Lessons Learned from Building the Famous Trials Website

by Douglas Linder

January 2001

Topics in Digital History

This article was originally published in The Jurist (January 2001) and is reprinted here with permission.

In 1996, when I began work on the Famous Trials Website, I understood that putting a site on the Internet is no guarantee that it will attract a wide audience. “It’s like colonizing a planet in outer space,” someone told me. “You might create a beautiful world, but how likely is it people will find it and stop by to visit?” I knew that students in my Seminar in Famous Trials would use my site–I’d make them–but how about the many other people from ages nine to ninety that I knew could benefit from learning about the most compelling trials in history?

My vision was to create the Web’s largest collection of primary documents, images, essays, and other materials relating to famous trials from Salem to Simpson. Trials have long struck me as wonderful vehicles for exploring history and human nature. What better way to understand the ’20s than reading about the Scopes, Sacco-Vanzetti, and Leopold and Loeb trials? What provides better insights into the nature of evil than reading the transcripts of the William Calley court-martial or the Nuremberg trials? Would not the Amistad, Shipp, Scottsboro Boys, Sweet, and “Mississippi Burning” trials provide an excellent launching point for a discussion of racism in America? I wanted these materials to be made readily available, in an easily digestible form, for everyone from junior high students to law professors.

Go Big or Go Home

One lesson from the world of modern business guided my construction of the Famous Trials Website. That lesson–learned from watching Wal-Marts and McDonalds crush their smaller competitors– was “Go big, or go home.” I determined to post such a vast amount of material on the Web (especially by the standards of 1996), that no one would think of trying to do something bigger–at least about my chosen trials. My rule of thumb was to try to post roughly 100 times as much material about a trial as the next best site that I could find.

Of course, the site was not to be just about quantity. Scanning and dumping entire thousand-plus page transcripts and dozens of old newspaper accounts might aid professional researchers, but I wanted something that would not overwhelm my average site visitor. I decided to write 3000 to 5000-word introductions to each trial to orient visitors, and then to offer a variety of other documents and images selected for their importance or interest.

The first trial I put on the Web in early 1997, the Scopes “Monkey” trial, is typical of the approach and sources that I’ve used for each of the eighteen trials now up. The Scopes site is a quirky, but (I hope) entertaining and valuable collection of materials that provides multiple perspectives on the famous trial. The posted materials include my introductory commentary, the Butler (anti-evolution) Act, cartoons about the trial, trial-related photographs (including a few snapshots that I took on a trip to Dayton), the first chapter of Genesis, pages of Hunter’s Civic Biology assigned by Scopes, and essays and links concerning the ongoing evolution controversy. Other materials on the Scopes site include H. L. Mencken’s reports on the trial for the Baltimore Sun, excerpts from each of the eight days of the trial transcript, biographies of key trial participants, satire about the trial, the Tennessee’s Supreme Court’s decision on appeal, a bibliography, and maps of Tennessee and Dayton.

By the time I’d completed work on my first three trials, an accumulation of e-mails had convinced me that my leap of faith was justified: people were finding their way to my cyberplanet. Visitors increased dramatically after a series of reviews of the site appeared in papers such as The New York Times, USA Today, and the Christian Science Monitor. Links from numerous educational sites and commercial news sites continued the growth trend. Several television and radio appearances of mine during the overdone “what’s-the-trial-of-the-century-debate” brought the site some additional publicity.

Each month the manager of the Law School’s server forwards statistics on site usage. Famous Trials now averages over half a million “hits” (page requests) and about 65,000 visitors per month. In September of 2000 (the most recent month for which figures are available), the most popular of the eighteen trials featured–by a long shot–was the Salem witchcraft trial, with 24,000 visitors for the month. (I imagine that a good number of those visitors were eleven-year-old kids who typed “witches” on a search line in the hope of being sent to a site featuring recipes with toads and batwings as ingredients.) Salem was followed in popularity by the Scopes trial (11,000), the Rosenberg trial(6,000), and My Lai (5,000). Some of the less known trials on the site, such as the Dakota Conflict trials, received only about 500 visitors in a month.

