I had recently published a book, Murder, Justice, and Harmony in an Eighteenth-Century French Village (Routledge, 2019) and was pretty excited to talk about it with my students. The regulars, mostly history majors, heard so much about my work and especially how the histories of emotions, of violence, and of murder had opened my eyes to a whole new literature. I asked if they’d be interested in a class on the history of murder, and they were excited at the prospect. So, taking advantage of one of the benefits of a small and intimate program, I designed a whole new class. Once it was announced, I welcomed students from Criminal Justice, Psychology, and Writing/Communications majors as well.
The class was offered in the Spring term of 2021, and by early January I had most of the framework in place. I just needed to follow up on a couple of topics. One topic stood out to me as worthy of at least one lecture: a police force may pursue a certain line of inquiry simply because it is one they’ve seen before. It is very difficult to accept an innovative explanation for a crime that seems as old as humanity itself. Think about how bizarre it was when the first police encountering serial killers suggested that perhaps the killer chose random victims or simply hated women or something like that. Most of law enforcement scoffed at such ideas in the mid-nineteenth century. Everyone knew that murder was a personal crime and the killers were connected to their victims.
I had seen a reference to a headline from the local paper in 1926, a banner headline proclaiming that the Night Marauder had struck again. The details of the story revealed that a survivor of that night’s home invasion was recently divorced. The responding officers declared that her ex-husband had to be the attacker. The woman denied this suggestion outright but the officers insisted–only to find out later that the ex was innocent. I thought, “This is an excellent local example of the phenomenon.”
However, the local papers from the 1920s have not yet been digitized. The only way to get the details of this particular story was to head down to the Blount County Public Library in Maryville and take a look at the microfilm. Thus, the technology available to me forced me to scroll through years of issues, and revealed the extent of the Marauder’s attacks. I soon understood what I had before me, and began to dig into the whole, big, ugly story.
The class was a huge success, and that first batch of students analyzed primary source documents related to the case and pursued individual research topics on a wide range of background topics. As of the Fall term of 2021, I have a team of nine undergraduate research assistants, each tackling a single task they can work on at their own pace. In the coming Spring term, I will fold the students in my “Introduction to Methods and Theory in History” course. All in all, this will be an exciting learning experience for all of us.
In future posts, I intend to follow the timeline of Night Marauder attacks and, along the way, link to the various libraries, archives, and other partners who have helped us and walk with us on this path. Thank you for coming along.