In order to accomplish this mission I provide them with several death certificates and send them off to learn not only about how this family connects to American history but also about the nature of research itself.
I hope they don't have a fast path from start to finish. I hope they have trouble finding and analyzing information -- I specifically tell them I want them to get lost, frustrated, angry and then obsessed.
I can't ask them to do all that research if I'm not researching too.
Last night I logged into ancestry.com and pullled up the card catalog view to see what databases have been updated.
Auburn Prisons in New York? Yes please.
I click into and around the databases. I start reading page after page, acting much like the bear that went over the mountain to see what he could see. Hmmmmm. The datapoints include names, places of birth, crimes committed, and when committed/pardoned/paroled.
A black box posted digitally over the record catches my attention.
What is THIS? I've read tens of thousands of digitized 19th century criminal cases, prisoners' records, Coroner's Inquests (ask me anything about men who died in Alabama prisons 1866-1920) and I do not recall seeing a SINGLE conviction redacted.
I look for more and more black boxes -- one about every 300-400 male prisoners -- and study crimes that are not redacted. Polygamy, Bigamy. Rape. Intent to rape. Murder. None of those were unspeakable. Hmmm.
The research feelings - lost, frustrated, angry, obsessed - well up strong and force me to keep searching for clues, confident I am more devoted to finding the answer than any hourly employee was being paid to find/cover this one data point.
Then I look to see if the crime was also committed by women.
What could it be?
I turn on all the research jets in my brain and get creative.
There. I find an answer linked to an unredacted file.
I try again with another convict, checking my theory like working a math problem backwards.
Yup. Same crime. It wasn't anything I'd thought of, and it makes me wonder why -- if women were less than 1% of all convicts - so many more women than men were imprisoned for this crime. I wonder how evidence was collected, and how trials were run, especially before the invention of modern cops.
Want the answer? You can find it. It is knowable, you just have to practice good research skills by not knowing what you're looking for when you start.