Using a 20th century murder to understand the history of evidence

Photo/Mike Lovett

Jill Lepore

How has society’s commitment to facts, evidence and the truth evolved over time?

New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore visited Brandeis on March 19 to deliver her lecture “Foolproof: a brief history of evidence” to answer that very question.

“She embodies exemplary work across different fields in the humanities,” says Ramie Targoff, director of the Mandel Center for the Humanities and a professor of English. “She’s an incredibly good reader of texts. She’s interested in everything from women’s rights to democracy to political injustice and most recently, evidence and the history of evidence.”

Lepore systemically broke down how people, judicial courts and societies in general have understood facts through telling the story of Lucina Broadwell, a native of Barre, Vermont, who was raped and killed within feet of the town square in 1919. In talking about the circumstances of Broadwell’s murder and the timeline of its court case, Lepore also gave a historical perspective on how information and truth have been established and verified over the last few centuries.

Lepore’s talk in the Rapaporte Treasure Hall was sponsored by the Mandel Center for the Humanities and underwritten by the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Foundation.

“I’ve thought a lot about how historians and journalists handle evidence,” says Lepore, who is a history professor at Harvard University. “I had been looking, for a while, for a story like Lucina’s in which I could tell a story that might allow me to say what I want to say about the history of evidence. I like to deliver an argument through the vehicle of a story.”

Lepore concluded her lecture with questions from the audience on the future of understanding and verifying facts. Among the topics discussed were the rise of the Internet and Google and whether groups that claim to seek the truth objectively actually can.

“One of the things that makes Jill Lepore so successful is that she’s trained in 17th and 18th century American history and at the same time she’s such an acute observer of our contemporary world,” says Targoff. “That historical perspective brings so much depth to topics that otherwise, in the hands of many journalists, might be viewed only through a modern perspective.” 

Categories: General, Humanities and Social Sciences

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