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Teacher's Guide: Suggestions for Active Learning

John Webster actor Murder at Harvard offers insights into American history topics including legal history (in particular, the standard for determining a defendant's guilt), pre-Civil War medical history and education, Massachusetts history, immigration, conflicts between social classes, the rise of detective fiction, evaluating historical evidence, and the difficulties of understanding what happened in the past. You can use part or all of the film, or delve into the rich resources available on this Web site to learn more, either in a classroom or on your own.

The following activities are grouped into 4 categories: history, economics, geography, and civics. You can also read a few helpful hints for completing the activities.


Economics | History | Civics | Geography

  1. Simon Schama suggests several ways in which economic issues might have played a role in the Parkman-Webster case. Read bios of George Parkman, John White Webster, and Ephraim Littlefield. Imagine you are a police detective investigating the case. Create a profile of each of the three main characters -- Parkman, Webster, and Littlefield -- that describes each man's social class and financial condition and examines whether issues related to class and/or personal finances might have affected his actions.

  2. Trials that involve individuals who are rich and/or famous -- as defendants or victims (or, ideally from the media's standpoint, as both) -- often obtain extensive publicity. Divide the class into six groups and assign each group one of the following famous trials: the trial of millionaire Henry K. Thaw for the 1906 murder of noted architect Stanford White, the 1924 murder trial of upper-class teenagers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, the trial of Bruno Hauptmann for the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh's infant son, the trials of Danish-born aristocrat Claus von Bulow for the attempted murder of his wife, the 1991 trial of William Kennedy Smith (nephew of U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy) for rape, and the trial of O. J. Simpson for the murder of his ex-wife and her friend.

    Each group should prepare a brief presentation for the class answering these basic questions about the case: What was the crime? Who was the victim? Who was the accused? Why did the case receive so much public attention? What was the outcome of the trial? Each group must use at least three visuals to illustrate its presentation; these can be photographs (of the individuals involved, the crime scene, evidence, etc.), newspaper headlines, magazine covers, or some other source. At the conclusion of its presentation, each group should state whether it believes the outcome of the case would have been different if the case had not involved rich and/or famous individuals, and explain the reason for its opinion.


Economics | History | Civics | Geography

  1. As a class, conduct your own version of the final part of the Webster trial. First, divide the class into three groups. One group will serve as the jury, while the other two groups represent the defense and the prosecution. Using information from the film, the Web site, and Simon Schama's book Dead Certainties, each of the latter two groups should prepare a summation of its side of the case for the jury and then elect one member of the group to make the presentation. The summation does not need to reflect what was said at the actual trial but should present what each group thinks is the most compelling case for its side. After both sides have presented their summations, the members of the jury should give their reactions and discuss how they would likely vote based on the presentations.

  2. Read about Edgar Allen Poe and detective fiction. A number of fictional detectives have become world-famous, such as Sherlock Holmes (created by Arthur Conan Doyle), Sam Spade (created by Dashiell Hammett), Miss Marple (created by Agatha Christie), Philip Marlowe (created by Raymond Chandler), and even the bumbling Inspector Clouseau of the Pink Panther movies. Read one or more detective novels (or view the films) featuring one of these characters -- or a different fictional detective, if you have a personal favorite. Then rewrite the story of the Parkman murder as though it were the plot of a novel involving the detective you have chosen. Starting with the facts of the Parkman murder, add details, characters, and atmosphere that reflect the fictional world of "your" detective.


Economics | History | Civics | Geography

  1. Read about the Webster charge. As it and the film explain, the Webster trial raises important issues concerning the procedures used in criminal trials. For example, Webster was not allowed to testify in his own defense; today, defendants are allowed (but are not required) to testify. In addition, unlike defendants today, Webster was not told upon his arrest that he was being arrested or informed of his Constitutional rights. The Webster trial also marked an important change in the standard of guilt the state was required to prove, from proof "to an absolute certainty" to proof "beyond a reasonable doubt." And Webster was convicted of a capital crime entirely on circumstantial evidence, something that generally would be far more difficult today. Select one of these issues and hold a class debate on it. For example, should defendants be required to testify?

  2. Study the information on capital punishment available at the Capital Punishment Statistics Web page of the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics. Choose a specific topic that interests you and explore that topic, such as: Are states in certain regions more likely to have capital punishment laws than states in other regions? In states that have capital punishment, to what crimes does it apply? Are blacks as likely, more likely, or less likely than whites to receive capital punishment? How much education have most prisoners on death row had? Are most death row prisoners married, divorce, or never married?

    Once your teacher has approved your topic, research it and prepare a brief oral report for the class in which you discuss your findings and their possible policy implications. (For example, if data from recent years show that a large percentage of the persons on death row were previously convicted of another homicide, what "lessons" might policymakers learn from this finding?) Your report must include at least one graph, chart, or map that you created.


Economics | History | Civics | Geography

  1. Read about Boston Brahmins and Boston's immigrant population. Then, on a map of Boston, mark the following locations: (a) Harvard Medical College as of 1850; (b) Beacon Hill, home of many Brahmins; (c) the North End, where many newly arriving Irish immigrants settled (and where Copp's Hill Burying Ground, where John Webster was buried, is located); (d) Back Bay, which did not even exist at the time of the Webster trial but later became the home of many Brahmins; (e) the South End, which likewise emerged as a fashionable neighborhood in the decades following the Webster trial. Now pick one of these locations and research its development over the century and a half since 1850. What changes has it witnessed?

  2. The film uses the Parkman murder case to raise broader questions about our ability to learn the truth about historical events. In Dead Certainties, Simon Schama also uses another example to explore this issue: the death of General James Wolfe at the Battle of Quebec in 1759. Read the section of the book that discusses Benjamin West's painting "The Death of General Wolfe," which presents an idealized view of the scene of Wolfe's death. Then, working with a partner, look for an example from American history of a well-known painting, film, or story that contains inaccurate (or probably inaccurate) elements. In a report to the class, explain what those inaccuracies are, whether they might have been created deliberately by the artist or the historian (and if so, for what purpose), and how you and other students of American history might benefit from gaining a more accurate understanding of the event.



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