Unsolved Mysteries Essay


Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History Assignment

Submission to (more information on this to follow).
The Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History project is a primary document-centred web resource which examines various true and controversial crimes in Canadian history.

Each of the crimes was and remains controversial and many questions about the crimes and those involved have remained unanswered.
While each of the crimes is different they all have commonalities in that they each tell us a great deal about the society in which the crimes occurred, as well as raising issues about community, social regulation, the nature of criminal justice, gender and even cultural identity.  Throughout this course you will have come to see how crimes are shaped by the particular society in which they occurred, and that to understand the crime, one has to attempt to understand the society.  As an historian for this project you will examine various primary documents such as letters, diaries, maps, newspaper articles, court documents, photographs, drawings and more.

This assignment allows you to examine primary documents (the evidence) of the particular case and to draw your own conclusion about the particular crime (who really may have committed the crime, for instance).  It allows you to think about the social, political, cultural and economic context of crime and the justice system.
There is a wealth of information and resources on the website.  For example: since all of the cases you can choose from involve crimes rather than simply mysteries, many of the cases involved the courts, and testimonies given at trials.

The website provides a resource on how to evaluate the kinds of evidence offered in court, such as hearsay or second-hand evidence.  There is also a helpful discussion on how historians use causal explanations in historical inquiry.

This resource has great potential to allow you to get a real indication of how history is done.  One of the first things you will be confronted with is the fact that there is too much information.  Unlike, perhaps, an assignment you have worked on in the past where you cannot find enough sources or information to back complete it, here, you will find just the opposite: too much information.  There is more evidence contained in the documents for each of the mysteries than you will need. In fact, some of the documents might challenge your assumptions; some documents might contradict other documents in the same mystery.  Welcome to doing history, because that is what happens when historians go to the archives.  Some things they find will be gold; some will challenge or even disprove what they have assumed; some will not make sense; many will not be relevant.  Your job, as the job of an historian, is to make sense of the documents and to construct a strong case or claim based on the evidence.

You must also weigh the worth and relevance of the evidence you use in your essay.  Consider the different types of documents found on the mystery you have chosen and which are reliable and which may not be.  There will be newspaper articles, court transcripts and judgements, government documents, letters, diaries and so on.  For your essay you need not only to wade through the various documents but choose the ones that seem reliable and most importantly, which help support the claim that you are arguing about the case.  Thus it is in your interests to look at most of the documents; at the very least be sure to examine one document in each category to get an idea of the kind of information available.

There are a variety of mysteries to choose from, from the massacre of an immigrant Irish family in 19th century Lucan Ontario, to the torture, trial and execution of an Amerindian slave in the 18th century.  Each mystery has an introduction which gives a summary of the mystery; you should browse each of the mysteries before choosing the one you wish to tackle.

Please note: there are 6 mysteries you can choose from for the assignment.  Other mysteries on the site are excluded:

1. Torture and the Truth: Angelique and the burning of Montreal
2. Who killed William Robinson? 
3. We do not know his name: Klatsassin and the Chilcotin War 
4. Heaven and Hell on Earth: The massacre of the “Black” Donnellys
5. The Redpath Mansion Mystery
6. Explosion on the Kettle Valley Line: the death of Peter Verigin

What your essay will be about:

In each mystery there has been a crime or injustice committed.  Your job is to make an argument about the crime and back it up with evidence.  In some mysteries it may appear to be clear or obvious who committed the crime and even perhaps why; however, you will be judged on the merits of the case you present.

Your essay will be framed around two questions:

1.  Who committed the crime and why?
2.  What does the crime tell us about the society in which it happened?


It is essential that you have an argument/thesis/main claim to your paper.  Since there are two questions being asked, you can have two thesis statements or you can combine them into one.

In terms of the first question, who committed the crime and why, the second is more important that the first.  In some mysteries it will be obvious who committed the crime, and perhaps somewhat less obvious why the crime was committed.  However, you will be judged on the case you make for proving this.  How well do you back up your claims/arguments with primary document evidence from the website.  In another analogy, you might think of yourself like a prosecutor in a court case, trying to prove who committed the crime in question and the motive behind doing so.  The judge and jury obviously would not take your word for but needs to be convinced of it by your reasoning, and most importantly, by the strength of the evidence you present.

The second question is a broader question than the first and should relate back to some of the themes discussed in the course, such as social or moral regulation; ethnicity; gender; class; religion and so on.


Length: 1,750 – 2,000 words


You must cite at least ten different primary documents in your essay, though the documents you choose should not be padding to your essay but rather the strength of your evidence to support your arguments.  You should only use information on the mystery’s website itself.  You must still, however, cite the source from which you take your information.

One of the reasons that the citation of sources is to vital to the historian’s craft is so that others find the information you cite as your source.

You should use footnotes in your essay.


In your assignment you will need to cite sources when you quote from and refer to information contained in the documents found on the website.  To do this you will use footnotes, a common feature on all word processing programs.
What to cite is very simple.  When you have the document in question open on the website simply copy and paste the information as found at the bottom of the page, omitting “Source:”

For example, the footnote citing this source would look like this in your document:

When you cite the same source more than one time in a row, use the short form Ibid.  You only use this shortform when the citation you are going to use is exactly the same as the one immediately before it.  Thus if you were to cite the same document three times in a row, you would use this format:

Once you cite a new source again you use the full entry.

Elements of a good essay:

Remember that it is not only what your answer is, but how you express it that will count.

The following are some elements of a good piece of writing.

1.  Structure.  The assignment is well organised and structured in a coherent manner.  To achieve this, you should plan a skeleton answer before you begin writing. What are the main points you will raise?  In which order should you discuss them?

2.  Clarity.  Is it clear what you are saying?  Could you rephrase what you have written to make it so clear and understandable that there could be no ambiguity regarding the statements you have made?

3.  Grammar.  It ain’t no good not to have no good grammar cause it makes it hard for yous guys to understand.

4.  Presentation and proofreading.  To substantially increase the likelihood of getting a higher mark, have someone proofread your assignments.  You would be surprised what software spelling and grammar checks like MS Word will miss.  However painful it might be, be sure to read over your essay a couple of times before submitting it.

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