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Opinion / Analysis / Essays

November 12, 2000, Sunday

Education Life Supplement
Lizzie Borden Online: Learning How to Research Primary Sources
By Eric Goldscheider

Did Lizzie Borden murder her father and stepmother with an ax in 1892? A jury acquitted her, but for more than a century some historians have questioned her innocence.

Now, students enrolled in History 201 at the University of Massachusetts can look into the crime more closely themselves, at the same time acquiring knowledge of the period known as the Gilded Age and learning how to ply the historian's craft. The basic "text" for the course is at

It is not exactly a Web-based course. The class meets, and students hand in papers, but much of the content is online. That includes such research material as trial transcripts, census data, probate records, news reports, maps and hundreds of period photographs.

There are virtual tours of Fall River, Mass., the industrial city where the crime and Lizzie Borden's trial took place at a time of great social and economic flux. Students might follow the route Andrew J. Borden walked to survey his financial interests by pointing and clicking on blue arrows to see photos of the buildings and streets he saw the morning of the day his skull was split open as he napped on his couch.

David Hart, executive director of the Center for Computer-Based Instructional Technology at the university campus in Amherst, started working with history teachers to create the Lizzie Borden Web site five years ago when O.J. Simpson's travails were a national sensation. Parallels between the two trials were striking, he said. Not only were high-toned defendants represented by high-powered lawyers (Ms. Borden had a former governor on her team), but hot-button social issues, like race in Mr. Simpson's case and gender in Ms. Borden's, figured prominently in the trials.

And contemporary media technology facilitated the prominent coverage given both trials -- cable TV in the Simpson trial and The Associated Press wire in the Borden case.

Students sleuthing for the truth regarding Ms. Borden look at wealth disparities in the city and within her family. The scope then widens to the social and cultural climate of the day. Finally, students examine how economic, political, labor and gender issues of the Gilded Age fit into the sweep of history.

The computer puts a large collection of primary sources "literally at the students' fingertips," Mr. Hart said. They learn how to read and draw inferences from undigested material. The next step, marshaling arguments to support historical hypotheses, requires them to evaluate that material for relevance and signs of bias. He is considering using the technique to develop sites for other famous events in history, as well.

Victoria Getis, a historian who helped develop the curriculum, said students generally concluded that Lizzie Borden was guilty, but that she was acquitted with the help of clever lawyers, along with some complicity on the part of Fall River's upper classes.

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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