Colgate Syllabus: Murder in United States History

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HIST 375: Murder in United States History

Melanie Kiechle, A. Lindsay O'Connor Chair of American Institutions in the Department of History

M, W, F 9:20–10:10 a.m.

Course Description

This course considers how the definition of murder as a crime has changed from the colonial period to the present day. Employing historical murders as case studies, students investigate the dynamics of American society in condemning, condoning, or celebrating murder. Through these studies, students learn to question how cultural factors, including racial prejudice, gender stereotypes, beliefs about sexuality, and class status affected the act of killing, media coverage of the event, societal reactions, and the execution of justice.

Course Goals

By the end of the semester, students will be able to:

  • Discuss how the act of killing, definition of murder, and societal reactions have changed in the United States from the colonial period through the present day
  • Conduct historical research into a specific murder case
  • Recognize, locate, and properly cite primary, secondary, and tertiary sources
  • Explain how murders and the reactions to them highlight and reinforce societal norms and prejudices
  • Develop an informed opinion on the place of murder in American culture and entertainment

Key Assignment

Each student will become a historian and research a historical murder to (a) explain what this case reveals about American society in that place and time and (b) apply the analytical frameworks of race/ethnicity, gender, class, sexuality, respectability, and childhood to the evidence. The point of this assignment is for each student to apply what they’ve learned in the course to a murder case that piques their interest. They can then use this as a case study to better understand the culture and time period during which the crime took place.

About the Professor

Graduating summa cum laude from Colgate University in 2003 with a bachelors in history, Kiechle went on to get her PhD in history from Rutgers University in 2012. From there, Kiechle went on to have a successful career teaching history at Virginia Tech, where she completed her 2017 book Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century Urban America. In 2022, Kiechle was awarded the A. Lindsay O’Connor Fellowship for History, which enabled her to return to her alma mater to teach. Today, Kiechle instructs two courses at Colgate: History of Murder in the United States and Age of the American Revolution, both of which allow her to share her passion for U.S. history with the next generation of Colgate graduates.

The Professor Says

I teach this class because students are often curious about murders — and I’m curious about the fascination with murder. In particular, I wonder how murder became such a big part of both daily life and entertainment culture in the United States. Throughout the semester, we consider how reactions to murder have and have not changed since the colonial period, and I learn a tremendous amount from the research that each student does, uncovering and analyzing reactions to a lesser known murder.