How to write an eyewitness report
Face of 19th-century ceramic doll
- How can we evaluate eyewitness accounts of historical events and periods, and what historical meanings can be drawn from them?
- Familiarize yourself with the Written Document Analysis Worksheet available from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Digital Classroom .
- Background information on the history of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. as well as supplemental information on the fire. including the legend of Mrs. O'Leary's cow as the fire's cause, is available from the EDSITEment-reviewed website The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory .
- Read through and become familiar with the student readings for this lesson:
- The Tribune Reports to Chicago on Its Own Destruction
- The Chicago Post report
- The narrative of Bessie Bradwell
- The narrative of Mary Kehoe
- Alice Williamson's Diary
- Download and print out the Written Document Analysis Worksheet for distribution. Bookmark the pages that will be used during the teaching of this lesson.
Activity 1. Extra! Extra! Fire Destroys Chicago. Analyzing Newspaper Accounts
Distribute copies of the Written Document Analysis Worksheet. from the website Digital Classroom. to the class. Discuss with students how they can use the worksheet to gather together various kinds of information in an historical document, including facts about the document itself (date, author, audience, etc.) and facts about the past. Explain that in this lesson students will use the worksheet to examine a variety of historical eyewitness reports, first comparing several reports of a single dramatic event, then evaluating the unique account of a different, more complex historical situation.
Have students read the following two newspaper accounts of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory. The first reading is The Tribune Reports to Chicago on Its Own Destruction. and is a front page report from the Chicago Tribune published two days after the fire, on October 11, 1871. The second account is an excerpt from an article that was published by the Chicago Evening Post on October 17, 1871. Once students have finished reading the two newspaper articles, have them work individually or in groups to analyze these two reports using the Written Document Analysis Worksheet. Compare their responses to selected sections of the worksheet in a class discussion. Have students work on answering the following questions, which are also available as a Student Launchpad :
- Do the reporters agree in their description of where the fire began and how it spread?
- Do they mention the same landmarks of destruction and havens of safety?
- Do they disagree on any questions of fact?
- Compare the reporters' selection of episodes:
- Do they highlight similar incidents?
- Do they focus on similar scenes of human interest?
- Do they share a vocabulary for evoking these dramatic moments?
- Ask students to offer possible reasons for any differences they may note.
- Are the reporters addressing different audiences?
- Aiming at different effects?
- Offering different perspectives on the significance of the fire?
Finally, discuss how an historian might use these alternative accounts of the Chicago Fire.
- What is the advantage of having two accounts?
- How do they supplement one another?
- To what extent can they be combined?
- In what respect can they be set in contrast or played off against one another?
- In what sense can they be considered primarily objective accounts or the records of two personal experiences?
- What questions did they pose that the authors of these reports left unanswered?
Because both of these newspaper accounts refer often to the streets and districts of Chicago, students may find it helpful to have a map of the city available as they read. A map of the fire is available from the EDSITEment-reviewed website The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory. as well as a number of illustrations of the events described in the two newspaper reports.
Activity 2. Right Before My Eyes: Analyzing Eyewitness Accounts
Next have students read two personal accounts of the Chicago Fire included in the collection of the The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory. which includes recollections from 21 survivors of the fire. The narratives of Bessie Bradwell. written in 1926, and Mary Kehoe. written in 1942, form convenient pair from this anthology. Both were teenagers at the time of the fire but they came from different social backgrounds, Bessie Bradwell was the daughter of a judge while Mary Kehoe was from the working class. In this exercise students will be asked to contemplate the strengths, weaknesses, and differences of these accounts.
As in the previous activity, have students work individually or in groups to analyze these two eyewitness accounts using the Written Document Analysis Worksheet. Compare their responses to selected sections of the worksheet in a class discussion. Ask the students to compare these personal recollections of the fire with the newspaper reports written within days of the event.
- Are there similarities in the selection of episodes? In vocabulary?
- How do these narratives differ from the news reports? Students should focus on issues of scope, point of view, purpose, and the significance writers draw from the event in their accounts.
Invite students to re-write a passage or incident from one of the personal narratives to show how one of the news reporters might have presented it.
Next, have students explore the impact of reflection and memory on these two narratives, written decades after the event they describe. Ask students to answer the following questions. They should provide examples of all the evidence they find within the narratives that answer these questions, which are also available as a Student Launchpad :
- What evidence is there that these eyewitness accounts are factually unreliable?
- Is there reason to consider them more reliable than the newspaper reports?
- How do these accounts seem "tinted" by memory?
