A Speech Lost in Digital Translation





It was Nov. 2, 1859. The jury in Charles Town, Va., deliberated only 45 minutes before sentencing John Brown to death by hanging for leading a raid on the federal arsenal at nearby Harper’s Ferry. The court asked Brown, a gaunt, craggy-faced abolitionist, if he wished to speak. He did.

His defiant yet humble words transformed Brown, notorious for the grisly murders of pro-slavery settlers in Kansas, into a martyr for the anti-slavery cause....

The speech was a bit over 500 words long. This newspaper printed it in its entirety on Nov. 3, 1859.

For more than 140 years afterward, the original story was available only to those with access to the hard copy newspaper or its microfilm equivalent. Then, in 2004, The New York Times began the process of making its archive into a searchable database. In 2008, it hired Pittsburgh-based reCaptcha to fix the errors. This project is expected to be completed by the end of this year....


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