Chicago History Comes Alive Through Interactive Databases


By Northwestern Now Staff

Faculty legal history
A group of messenger boys walking down a Chicago sidewalk during a strike on July 26, 1902. Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum

Writer, advocate and teacher Leigh Bienen’s digital projects are lenses for viewing extraordinary periods in our past

When Northwestern University’s Leigh Bienen launched Homicide in Chicago, 1870-1930 in 2004, the website crashed the School of Communication’s servers the first weekend it went live. The site had more than 70,000 visitors in its first few days, following coverage in the Chicago Sun-Times. The interactive site now has logged more than 1.5 million visitors over the past 20 years. 

The project began with the discovery of a rich log of more than 11,000 homicides maintained consistently and without interruption by the Chicago Police Department over the course of 60 years, from 1870 to 1930. From 1998 to 2003, Bienen, now senior lecturer emerita at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, worked to make the archive of materials accessible to the public, and the Chicago Historical Homicide Project was born, culminating in the creation of the website.

Bienen followed this with Florence Kelley in Chicago 1891-1899, a digital archive on the life and times of one of Chicago’s great hidden treasures, the first woman factory inspector in the United States and a resident of Hull House.

Since then Bienen has launched several companion websites including 2003 Chicago MurdersIllinois Judges 2015 and Illinois Murder Indictments 2000-2010.

Bienen has long said the purpose of these sites is to spur additional research by making the raw data available.

Bienen now has curated many of her projects on a new website Leigh Buchanan Bienen: Works, which serves as a hub for the Homicide in Chicago database, 50 publications, 27 videos and seven other websites focused on Chicago and Illinois legal history. The Homicide in Chicago and Florence Kelley websites are part of University Library’s permanent collections and reportedly two of the most visited faculty websites at Northwestern.

A writer, advocate and teacher whose areas of expertise include capital punishment, sex crimes and legal reform, Bienen recently spoke with Northwestern Now about how the popularity of websites has changed over time and the motivation behind her new site.

What was it about the homicide site that drew such large audiences, and what made the experience so meaningful for many of those visitors?

Aside from Chicago’s history as a murder capital and people’s fascination with murder, what made the website so compelling was the ability to interact with it on a highly personal level. The interactive database created the ability to search the thousands of records using date, location — for example, Ashland Avenue — and, most importantly, names of victims or defendants. We have hundreds of emails from descendants who discovered, for better or worse, the details behind the family secrets.

Crowd, including women and children, gathered along a road with police and horse-drawn carriages during the 1904 Stockyards Strike. Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum
How did changes in technology affect the design of the Florence Kelley site?

When we realized the power of linking text, documents and images together into an interactive experience, high-speed scanning services were just being rolled out by Northwestern’s Digital Media Service, which allowed the creation of a huge body of published material within the website’s digital archives. The gold standard was the level of interactivity of the Homicide database. If a website visitor had an ancestor whose name appeared in the report of a the sweatshop investigated by Florence Kelley and her team of inspectors, we wanted to make it possible for them to go directly to that page in the Factory Inspection Reports.

Achieving this with more than 50,000 pages of scanned text rather than a simple database was an enormous challenge, in effect requiring the creation of a highly complex digital ecosystem. It required multiple-team coordination; and the integration of both emerging technologies and custom NU-created software to create digital equivalents of books that readers could search, read and interact with in a way we now take for granted via Google etc. The site launched in 2008.

Some of the challenges are touched on in “Florence Kelley: A Discussion on Libraries and Technology with Leigh Bienen and Sarah Pritchard,” one of the many videos on my new website, Leigh Buchanan Bienen: Works. AI and other merging technologies suggest a future of almost endless possibilities and challenges. A simple ChatGPT query, for example, may soon be able to tell us who worked, managed or died in one of the sweatshops.

Over the years how has the popularity of these sites evolved?

In the early years of the Florence Kelley website, we experienced disappointment in the traffic compared to the Homicide website. Short answer — murder is more exciting than social justice.

Over time, however, the popularity of both has evened out, and this speaks to the importance of solid content. The growing fascination with the work and life of Florence Kelley as well as the lure of the archives to people interested in history, women’s rights, labor, law and social justice pulls in steadily increasing traffic.

This article originally appeared in Northwestern Now.