Trials, including the stories about the victim or the accused that are constructed and shared in public discussion at the time, are a valuable tool for historical assessment. The stories constructed to prosecute women can expose anxieties about the changing nature of life in America. Conversely, the rationale used to defend women can shed light on a society’s fundamental beliefs and social values. In this course, we’ll investigate women’s changing role in American society by investigating four sensational trials involving women as the accused–the Salem Witch Trials in 1692/1693, the trial of Laura D. Fair in 1873, the trial and execution of Virginia Christian in 1912, and the trial of Cheryl Crane in 1958.

The course will not be an exercise in “whodunnit,” although discussions about the evidence of their guilt or innocence do have merit. Rather this course will use the details of their trials, including court documents, published transcripts, letters, newspaper articles, and other primary and secondary source material, to gain a better understanding of the anxieties and beliefs surrounding the evolving position of women in American society.

We will investigate these four trials from the position that the women involved were actors who themselves “made history.” Despite their position, these women were not simply passive objects upon which history happened. As such, it is important to analyze how women actively navigated the criminal justice system themselves, the reality of discrimination against women, and the intrinsic significance of women’s experiences as actors in their own right. Through these experiences, we’ll also learn about the evolution of America as a nation.


Last updated: May 2, 2013 at 11:14 am