Murder in the Archives, classroom style

Mario Concordia was convinced that the manslaughter conviction handed down to Italian immigrant Frank Buono in the 1920s was indefensible.

William Wicken

Concordia, now a first-year student at Osgoode Hall Law School, researched the 100-year-old case in detail as part of History 4515, Murder in the Archives, conceived of and taught by Professor William Wicken. Last semester, Concordia served as Buono’s defence lawyer, presenting the case to a jury of his classmates and Wicken, the judge. Concordia’s classroom research partner, Michael Palmieri, acted as prosecutor, insisting that Buono was responsible for the death of his lover, Sophie Kobernick. Cue the courtroom dramatics.

“I honestly believe there wasn’t enough evidence to convict him of anything,” Concordia said. “There is a lot of grey area. It’s so clear to me that he was railroaded; the coroner had a bias coming in.”

Concordia came by his conclusions honestly. The focus of Wicken’s course is archival research using primary sources. Student teams of two each choose a historic Ontario murder case and research the details using court documents and other records available from the Ontario Archives, which is located on York University’s Keele Campus.

“The students really work independently in the archives,” Wicken said. “We meet there as a class, but once they have their material, they can work on their own. The archivist provides an overview of the material that can be found, and then they have access to this modern facility.”

Wicken conceived of the course as a way of involving students in historical research.

“The course is practical,” Wicken said. “They need to look at the information and analyze it. They decide for themselves whether what people say is what actually happened, and they check other sources to confirm their decisions. There may be transcripts available or judges’ decisions.

“Often, the cases are very ambiguous.”

Bradley Dale, who is now pursuing his MA in history at York, was interested in the motivations that caused a mother from Port Hope, Ont., to throw her three-year-old child into a pond to drown.

“We looked at the history of Port Hope at the time,” Dale said, referring to himself and research partner Simran Saroya. “What would drive a mother to do this? I know the family was poor and that she was denied access to help from Children’s Aid, so I was trying to understand her motivation simply beyond saying she was insane.”

“It’s really interesting and really transports you back to the past,” added Dale, who enjoyed the course so much that he applied for a summer position doing archival research.

York students Joseph Peluso and Sydney Lung conduct research in the Archives of Ontario as part of their experiential education in Professor William Wicken’s course. Photo courtesy of William Wicken

At the time, women who were abused or abandoned by their husbands lived a tenuous existence, Dale noted. The problem for the mother, Evelyn Jackson, was she could no longer afford to keep her child, as her husband provided no financial support. She could not work and pay for a babysitter as well. Faced with such a dire situation, she did something we would think to be insane; yet, many women of her era led difficult lives and sometimes were forced to take extreme measures just to survive.

For Concordia, doing primary research was a thrill.

“It was really fun to hold a docket book that is 150 years old,” he said. “These were the things that bound people’s lives.”

Wicken has taught the course for five years and says it demonstrates to students that life was a lot different a century ago. Students have the opportunity review both testimony and the forensics of the day with a critical eye.

He believes that the skills students gain in this course transfer well to jobs they may have in the future. The class meets weekly and he is available to assist them with their searches.

“The majority of my students pursue something other than a history career,” Wicken said. “The more skills they are able to develop in university, the better prepared they are for the working world. Here, they practise public speaking, writing and navigating the Internet, all really important skills in the workforce today. But what they also learn, I hope, is that facts matter, though sometimes understanding what is true and what is not is difficult.

His students appreciate the opportunity to learn practical skills.

“Research skills are universal,” said Dale. “Wading through large amounts of information in a way that is thorough, but also finds the key information, is transferable.”

Concordia noted that the course offered him the opportunity to test his critical and analytical skills. He also appreciated the introduction to using Census data.

Wicken has found that his students really become involved in the course.

“They are engaged in a way they aren’t in some other classes,” he said. “The world is changing. We need to adapt the way we teach to reflect the world our students live within.

“We’re always learning, too. It’s a challenge to for us as teachers to keep up with the technology and the students.”

Submitted by Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus