Jill Lepore is a historian, a Harvard professor and a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine. In her work, she's tackled subjects like Jane Franklin (Ben Franklin's sister), Wonder Woman and the Tea Party movement, among many others. And she's now out with a new podcast called The Last Archive.
The podcast's intent is to solve a whodunnit, namely: Who killed truth? To get there, though, Lepore starts with a slightly more specific historical mystery. And that begins with the body of a woman who was found murdered, gagged and stripped of her clothing in a park more than 100 years ago in Barre, Vermont.
Jill Lepore spoke with VPR's Mitch Wertlieb. Their interview is below. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mitch Wertlieb: Who was Lucina Broadwell? And how did you discover her story in the first place?
Jill Lepore: I came across a photograph of the corpse, actually, during a kind of fishing expedition I went on in the archives at Harvard Law School Library. The records of a detective agency, a private eye from Boston, happened to end up at that library's archives from a century ago. And I was paging through this extremely disturbing album of kind of photographs of crime scenes. And this photograph of this particular murder victim, who was killed in Barre in May of 1919, was very, very disturbing and distressing.
Why use her story as the jumping-off point for an investigation into the nature of truth itself?
Right now, we're kind of having an epistemological crisis. Like how do we know things? Why can't people agree on basic matters of fact? So I had the idea that it would be neat to begin with kind of a cold case and try to solve it. But then in the course of my reopening this case, I look at the different rules of evidence that are used by people who tried to solve the case at the time. That is, the matter of guilt, but also the scientific evidence that was available on the examination of the corpse.
And then how journalists at the Barre Daily Times existed then. And how did reporters, what were their standards of evidence in reporting on this case? And then what are mine as a historian? Like there was a way to kind of take this compelling, creepy crime and use it to open up a whole series of questions about how we know anything about anything.
This investigation of who killed truth ... we deal with this problem every day, and it seems to be getting more complicated. How do we know that truth is dead, as you seem to imply as we go through the course of this podcast?
Well, I'm not sure that truth is dead, but I think there's a lot of peddling of misinformation that's purposeful, both in our political arrangements, but also, you know, in the longer term, with regard to climate science. In the last 15 years or so, there's been a big conversation and a lot of concern about the nature of knowledge and the instability of knowledge. I don't myself buy that this is new or that this is threatening in a wholly new way. I think a historical vantage on the problem is really an important one.
So do we have reason to believe that truth can survive even in this incredible partisan time when terms like fake news are used as sort of a bludgeon against anything that is critical?
Sure. Absolutely. I mean, I think it is important to figure out what happened. Like, was it postmodernism that killed truth? Was it Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook news and social media? Was it, you know, the conservative assault on the press? Figuring out the nature of the injury really is important. Even if, as I do, you don't think the patient is beyond recovery.
You say at the beginning of this podcast, "Silenced women bother me." I'm thinking about the woman in this first episode who was literally silenced. What other kinds of silencing of women do you talk about relating to her case, and in the podcast in general?
There actually are a few different episodes of the podcast that look at that question, that look as well at the kind of invisibility of women and also at the idea that women can't know things. There's an episode that's largely about why it is that disembodied female voices are the only female voices that communicate knowledge. So, you know, if you're in your car and you're trying to get directions, or you ask Alexa something or, you know, Siri tells you something. They're female voices that answer you back, but they're voices without bodies.
But when women have bodies, they can't know things. That is actually sort of a weird throughline across the 20th century. And there's a weird whole history of women in voice and recorded voice. That is something we play with quite a bit in the podcast. And one of the reasons the podcast has this quirky old-fashioned form of being a kind of 1930s radio drama, which is a kind of way to reclaim a form that was complicated for women.
Why did you want to tell the story in that way? Going back to sort of that old-timey radio sound?
Partly because I love that vibe, but also, the further back you go in time, the harder it is to find anything that has been recorded. We knew that we were going to be using reenactments, that we were going to take historical documents and have actors perform them that would embody the sound of a particular era.
Without giving away spoilers, the case of Lucina Broadwell was solved, at least in the sense that a jury convicted someone of her murder. But did you end up finding a different solution?
Yeah. I mean, I went and re-investigated the crime the way anyone would do if they were trying to open up a case where they thought maybe there'd been a miscarriage of justice. I wasn't convinced there was a miscarriage of justice. The reason I wanted to reopen the case was that I wanted to find more about the murder victim. I didn't want to just have her be an inert photograph in my hands.
And in the course of doing that, I came to disagree with the jury's verdict in a way that surprised me. The Vermont state archives, having finally found the mislaid trial records, was what offered to me a new solution to the case.