Invisible Ink: No 81 - Harry Hodge

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The Independent Culture

In the modern age of phone-tapping and the super-injunction, one wonders what Harry Hodge would have said about the right to privacy.

Fascinated by criminology all his life, Hodge felt that a trial should be at least 20 years old before it could prove notable enough for public discussion.

Hodge was the managing director of William Hodge & Co, publishers and shorthand writers. He followed his forebears into the shorthand business in Scotland, and became one of the nation's leading experts.

For half a century he was a well-known figure in the Scottish courts, and published many legal works. In 1905 he launched the "Notable British Trials" series, which eventually extended to over 80 volumes. In 1941, Penguin started to repackage and sell the collected "Famous Trials", commissioned, collated and edited by Harry and later by his son James.

As the Hodges were based in Scotland, it made sense to start this catalogue of criminality with the sensational trial of Madeleine Smith, accused in 1857 of poisoning her lover with arsenic. Although the case against her was not proven, it was largely accepted that the 21-year-old beauty was a murderer. But Smith's lips remained sealed to the end of her life. The case was written up by F Tennyson Jesse, and set the elegant literary tone for the cases that followed. In the same volume we have Oscar Slater, "the right man convicted on the wrong clue", and the tragic, bizarre tale of Dr Crippen, whose crime and subsequent arrest play out like scenes from a pulp thriller.

These are reports written closer to the time of actual events, so they've yet to be overlaid with modern forensic research or ironic asides. In outlining Crippen's case, the author Filson Young sides with the doctor's murdered wife, the ghastly, tone-deaf music hall singer Belle, whereas we now have some sympathy for Crippen's impossible situation. Volume Four of "Famous Trials" was published at the end of the Second World War, and topically included the traitorous "Lord Haw Haw", William Joyce, pointing out that radio listeners found his voice more irritating than his politics. These days, we're aware that the same propaganda tactics were being used by the British government at the time.

Volume Seven is entirely dedicated to Oscar Wilde. The series was extended to cover war crimes, and John Mortimer selected the best cases for a 1984 volume. The rest are out of print.