Hopkinsville Students Role Play 19th Century Murder Case

By Amanda Higgins, associate editor, The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

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Kaitlyn Brooke and Joel Gerencer, acting as prosecution, prepare their arguments for the pardon board.
Imagine you’ve been given a set of documents from a court case where the defendant has been convicted of murder, told you have 15 minutes to develop a defense or prosecution strategy, and only five minutes to present that strategy to a pardon board. Then, just for a little “pressure,” you learn that your presentation will determine the petitioner’s fate.

Students from the Hopkinsville Community College History Club faced this task when they participated in the “Civil War Governors of Kentucky” Caroline Chronicles Classroom Experience on a recent visit to the Kentucky Historical Society (KHS). The students used transcripts of actual documents from an 1863 murder case in which Caroline Dennant, an African American woman, was convicted of murdering a white child in Louisville. 

The students – divided into three groups which acted as a defense team, prosecution team and pardon board – showed off their historical chops, making compelling arguments for and against Dennant’s pardon petition. After much deliberation, the “pardon board,” two students and a faculty member, granted Dennant a pardon on the basis of reasonable doubt, just as Gov. Thomas Bramlette did more than 150 years ago. Although the students were aware of the governor’s decision, having read the documents in full, one student “felt proud,” that their arguments led to the same conclusion.

Dennant’s story came to light as part of the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition. KHS staff decided to extend its life as a teaching tool. It is the first KHS-developed Classroom Experience, one portion of which is a classroom simulation.

As the first participants in the classroom simulation, the Hopkinsville students – and accompanying faculty members – provided valuable insight for us. They let us know how to better tweak the simulation to suit classroom instructors’ and students’ experiences. We loved watching the students get into character and seeing how they drew out the specific arguments for upholding the murder sentence or for granting the pardon. And we were thrilled that they had fun role playing.

The simulation was a huge success in our opinion and the participants agreed. History club members said they loved the theatrics and competition of the classroom simulation. They also said they felt the exercise would help them to retain information better and that it promoted critical thinking skills.

Helping us develop our Classroom Experience was only one part of the students’ day. They also spent time exploring the artifacts in the exhibit “A Kentucky Journey” and were impressed with items in our temporary exhibit, “From Jeeps to Looms” – especially a wagon similar to one outside the Pioneer House in Hopkinsville. After their history simulation, we showed the students different types of resources researchers use to tell the stories of the past. Among them were letters from the Watson and Robinson families, which document an enslaved family’s kinship ties in Hopkinsville and Mississippi throughout the 1850s, and the papers of George W. Johnson, the first Confederate provisional governor of Kentucky. Upon seeing these documents, one student realized he’d have to learn to read cursive handwriting if he wants to continue to research the 19th century.

We were thrilled to host the Hopkinsville Community College History Club and hope everyone enjoyed the day as much as we did.

To incorporate the Caroline Chronicles Classroom Experience in your teaching, visit the Civil War Governors of Kentucky blog.

To bring your class, history club or other group to visit the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History, find information on our website.

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