about the rather sensational trial of Ann K. Simpson, who after poisoning her husband was alleged to have “made her escape to Charleston, and from thence to Havana, where she remained until May 1850.” This trial book even reprints the coroner’s report, so you get a dash of mid-19th century forensic science!

Trial of Aaron Burr (1807)

Trial of Colonel Aaron Burr on an Indictment for Treason, taken in short-hand by T. Carpenter (1807).


“Pardon me. Are you Aaron Burr, sir?” After his infamous duel with Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr unfortunately continued to cause trouble. In 1807, he was arrested and tried for treason. You can read all about this famous trial in the trial book that reads like a transcript. 

Posted by Melissa M. Hyland on Tue. October 16, 2018 2:39 PM
Categories: Uncategorized

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