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On the Case

On the Case: Explorations in Social History

Copyright Date: 1998
Pages: 377
  • Book Info
    On the Case
    Book Description:

    This collection is the first forum in which the merits and pitfalls of the case-file approach are debated. A timely contribution to current scholarship and debate in social history and related fields.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-7807-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-2)
  3. Introduction Social History and Case Files Research
    (pp. 3-22)

    The historian’s craft is comparable to the work of a detective ‘on the case.’ We check for clues about intriguing or informative events and people, track down leads in libraries and archives, and sometimes conduct interviews with ‘eye witnesses’ to the past. We examine diverse and fragmentary evidence, revise theories or common-sense assumptions against the materials gathered - all the while aiming to reach a resolution. But historians do not simply gather ‘facts’ about the past and tell them to others. We make choices about who and what we deem worthy of study and which questions we wish to explore....

  4. Part One Reading Case Files:: Challenges, Approaches, Methods

    • 1 Stories of Their Lives: The Historian and the Capital Case File
      (pp. 25-48)

      True-crime writers establish their legitimacy simply by asserting the veracity of their stories, no matter how much they alter them through artistic licence. In contrast, criminal justice historians rarely proclaim that ‘every word’ in our ‘stories’ is ‘true.’ Ironically, making such claims would make readers suspicious. Instead, we qualify our interpretations with caveats about the incompleteness of the records, the biases of our sources, and (when we are honest) our own peculiar selection priorities. Even if we do not consider ourselves chroniclers of the truth, we state at least some things with confidence: person X really did kill person Y,...

    • 2 Employment Contracts in Merchant Shipping: An Argument for Social Science History
      (pp. 49-64)

      My argument is an old one applied in a new context. The old argument is that social historians have much to learn from the methods of social scientists. The new context is that of the 1990s, when many historians in Canada and elsewhere, often influenced by impressive developments in gender history and cultural history, are making extensive use of ‘case files.’ I suggest that historians who use such files necessarily confront a common problem: how do we deal with the bias inherent in documents that describe certain people in words and categories that serve the official purposes of other people?...

    • 3 On the Case of the Case: The Emergence of the Homosexual as a Case History in Early-Twentieth-Century Ontario
      (pp. 65-87)

      In February 1911, Walter F., a butcher from Toronto’s St Lawrence Market, appeared in Police Court on several charges of gross indecency. The judge presiding over the preliminary hearing decided there was sufficient evidence to send the case on to a higher court. As Walter was remanded to jail, Magistrate Denison ordered: ‘Let the doctors see that man before he goes up.’ After several weeks awaiting trial in jail, Walter finally received a visit from the doctor. Beginning with Walter’s name and age, the doctor proceeded to conduct a mental examination. Walter’s answers to the doctor’s many questions were recorded...

    • 4 Filing and Defiling: The Organization of the State Security Archives in the Interwar Years
      (pp. 88-106)

      Le Carré, or rather his protagonist, George Smiley, won his Cold War a decade and a half before the actual demise of the Communist party of the Soviet Union and the United States of Soviet Russia, but for both George and his creator, the former MI5 agent David Cornwell, the moral ambiguities of that victory, and especially of the methods by which it was achieved, were overwhelming. The Smiley novels and the subsequent works of le Carré are moral tales for our time. Le Carré’s fiction derives its power not only from riveting plots with detailed depictions of trade craft...

  5. Part Two Before the ‘Modern’ Case File:: Church Records and Regulating Lives and Community

    • 5 Christian Harmony: Family, Neighbours, and Community in Upper Canadian Church Discipline Records
      (pp. 109-128)

      The church records of Woodstock’s Baptist church note that in September of 1825 the entire church was harmonious ‘except for Brother P. and Sister H. who were somewhat at variance, Sister H. having reported some unfavourable stories respecting Brother P. which are not so.’ The records note that the church members ‘humbly trust and pray that matters may be arranged so as not to wound the feelings of the body of the Church.’ Harmony between the two members was restored to the satisfaction of church members when ‘Sister H. ... confessed to Brother P. and acknowledged her faults publicly.’¹


    • 6 Elderly Inmates and Caregiving Sisters: Catholic Institutions for the Elderly in Nineteenth-Century Montreal
      (pp. 129-156)

      ‘The first was a remarkable day,’ wrote the sister responsible for recording what went on in the mother house of the Sisters of Providence of the first of February 1880. That morning, Delphine Thoin, an elderly woman, had died. So had a nun.¹ It was not the deaths, however, that made the day remarkable. For deaths were frequent in this institution dedicated to the care of the elderly and the infirm as well as of orphans and the poor. Rather, explanation and collective reflection were in order because Delphine had died without receiving her final rites in a lucid state...

  6. Part Three Making ‘Good’ Men, Punishing ‘Bad’ Men:: ‘Community’ Standards and the State

    • 7 Males, Migrants, and Murder in British Columbia, 1900–1923
      (pp. 159-180)

      Only in the past few years have historians begun the investigation of the gendered nature of masculinity.² Researchers who have plotted the evolution of definitions of manliness tell us that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there was a perceptible shift away from the cult of rugged masculinity towards a new model of ‘masculine domesticity.’ These findings, though suggestive, are based primarily on the prescriptive literature that laid out the duties of the middle-class, urban male. Did the new middle-class ideal filter down to the working class? And is one talking about real changes in behaviour or only...