- What indications are there that the writers have shaped their experiences into stories, introduced elements of plotting and characterization to organize and add meaning to the event?
- How do they compare with the news accounts in this respect?
- For what reason do you consider these memoirs more accurate as portrayals of the unvarnished facts, or not?
Finally, discuss how an historian might use these eyewitness narratives of the Chicago Fire.
- What kinds of historical evidence do they provide that is unavailable through the newspaper reports?
- To what extent can these personal views of the fire be combined into one account?
- How might the age of these witnesses, at the time of the fire and when they composed their memoirs, affect historical assessment of their accounts?
- How would a witness who was older at the time of the fire have noted different incidents, or expressed a different attitude toward this disaster?
- How would these witnesses have provided different reports if they had written their accounts while still teenagers?
Activity 3. Alice Williamson's Diary
As a contrast to this study of alternative eyewitness accounts, have students look at a unique firsthand report, the diary kept by 16-year-old Alice Williamson when Union troops occupied her town, Gallatin, Tennessee, during the Civil War. A transcript of this diary is available through EDSITEment at the Documents of Civil War Women website. Click on "Alice Williamson Diary" at the website's homepage and scroll down for information about her, then click The whole diary near the top of the page. NOTE: This diary reports what today would be regarded as wartime atrocities committed by Union troops and reflects the racial bigotry of its time and place. Teachers should review the diary to determine whether it is appropriate for their classrooms.
- Have students work individually or in groups to analyze the Williamson diary using the Written Document Analysis Worksheet. Compare their responses to selected sections of the worksheet in a class discussion. For example, what evidence have they found in the diary to explain why it was written?
- Students will quickly notice that Alice Williamson was a staunch Confederate who regarded the Union captors of her town with contempt, and that she shared the racial prejudices of her place and time. In a class discussion, consider how these obvious biases affect the historical value of her eyewitness report. To what extent can we trust her account of the facts? Which parts of her diary seem reliable, which parts unreliable? To what extent might one draw historical facts from her diary by making allowances for her prejudiced point of view? In what sense are her expressions of prejudice themselves of interest as historical facts?
- Have students imagine that they could interview Alice Williamson for a magazine article or cross-examine her in court. Use the chalkboard to draw up a list of the questions they would ask. In addition to questions about the controversial aspects of her diary, encourage questions about the everyday life it reveals -- her friendships, homework, family relationships. Ask students what other kinds of historical documents they might examine to find answers to these questions. What other kinds of documents could an historian consult to set the Williamson diary in an historical context?
- Finally, have students consider what kind of history could be based on the Alice Williamson diary. What could it contribute, for example, to a history of Confederate sympathies during the Civil War? an examination of Union wartime atrocities? a study of the wartime experience of African American soldiers? a review of teenage life in the 19th-century South? To what extent is the diary evidence of "what happened" and "what people thought" in 1864? To what extent is it only the record of one deeply prejudiced girl's impressions?
Conclude this lesson by having students collect eyewitness reports from present-day newspapers or conduct their own interviews of family members who have witnessed some significant event (for example, an athletic competition, a natural disaster, a public celebration, the coming of some new technology like the automobile or the Internet). Have students use the Written Document Analysis Worksheet to evaluate their eyewitness accounts and then prepare a researcher's report explaining how their document might be used by some future historian.
Have students prepare a researcher's report on the four firsthand accounts of the Chicago Fire that they have read in the previous activities, explaining what they might contribute to three different histories of the event. This should include:
- A factual account of the fire describing what happened in Chicago on October 8 and 9, 1871;
- A description of what it was like in Chicago when the fire was raging there; and
- An explanation of the fire's significance as a landmark event in 19th-century American history.
Have students note also in their reports any inadequacies of these primary documents for these kinds of history. What other types of evidence would an historian look for? What other sorts of witnesses could be called on to add their testimony?
If you have time you might have students put their new analytic skills to work by having them collect eyewitness reports from present-day newspapers or conduct their own interviews of family members who have witnessed some significant event (for example, an athletic competition, a natural disaster, a public celebration, the coming of some new technology like the Internet). Have students use the Written Document Analysis Worksheet to evaluate their eyewitness accounts and then prepare a researcher's report explaining how their document might be used by some future historian.
Extending The Lesson
Though unique in this lesson plan, the diary of Alice Williamson is part of an extensive literature of recollections written by Confederate women after the Civil War. For additional examples, go to the Documenting the American South website on EDSITEment, click "First Person Narratives of the American South," then click "Collection of Electronic Texts" and select:Source: edsitement.neh.gov