Reading for Meaning: Historical Criminal Trials
Educators will receive archives kits filled with copies of historical texts to be used for analysis by students. These kits will include records such as newspaper articles, an autobiography and historical research notes. The sources will be both primary and secondary and will be written from a variety of different perspectives and for different purposes. These resources will be studied by students to be used in a mock court trial facilitated by Archives staff.
This program is designed to meet the curriculum requirements of high school Law and History programs for grades 11 to 12. Students are presented with archival records relating to one of the most prominent criminal trials in Oxford County’s history, the murder of Fred C. Benwell by Reginald Birchall in 1890. Birchall’s trial took place in Woodstock’s Town Hall and attracted considerable attention from local, national, American and European newspapers. After students are divided into three groups (judge & jury, prosecution and defense) and are presented with an overview of the trial, the prosecution and defense will be asked to read through various newspaper accounts of the trial, investigation documents, and excerpts from Birchall’s autobiography. These two groups will then be asked to present their findings, for and against the charges of murder being laid on Reginald Birchall, to the judge and jury in a mock court trial activity.
While examining the historical sources in the kit, students will learn how to look for similarities and differences in the narrative, discover biases present in the text, determine the author’s purpose, and point out literary devices used to reinforce the author’s purpose or message. Students will also be given the opportunity to develop their debate and oration skills during the trial activity, practice gathering evidence for a trial to support their arguments, and learn about historical court proceedings. Students also become engaged with local history in a meaningful way.
*Program admission is free. Donations to the Oxford County Archives to help support our services are always welcome.