Education Life Supplement BLACKBOARD: 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
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 http://ccbit.cs.umass.edu/lizzie/.
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
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.
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.