Try Collaborating

A well established presence on the Web brought with it offers and requests. It brought offers for advertising (rejected: my university prohibits the posting of commercial advertising), offers of employment from “law-dot-coms” (rejected–thank God!, since most of my compensation would have been in now nearly worthless stock), requests for permission to link (granted), requests for permission to republish (usually granted, if for non-profit, educational purposes), requests for help finding information about specific trials (usually not possible, given the constraints of time), requests for interviews (sometimes granted), and offers of help in putting up sites for new trials.

I recently accepted an offer of assistance in creating a site on the Sweet trials of 1925 and 1926. The Sweet trials featured Clarence Darrow defending (successfully, in the end) a group of black defendants charged with murdering a white man in a mob that had gathered outside their new house in a previously all-white Detroit neighborhood. Professor Bruce Frier of the Michigan Law School wanted to post Darrow’s powerful summation in the Sweet trial, along with some editorial comments of his own, on the Web for the benefit of students taking his Persuasion course. I’d been thinking of adding the Sweet trial to Famous Trials, so we soon began exchanging e-mails and, later, files. Professor Frier’s excellent work on the trial transcript greatly improved the site and saved me a trip to Michigan, where the transcript was housed in a local library. We also were able to work together in identifying maps, photographs, and sources that ended up on the site. My experience on the Sweet trial has convinced me to explore other collaborative possibilities. Chicago Black Sox trial, anyone?

Give Your Site a Distinctive Look and Feel

Garrison Keillor said he used to sweat over how to open his Prairie Home Companion monologues–until, that is, he realized that he could start with the same line every show: “Well, it’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon.” Adopting Keillor’s wisdom, I decided to adopt the look and feel of the Scopes trial site for all subsequent trials. Even in 1997, I knew that the format chosen for my trial homepages would be rejected in two seconds flat by any web design consultant worth his salt. But I went with it anyway, figuring that the dated, colored-table look would become more distinctive over time. Just as important, it seemed especially conducive to easy navigation around the site.

Over the last three years, I’ve saved many dozen hours of time not having had to wrestle with where to place an image or how many topic headings to have. I can just get on with the task of assembling the content.

Enjoy the Making

Life is short. Have fun. Follow your bliss. Believe that the things that interest or amuse you might have the same effect on others.

I’ve had a lot more fun pulling together my expanding collection of websites than I ever had writing law review articles. I’ve been able to write about great stories without getting bogged down in the tedium of bluebooking. Moreover, the Internet seems almost to beg for a certain playfulness that would seem out of place in most academic contexts–and I’ve answered the call.

Nowhere have I pushed the fun envelope more than on the website I’ve recently created for discussion of constitutional issues: “Exploring Constitutional Conflicts.” Along with materials on the history of the Constitution, workings of the Supreme Court, and edited cases, essays, and links on constitutional topics, I’ve posted such “frivolous” features as “Bill of Rights Golf,” “Constitutional Jeopardy,” and “Who Wants to Marry a Founding Father?” Judging from the e-mail responses to these features, a lot of people on the Net are cruising for fun as much as for knowledge–if we can offer both at the same time, so much the better.

Web building can be liberating in other ways as well. On a page titled “Beliefs,” I’ve posted a list of 108 conclusions I’ve drawn on topics ranging from the Supreme Court to famous trials to politics to religion to literature. It felt good to get some of them off my chest. I wondered if anyone other than a few students looking for ways to win brownie points would bother to visit the page. Amazingly, I’ve received over a hundred e-mails from over a dozen countries commenting on the page. The most remarked-upon belief concerns none of the weighty topics addressed on the list, but instead is my one throwaway assertion, “When their full potential is realized, the two best pies are cherry and key lime.” Everyone seems to disagree, including a writer last week who insists that strawberry rhubarb pie wins the prize. My suggestion that “The two countries where people have the best chance of leading a good life, with all that I think that implies, are Iceland and New Zealand” also prompted several e-mails–including a couple each from Icelanders and Kiwis happy to agree. (One person–with a small computer screen perhaps–wrote: “I think you are right about New Zealand, but IReland?”)

