Teaching and doing digital history.

Managing the Uglier Side of Historic Research

Immersing yourself in 19th century crime, death, autopsies, forensics, and executions can make you forget that you’re actually studying people. Who died. Violently. Often painfully. And before they were “supposed” to.

I often liken it to the gallows humor that homicide detectives, FBI agents, medical examiners, and first responders all tend to develop. When you witness the worst of human nature, I’m told you come up with ways to cope. I readily admit, I am neither homicide detective nor medical examiner; I am a historian. And all historians are supposed to keep a healthy distance from our subjects. If we can remain objective, can we also keep the human element? (With all due respect to Peter Novick, I don’t think ¬†objectivity is entirely dead.) Can we empathize enough to find the heart–the humans–in the narrative? Can we disassociate ourselves from the nastier side of human history to find a broader meaning in how we got here?

This semester, I’m working on a database project for one of my classes. That database happens to contain all (well, a majority) of the sanctioned executions in the United States. I really just started and until today, the “data” had been a series of meaningless numbers attached to names and dates. Today, I undertook a massive “normalization” project wherein I took those numbers that had no meanings and applied meanings to them.¬†For example, using the data dictionary (the handy document that usually accompanies large data sets,) I changed all the 1’s in the “crime” column to “murder,” as that is the crime that that particular integer represents. I changed all the 1’s in the “method” column to “hanging,” and so on and so forth. My database has all the typical columns one might find in a collection of historic information–names, ages, places, dates, race, sex. It also contains the type of crimes committed by the executees and how they met their demise. And this is where I paused.

I expected to see murder, rape, kidnapping, witchcraft, piracy, even horse thieving. I wasn’t prepared for the other crimes in the database, such as “aiding a runaway slave,” “concealing birth,” or “slave revolt.” I’m not naive. I know these things happened and I know that people were punished for doing them. It’s one thing to know they were punished, it’s quite another to know that the state sanctioned execution for these crimes. When you put these crimes next to someone’s name and realize that helping another human being find freedom cost a man his life. With one click of the mouse, the reality of the sacrifices made by some in the name of others hit me. And I wasn’t prepared for it.

The methods of execution were just as troubling. Integrated among the hangings, lethal injections, and electrocutions were pressing, gibbetting, burning, death by firing squad, and breaking on a wheel. Breaking on a wheel is a particularly horrific brand of torture from the Middle Ages. In this case, between 1712 and 1754, in French-controlled Louisiana and New York, eight African-Americans and four white men were “broken” on the wheel.

History is messy. And often gut-wrenching.

I was told by several of my advisers that undertaking this type of project would be emotionally difficult at times. One told me of a colleague and friend who studies historical cases of suicide and how she manages during those times when she has to record and analyze particularly explicit primary sources. As I dive deeper and deeper into the line of inquiry that I’ve chosen, I’ll have to come up with my own methods to cope with the messiness.

I can only hope that my studies of crime, particularly by women and children, and their resulting acquittals or punishments will help shed some light on our past, on our shifting concepts of “reasonable doubt,” and hopefully, how these concepts affect the issues we face today. That’s my goal. Until then, I’ll endeavor to find that healthy balance of objectivity AND humanity that seems to coexist effortlessly in the professionals I hope to emulate.


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