The Project

How long did developing the Chicago historical homicide database take?

There were three steps to creating the database: converting the records into electronic form, feeding the information into the database, and making the database accessible to users. The conversion of 11,400 records into electronic form took nine months and consisted of one person retyping the records into Microsoft Word.

The next step was even more time consuming and involved numerous people over five years. Since each record or case consisted of a lot of information that had to be separately entered into the database (i.e., name of defendant, type of crime, date).

Once the database was complete, the final step was making sure that the database was accessible to the general public. This included making the database available online, ensuring that the database was user-friendly, and enriching the data with a historical and academic context.

The project has taken over eight years and involved many Northwestern faculty, staff, and students, including both undergraduate and graduate students in law, communications, and engineering. A more detailed timeline and explanation of the project can be found in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology.

What is so unique about this project?

This project is unique because it takes historical police records and puts them online and in a user-friendly format. The data from these records has been presented in a manner that is both acessible and useful for a wide range of audiences, from high school students to academic researchers. The records themselves are unique in that they are comprehensive, uninterrupted for 60 years, and overlap with some very significant historical events that occured both in Chicago and the greater U.S.

How have people used the data? What are some other ideas for using the data?

From contact with users, we have learned that our data has been used for a wide range of purposes by an even wider range of people. Some people have used the database to search for their ancestors. Researchers have used the datasets to answer many questions from those involving policy (i.e., the relationship of gun laws with deaths from firearms) to those involving the evolution of social phenomenon (i.e, the changing nature of homicides over time). Others have used the website to learn more about the history of Chicago.

The data can be used for many additional purposes. The following represent a few examples: Researchers may be interested in mapping out the homicides and drawing conclusions about socio-economic class, immigration and race. In addition, they may be interested in exploring the relationship of the homicides to prohibitionist policies. High school students may be interested in the following questions: What happened in your neighborhood during 1870-1930? How has your neighborhood changed since?

Teachers in the humanities, the social sciences and law may be interested in using the website in their classes. For example, can your class create a simple database from other public records of other social phenomenon (e.g. supermarket prices, crime in the neighborhood)?

As we are always interested in the way you use the website and the datasets. Write us a quick email to lbienen@law.northwestern.edu or jhaskin@law.northwestern.edu. By better understanding how you use the information, we will be able to make this website even more accessible and useful to others.

How many people have visited the website?

As of 2012 we’ve had over 600,000 visitors since the website was launched in June 2004. In addition, more than 2,000 people have downloaded a copy of the database.

If I wanted to do something similar with another historical archive, what would I need to do?

A detailed methodology can be found in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. The coding methodology can be found here.

Why are all these historical records relevant today?

The Chicago Historical Homicide Project– and historical records in general– allows us to learn from the past, benchmark the evolution of society, and better understand how the past affects our daily lives. By arming us with the tools of experience, insight and understanding, historical records allow us to better live in the present and look to the future.

History repeats itself. Crime, race relations, family disputes, immigration, economic downturns, and corruption are all issues that have been dealt with in the past. How did people deal with these issues in the past?

In addition, looking at the past allows us to benchmark our progress and view similar situations through different perspectives. We can look to the future and imagine how future generations would see us and the changes that we have effected. What records would they look to? In what light would they see us? To some degree, the true judge of our work today is the test of time, how future generations will see us.

Historical records also allow people to better understand the past which underpins our present lives. We may have ancestors who appear in the records. Our neighborhoods may be mentioned or portrayed in a particular light. The records may hint at how people of different races related to each other. Understanding these fragments of the past may indicate to us why ‘things are the way they are’ today.

How can I contact Leigh Bienen, the director of the Chicago Historical Homicide Project?

You can contact Leigh Bienen at lbbienen@law.northwestern.edu. You can also contact Leigh Bienen through Juana Haskins, the project manager of the Chicago Historical Homicide Project, at jhaskin@law.northwestern.edu.

What do you do with my email address and contact information?

We track email addresses and contact information only to get a sense of who is using the website. Your email address and contact information will never be shared with any outside party.


How do I cross-reference the data with records from the coroner’s office and other government offices?

An index of the Cook County Coroner’s inquest records from 1872-1911 are available online at: https://www.cyberdriveillinois.com/departments/archives/databases/cookinqt.html. Records found in the index can be obtained from the Illinois Regional Archives Depository at Northeastern Illinois University’s Ronald Williams Library. More information can be found here.

Records after 1911 are kept by the Cook County Office of the Medical Examiner. More information about this office can be found here.

The data were coded with many more variables than those presented in the interactive database. The data collection instrument contains many variables not included in the interactive database. Are additional data sets available?

Data in variables not included on the interactive database were either incomplete or considered unreliable, e.g. data on ethnicity which was coded impressionistically based upon the last name of the victim. Other researchers can retrieve cases based upon any category of interest in the interactive database and recode the information in the cases according to their interest and expertise. All information in the Homicide Books is reproduced in the case summaries and capable of being recoded by any interested person. The Chicago Historical Homicide Project would be very interested to hear about recoding and new analyses of the data.

How large are the database files?

The database is available in three formats: Microsoft Excel (33.1 MB), SPSS (3.45 MB) and Microsoft Access (10 MB - 447 MB).