Not everything that I’ve posted has been a hit with Web cruisers. Just because you build it, they will not necessarily come. A new site, “Trial Heroes,” profiles five persons who acted courageously in the cause of justice in famous race trials. It is as important, I believe, for those who work in law to have heroes as it is for baseball to have Babe Ruth and its heroes. Trial Heroes is my offering up for consideration brave individuals such as African-American civil rights leader Charles Hamilton Houston and former Justice Department attorney John Doar (the prosecutor in the “Mississippi Burning” case–and a man who deserves far more praise than the FBI agents glamorized in the Hollywood film). The site has largely escaped public notice. My lengthy, footnoted essays–involving far more archival research than my other sites–have resulted in only a handful of e-mails and attract less than a thousand visitors per month. It doesn’t seem to be the sort of material that people go to the Web to find. Most Web users are looking for quick answers, not chapter-long treatments of complicated subjects.

Don’t Expect Perfection

No website with 5,000 files will be perfect. Buried in the pages of thousands of pages of content are (undoubtedly) misspellings, inconsistent fonts, misplaced commas, instances of poor grammar, and perhaps even a factual error or two. Having grown accustomed to the luxury of editors and page proofs, I found it difficult to send such imperfect content out for the world to see. (If there was comfort, it lay in knowing that the average visitor will spend less than three minutes on the site–an amount of time that only allows for the spotting of the most glaring errors.) But I’m a cost-benefit-balancing sort of guy. It seemed clear to me that the posting more–but less perfect–information about more trials provides more benefits to the public than posting less (but somewhat more perfect) information about fewer trials. Besides, I tell myself, when I’m old and gray, I’ll have plenty of time for proofreading and and color-coordinating my pages.

Expect Your Work to be Controversial

Many deans may not be impressed by websites–even those that reach large numbers of people. The law school reward system is based largely on the production of scholarship directed at other academics. “It’s fine and good to be producing this cool website, but you better keep turning out those law review articles”: that was the message received in the first year or two of the Famous Trials project. At some point, however, the Dean stopped seeming embarrassed whenever he mentioned my website. He began to realize that the site provided the School some worthwhile publicity. So far, however, those perceived benefits have not translated into salary enhancements–and I have no illusions that they ever will.

Controversy can be a good thing. The Famous Trials site has helped fuel an important debate on our faculty about how we should define our academic mission. I’ve taken the position that a website whose benefits were solely limited to a producing a better understanding of famous trials by students, teachers, and other members of the curious public only accomplishes half of what it is my job as a law faculty member to do. Somehow the site must also become a springboard to new knowledge and insights about trials.

Build Community and Answer E-mails

One of my greatest regrets about the Famous Trials undertaking is that I have not been able to respond adequately to many of the individuals who have sent e-mails. A good number of persons write to express thanks or offer suggestions, and for those people, a quick response will suffice. Nearly half of the e-mails I receive, however, contain questions about specific aspects or implications of famous trials. Many of those questions I could probably answer, but not without pulling a book of the shelf and spending a number of minutes leafing around until I find the critical passage. I don’t do it. There isn’t time.

Forced to make a choice, I prefer to send emails encouraging and offering suggestions to those law school, college, and high school teachers who have used my site in their classes. They’re the people I’m working for.

There is one other type of e-mail that is especially fun to discover in my inbox: e-mails from persons connected in one way or another with the trials covered on the site. I’ve received messages from a man who took Nathan Leopold’s Sociology course at the University of Puerto Rico, from attorneys who worked on the Chicago 8 trial, from a son of heroic Scottsboro judge James Horton, and from the grandson of the legislator who wrote Tennessee’s anti-evolution statute–and who discovered in his attic a shoebox full of his grandfather’s speeches on the subject. Just last week I received an email from an 83-year-old man in Columbus, Ohio who, as an eight-year-old child, attended all but one of the eight court sessions of the Scopes trial. I’ve learned much from these people.

Enough’s Enough

The biggest problem with the Famous Trials Website is that I don’t know how to end it. How could I leave out great world trials such as those of Socrates, Joan of Arc, or Sir Thomas More? Or celebrated American trials such as those of John Zenger, the Lincoln Assassination conspirators, or the L. A. police officers involved in the beating of Rodney King? So many trials; so little time.


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