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History’s Mysteries: Students Investigate Local Nineteenth-Century Trial

December 05, 2016

Laura Lemire
Communications and Marketing
(603) 641-7242

Students research in a classroomWhen one hears the word "mystery," one may imagine detective Sherlock Holmes with his magnifying glass in one hand and tobacco pipe in the other, scouring the streets of London for clues. This semester, Saint Anselm College students are investigating their own mysteries, in a history class that aims to piece together enigmas of the past.

"History's Mysteries," which is co-taught by Professor Hugh Dubrulle and Professor Matt Masur, teaches students to think like historians as they read about actual mysteries from different eras.

The course specializes in a specific genre of the discipline called microhistory. Professor Masur explains, "Microhistories are studies of individuals who are not considered 'important' by traditional historical standards, but whose lives can reveal important themes about the past."

From figures such as the sixteenth-century French imposter Arnaud du Tilh in The Return of Martin Guerre to the supposed "lost German slave girl" Salomé Müller forced into servitude in nineteenth-century Louisiana, the eighteen honors students in the class have analyzed many microhistories, gaining a new appreciation of the challenges historians face when putting forth portraits of past events - especially when documents are sparse or biased.

As the culmination of their studies, the students are investigating a local mystery: the 1821 trial of Daniel Davis Farmer in Goffstown, N.H. Farmer was tried and convicted of the murder of Anna Ayer. Nearly 10,000 people – about the total populations of three towns – attended his execution. In Farmer's court case, professors Dubrulle and Masur see a window into the culture of northern New England at the time.

Students are performing primary source research, analyzing documents from the nineteenth century with a specific focus on four key figures of the trial. In groups, they are creating complete dossiers on associate justices Levi Woodbury and William M. Richardson, witness David L. Morril, and sheriff Benjamin Pierce. These four men continued on to prominent careers in American government after the case closed, and students are piecing together documents to create cohesive narratives of their lives.

Professor Dubrulle and Professor Masur plan to use this research to construct their own microhistory. "Each time we teach the course, students conduct research related to the Daniel Davis Farmer case," says Masur. "The research will be cumulative, with one group of students building on the work of the students before them. Over time, we hope to construct a microhistory of the case."

History and international relations major Harrison Morin '19 sees the class's research component as a major asset to his skill set, putting his analytical abilities to the test. He says, "This project demonstrates the process of framing history fully. It has my group and I digging through a wide variety of sources in order to reconstruct the life of a Superior Court Justice of New Hampshire."

Morin sees History's Mysteries as a class that anyone interested in historical research and analysis needs to take. "I cannot express how much I have learned from this class about how actual historians go about their process of piecing the past back together," he says.

Virginia "Ginny" Lauzon '19, a biology major, agrees. "History's Mysteries has provided a unique opportunity to explore historians' tasks in analyzing not only how history is studied, but also why it is studied," she says. "As someone who is not naturally excited by it, this class has provoked in me a new interest."

Lauzon continues, "Through my own reading and research in this course, I have the importance of questioning, exploring, and dissecting history."

At the end of the fall semester, the groups will present their findings. They will also take a field trip to Goffstown and surrounding areas to visit the sites associated with the trial and the people involved in it.

Story by Jasmine Blais '17
Photo by Margaret Lynch '17

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