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The book describes how the courts dealt with murder, beginning with the coroner's inquest and ending with the conviction and hanging of the murderer. Between these two points the exquisite, almost balletic, procedure, of the courts and their officers is described, the Crown's case against the prisoner is analysed, and the prisoner's defence is discussed. Magistrates, policemen, crown solicitors, witnesses, jurors, judges, and hangmen make their appearances. The prisoners, whose silence before and during their trials was their most notable characteristic in the nineteenth-century courts, make their appearances too, but not as prominently as their judicial custodians, until they finally and briefly come into the limelight on the gallows. An implicit theme of the book is the apparent contradiction between the apparent simplicity of the courts' procedures and the complexity of the rules that determined their operation.
The books relies on a range of printed primary sources, such as newspapers, parliamentary papers, law reports, and legal textbooks, and on MS sources in the National Archives such as the Convict Reference Files.