    • 8 Work Hard and Be Grateful: Native Soldier Settlers in Ontario after the First World War
      (pp. 181-203)

      The mythology of the self-sufficient family farm has long held a place of honour in Canadian tradition. The family farm’s reputed power to instil habits of sober industry made it a central feature of the Canadian government’s plans to assimilate the First Nations. Apart from a few experiments in the 1830s, Native people in Ontario received little material assistance in the move to an agricultural economy.¹ In the years following the First World War, however, Aboriginal war veterans participated in a scheme that provided them with concrete aid. This was the federal soldier settlement program, designed to assist returned soldiers...

    • 9 A Case for Morality: The Quong Wing Files
      (pp. 204-224)

      On 5 March 1912 the Saskatchewan legislature passedAn Act to Prevent the Employment of Female Labour in Certain Capacities.¹ The act specified that ‘[n]o person shall employ in any capacity any white woman or girl ... in ... any restaurant, laundry or other place of business or amusement owned, kept or managed by any ... Chinaman.’ Chinese diplomatic pressure, and Chinese-Canadian complaints, led to an amendment in this original wording. A new act was passed in 1919 stating only that ‘[n]o person shall employ any white woman or girl in ... any restaurant or laundry without a special license...

  7. Part Four Experts and Clients:: Sites of Contestation

    • 10 Ontario Mothers’ Allowance Case Files as a Site of Contestation
      (pp. 227-241)

      Social scientists have utilized case files to explore, among other things, the production of ‘truth.’ Influenced by postmodernism, scholars have become increasingly concerned about the fragmentary and incomplete nature of case files as a source to reveal the lives of people, especially those who are the subjects of these files. As subjects, they rarely have an opportunity to submit their own words into the case file; instead, most of their experiences are interpreted by the caseworker, who may have very different interests, opinions, and experiences. The imperfect nature of case file research became ever more apparent to me during 1994/95...

    • 11 Patient Perspectives in Psychiatric Case Files
      (pp. 242-265)

      Agnes D.’s account provides a perspective rarely found in the field of psychiatric history – the voice and the story of the patient. Despite the literature that has, since the early 1980s, advocated a social history of madness and psychiatric institutionalization, very little historical work has been done on patients.² In particular, relatively few studies have examined historical developments in terms of the viewpoints of patients themselves. A considerable amount of research in the field takes a ‘top down’ approach, examining professional, institutional, and therapeutic developments as they pertain to the advancement of the psychiatric profession.³ In such studies, the...

    • 12 Problematic Bodies and Agency: Women Patients in Canada, 1900–1950
      (pp. 266-286)

      Traditionally, medical historians focused on the history of medical institutions, the rise of the medical profession, and those medical discoveries that shaped our health experience. Overlooked was the dynamic that existed between physician and patient. In recent years, however, many critical analyses have been written about physician-patient and especially physician-female patient interaction.¹ The emphasis has been placed on how physicians treated women, with very little attention being paid to women’s participation as patients. One of the reasons for this was the perception by feminist critics that when faced by the medical profession, patients, especially women patients, had little power or...

  8. Part Five ‘Problem’ Families:: Arenas of Conflict, Targets of Reform

    • 13 Uncovering and Reconstructing Family Violence: Ontario Criminal Case Files
      (pp. 289-311)

      The problems of domestic violence and other manifestations of violence against women remain central political concerns within the contemporary feminist movement. They have also become the subject of growing interest among feminist historians both internationally and in Canada.¹ Inspired in part by current struggles to raise awareness about violence against women, feminist historians are re-examining the internal dynamics of marital and familial relations in the past. Legal documents, especially criminal case files, have proved to be critical sources for probing and reconstructing the more obscure and often conflictual dimensions of family and personal life, especially since there are few other...

    • 14 Parents, Daughters, and Family Court Intrusions into Working-Class Life
      (pp. 312-337)

      In April 1945, thirteen-year-old Nellie entered the York County Family Court in Toronto to face charges of juvenile delinquency. Her parents had laid the charges, claiming that for the past year Nellie had been staying out ‘all night’ and ‘acting up with boys.’ ‘She leaves home,’ testified an exasperated father to Judge Douglas Webster, ‘and we just can’t keep her in the house at all.’ This was not Nellie’s first time in court. In late March, she had received a twelvemonth probationary sentence with supervised visits with the Big Sister Association. Webster had ruled out harsher options because, despite her...

    • 15 The ‘Grab Bag’ Mennonite Refugee Family in Post-War Canada
      (pp. 338-358)

      When Mary Rempel immigrated to Canada in 1948 as a refugee from war-torn Europe, her first job was in the laundry at a small, private hospital in north Winnipeg. It is not surprising that Mary described the matron and other employees at the hospital as ‘a family’ since, over the course of the past decade, she had repeatedly been forced to redefine – however subconsciously – the form and function of family in her own life. Mary was born in 1932 in a village in the Mennonite settlement of Khortitsa in Ukraine.¹ As was the case for many other Soviet...

  9. Afterword Telling Stories about Dead People
    (pp. 359-366)

    This volume has given a diverse group of Canadian historians the opportunity to do something we don’t usually do in public: express the joys, frustrations, and vast doubts we harbour about the sources we use to tell our stories. Thus, this book reads rather differently than most other studies in the social history of Canada. Here historians have told some new and extremely interesting tales, but they are accompanied by a unique commentary; how, these authors are asking, do I know what I just said? Whose story am I telling? What stories am I not telling in the process of...

  10. Contributors
    (pp. 367-369)