Names and people in 18th-century sources (I)

In my working capacity as the Oracle of the OBP Online, I was recently asked a question that went something like this (details changed):

I’m confused by all these results. If Robert Scott was hanged in 1765, who are all these other Robert Scotts? And some of them are after 1765?!

This is at first glance a slightly daft question – well, obviously, they’re all different people but with the same name, aren’t they? (The qestion also contains a common misconception about the source, which I’ll come back to in a moment.) And yet, at the same time, it’s not really silly at all.

They might not all be different people. In our database of the names in the OBP there are 142 instances of the name ‘Robert Scott’ (including slight spelling variations). (Mind you, this is nothing compared to a name like John Smith, which occurs more than 4000 times.) How do you decide whether one Robert Scott is the same person as another Robert Scott, or someone else altogether?

And this is without even starting on the problem that a significant proportion of those appearing at the Old Bailey were known by more than one name, and some had a string of aliases and nicknames. Oh, and the reporters sometimes got people’s names – even those of defendants – just plain wrong.

In other words, identifying the relationship between names and people in early modern sources is often extremely tricky, and the question ‘who the hell are all these Robert Scotts?’ isn’t so daft after all. Which is just as well, really, because this is precisely the kind of problem that’ll be keeping me in work for the next couple of years.

This isn’t just of concern to family historians trying to work out whether someone is really their ancestor or not. Most historians have to make these linkages, ask these questions, at some time or another in the course of their research. Most of us do it on a small scale by hand; a more select group do it on the large scale with computers and algorithms. I’ll hopefully post about both of these later. But in both cases, the process relies on weighing up and ranking probabilities.

Sometimes the answer, either way, is so obvious that the question doesn’t even need to be consciously formed. But at the other end of the scale, there are times when it’s impossible ever to know because you simply don’t have enough information, especially if a name is very common and you have very little contextual information besides the name itself. And I’m sure other historians will have encountered those frustrating borderline cases: if those documents are all referring to the same person, you have a great story. But are you certain enough to rest a serious argument on that identification?

It’s true, for example, that death is a clincher: if you know this Robert Scott died in 1765, then he can’t be the same person as that Robert Scott mentioned in records as alive and well in 1775. (At the other end of the life-cycle, birth is equally conclusive, of course.)

But are you sure he died?

The OBP doesn’t in fact tell you that Robert was hanged (this is the misconception I mentioned above); like archival court records of the period, it normally records only the sentence that was passed. But many people sentenced to death in the 18th century were reprieved or pardoned. Unless you have corroborating evidence that the execution was carried out (and this does occasionally appear in OBP), you need to be cautious.

So a Robert Scott in the database after 1765 could be the same guy after all. Told you it was tricky.

(To be continued.)

A few links:

The linkage of historical records by man and computer (JSTOR subscription required)
A discourse on method, historical knowledge and information technology
Reconstructing historical communities
AHDS guide

(X-posted at EMN.)


2 responses to “Names and people in 18th-century sources (I)

  1. Hey Sharon,

    Thanks for the great post and links, and for filling us in on this dimension of the OBP.

    It actually reminded me of an essay I’d been thinking about for the past few weeks, Durba Ghosh’s ‘Decoding the nameless: gender, subjectivity, and historical methodologies in reading the archives of colonial India’ in A New Imperial History, ed. Kathleen Wilson (Cambridge, 2004).

    Her particular point of departure is the problem of researching interracial domestic relationships between native women on the Indian subcontinent and European soldiers, officials and merchants. What she discovered were a whole variety of naming practices in the archives that to a greater or lesser extent obscured or revealed the relations of these women with the men.

    Here’s the relevant quote:

    Relying on names to do historical research may be obvious to anyone who has spent hours looking through indexes, catalogues, and other archival aids. Yet names are so institutionalized to the practices of historical research that the problem of research subjects without proper names is rarely addressed, even among historians of the dispossessed and the marginal. . . . This chapter argues that historians need to be more critical of the ways in which naming practices operate within various historical moments and social formations, particularly if we are to better account for the subjectivities and historical agency of groups and individuals have been incompletely recorded and remain anonymous in archives (298, 299).

    This is a very suggestive topic, because so many records of the past, like your Old Bailey records, contain vivid but necessarily partial records of the lives they document. Students and scholars share the desire to ‘fill in’ what they don’t and may not ever be able to know, but where are the limits? And so on.

    Ghosh argues, though, that there are ways to decipher even very bare archives, if we can begin to understand the naming practices of a particular time and place, and what goes said and what unsaid in such archives. Take a look, and tell me what you think.



  2. Thanks for the reference, Dave, I’ll definitely look it up.