Armchair Sleuthing: Bringing An American Obsession Online

July 14, 2021

By Deepti Govind

America’s obsession with true crime isn’t new by any means. It’s no wonder, then, that internet sleuthing is real, has many loyal, passionate practitioners, and is a somewhat well-established past-time by now. But before we talk about how armchair sleuthing created amateur detectives who use the internet to try and solve real-world crimes, we give you a quick overview of the history of America’s obsession over true crime. Really, this enduring obsession continues to set the tone for today’s internet detectives, too. Well, we say America’s obsession, but it’s one that actually has takers across much of the globe.

How did crime became appealing — darkly so perhaps — to common people? The answer to this pervasive phenomenon maybe lies in the discovery of crime writing as a genre. Although some say, in England, it can be traced back to the days when hundreds of crime pamphlets were circulated among the populace. They usually detailed horrific murders. Apart from the pamphlets, there were ballads recounting the deeds of the country’s most notorious criminals, and accounts of trials and judicial proceedings that were also consumed by a relatively newly-literate section of British population.

But our story begins with the very first detective novel, thought to be “The Notting Hill Mystery,” fittingly written under the pseudonym Charles Felix, whose real identity remained hidden for 149 years! The story originally ran as a series in a weekly magazine and was later on published in the form of a book in 1865. During that age, nobody knew what a detective novel was and one of the reviewers back then said it was best understood “like a game of solitaire or like a puzzle that you’ve been handed to figure out.”

Crime fiction went on to become an established genre later on in the 19th century, and was mostly dominated by American and British authors. One aspect of the genre that has made it successful over the years is that readers get to “figure out” the crime along with fictitious characters as they progress through a book. So, it was only a matter of time before creators realized that they need not restrict themselves to works of fiction. After all, truth was stranger, more twisted, and chilling than fantasy.

Enter books like “In Cold Blood,” which is considered the first true-crime novel. Written by Truman Capote, it’s based on the 1959 murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas. We’d leave it at that, but maybe those of you who don’t know about the case are curious. Here’s our one line summary: Four members of the Clutter family were murdered in their home in what was a case of a robbery that took a much more tragic course. With technology, the range of platforms used to cater to people’s love for true crime expanded from books to TV shows, and in more recent years to docuseries and podcasts. It’s no wonder, then, that internet forums were not far behind.

The Rise Of Internet Sleuthing

“There’s an internet forum for everything out there,” an amateur detective says in a Netflix documentary about using the internet to find a cat killer. In the documentary, the detective talks about how she used an internet forum for vacuum cleaners to help get her and a fellow internet detective closer to cracking the case. When there’s a forum for everything online, how could true crime not find its own space?

But true crime made its way online much, much before internet forums became a fad. Way back in 1995, barely ten years after Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web (WWW), users around the world subscribing to Prodigy’s dial-up service were asked to help solve a “real murder investigation,” which they did arduously, only to discover that the entire thing was fictitious — the brainchild of one Tom Arriola from Oxford. Needless to say, many weren’t happy that they had to spend $16 per hour browsing only to discover it was not real.

That was one of the earliest examples of true crime making its way online, though, and of it proving irresistible to many who had just an internet connection and no expertise or experience in sleuthing to want to crack a “real” case. When Prodigy featured the site Arriola created — which still exists — the number of hits caused the server to crash, with visitors numbering more than 100,000. “Calls flooded offices of the police department and the newspaper. A Dallas reporter had already booked a flight to Oxford to research a Texas student’s brutal murder/mutilation before he found out the whole scenario was fictitious,” an archived news report from 1998 says.

Cut to today, and not only does Arriola’s website still exist, there are countless forums and websites catering to internet detectives. Take Reddit, for example. Its Reddit Bureau of Investigation (RBI) subreddit is very much active even today, logo and all, despite the fact that it played a role in falsely identifying a missing 22-year-old as one of the Boston bombing perpetrators. The subreddit, which was created on Jan. 3, 2012, currently has 479,000-odd members. To be fair, Reddit apologized for that. But it did bring to the table a big question surrounding internet sleuthing: How do you prevent witch-hunts, and what do you do when it all goes horribly wrong? But that’s a story for another day.

Then there’s Websleuths.com, an internet community website that was launched in 1999. It was purchased by Tricia Griffith in 2004. Griffith gave up a 25-year career in radio to work full-time on the website in 2008. Her web forum famously ended up helping solve the case of a casual laborer who was murdered after winning a lottery in Florida in 2006. The lottery winner, Abraham Shakespeare, went missing in 2009 and people on the web forum suspected his business partner Dorice “Dee Dee” Moore, who ended up with Shakespeare’s assets, as being responsible. Moore herself signed up to websleuths.com in a bid to clear her name. Griffith passed the information onto police, who then managed to solve the case and arrest Moore.

There are many, perhaps countless, other forums like this, including The Doe Network, a volunteer organization devoted to assisting investigating agencies in bringing closure to national and international cold cases concerning missing and unidentified persons. The Federal Bureau of Investigation itself has sought the public’s help in solving cases many-a-time, even for more serious crimes like murder. Then there’s the Department of Justice’s NamUS (the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System), which was launched in 2008, as a resource center for missing, unidentified, and unclaimed person cases. The FBI and other law enforcement agencies also routinely seek public help in identifying suspects, most recently in the Capitol Hill riots case.

But a law enforcement agency seeking public help in identifying culprits of whom they typically have videos or photos to circulate, and common people dissecting all aspects of a case on an online forum, are not exactly the same. The question of ethics also comes into play when cases that are “investigated” on online forums move from fact to the realm of witch-hunts and preconceived notions, or worse, ulterior motives. Those, however, are points that we will explore in another piece in this series on internet sleuthing.