Cold Case History Files - The Case of the Scottish Nightingale

Concept(s) Historical Significance, Primary Source Evidence

Exemplary example of Primary Source Evidence

Prepared for Grade(s) 11

Province BC

By David Braun

Time Period(s) 1900-present

Time allotment 3 to 4 periods (approx. 75 minutes)

Brief Description of the Task

During a heat wave that hit Vancouver in the summer of 1924, the body of Janet K Smith, a 22 year-old Scottish nursemaid, was discovered in the home of a prominent family in Shaughnessy Heights. Two inquests into the death left the cause of death in dispute. Was it accidental? Was it suicide? Or was there foul play? Public interest in the "Case of the Scottish Nightingale" was heightened when a young Chinese man was charged with the murder of Janet Smith and the story remained a major news story (often front page) for more than a year. No convictions were made and the death of Janet Smith remains a mystery to this day.

Your team of historical detectives has been given the "Cold Case" file on the death of Janet Smith. Your job is to reexamine the fragmentary documentary evidence in the file as it relates to some of the more sensational elements involved in this case. While sorting through the evidence you have been given (thinking about the type of source, reliability, etc.), consider what these documents reveal about the case itself and about Vancouver society during this time period. Although this case was a major news story at the time (and continues to get some attention to this day) can it be labeled as a 'historically significant' event? After reflecting on the evidence consider the different hypotheses put forth to explain Janet Smith's death. Which hypothesis has the strongest evidence to support it (based on the documents you have been given)? Once your group has selected the hypothesis that offers the best explanation, 'reconstruct the crime scene' by preparing a plausible account of the events that led up to the death of the woman who became known as the "Scottish Nightingale".


Historical Thinking Skills

Students will use the following criteria to assess Historical Significance:
a. Resulting in Change
Profundity - The extent to which people's lives were affected by the event/development.
Quantity - How many people' lives were affected by the event / development in the past.
Durability - How long people's were affected by the event / development.
b. Revealing - The event /development sheds light on enduring issues in history and contemporary life.

Students will become proficient at working with Primary Source Evidence:
• Be able to indicate the kinds of sources they have been given as evidence while considering the
following questions: What do these sources reveal about the subject? What can we infer about
authorship from reading or viewing these sources. What can we learn about the historical setting from
these sources? What are the limitations of these sources? What questions can we ask about the
evidence presented?
• Use the evidence to support their hypothesis.

Required Knowledge & Skills

To complete this task, students will need to have:
- An understanding of the concept of Historical Significance
- An understanding of the difference between primary and secondary sources
- Experience working with primary and secondary sources for the purposes of constructing an historical

Detailed Instructions

1. Arrange the class into groups of 4/5 and ask them to imagine that they are teams of historical detectives assigned to work on "Cold Case" History Files. The one that they will be working on for the next three or four classes will the be "The Case of the Scottish Nightingale".

2. Set the scene by giving a brief background into the Janet Smith case. For teachers unfamiliar with this case, there is piece by Ed Starkins in the Greater Vancouver Urban Encyclopedia (1997) that provides a good overview. The brief description at the beginning of this task might be sufficient. Also a review of the Historical Thinking approaches to historical signficance and evidence would be helpful to the students. Give each team a "file" that includes copies of all the appropriate handouts.

3. Ask the student groups to take out ATT 1 which contains 12 documents related to the Janet Smith case. These documents include primary source material (newspaper accounts and a police sketch of the crime scene), secondary source material (a textbook chart and encyclopedic write-up), and a piece of 'historical' fiction. The documents will reveal evidence that support a number of different hypotheses on how Janet Smith may have met her death as well indicate why the case became such a major story in the press. The teams should begin working through the documents with the goal of establishing the most plausible (though not completely verifiable) hypothesis for the death of Janet Smith based on the strongest evidence available. 

4. ATT 2 asks the student groups to critically assess the evidence they have been given. They do this first by completing a chart that asks them to indicate what type of source they are analyzing and to rate its reliability on a scale of 1 • 5 (1 being the least reliable and 5 being the most reliable). Students should be able to explain the reasons behind their ratings. The students are then asked to answer three questions about the evidence and the case, in general. It is hoped that in their responses the students will touch on what these documents reveal about Vancouver society at this time while also considering whether the Janet Smith case qualifies as a 'historically significant' event (according to the Historical Thinking criteria).

5. After examining the evidence, the student groups are then asked to connect it to the four main hypotheses put forth in the Janet Smith case. The speculative hypotheses are listed in an organizer in ATT 3. The students should complete the organizer by considering each hypothesis and citing the applicable evidence from the documents that support it. There is an opportunity for students to submit a hypothesis of their own if they feel that there is enough evidence in the documents to support it. It is hoped that by working through ATT 3, students will be able to justify which hypothesis they feel best explains how Janet Smith met her untimely end.

6. The final part of this task asks the student groups to 'reconstruct the crime scene' by selecting the hypothesis they feel is most sound, based on the evidence, and preparing a historically plausible (though not completely verifiable) account of the events that led up to the death of Janet Smith. This is done by completing ATT 4. It is important that the student groups use evidence from the documents to support their claims.

7. The assessment rubric provided for this task is of the holistic variety. It asks teachers to score each Handout on a competency scale of 1 to 4. This scale can be 'weighted' if teachers want one aspect of the task to be worth more than another.


It is expected that students will:

  1. Demonstrate the ability to think critically, including the ability to develop hypotheses and supporting arguments
  2. Demonstrate an understanding of primary and secondary sources and the ability to evaluateand interpret this data for accuracy, reliability , bias, and point of view
  3. Demonstrate skills associated with active citizenship, including the ability to: 
  • collaborate and consult with others
  • respect the contributions of other team members
  • interact confidently


What is a Benchmark?

<p>John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising &amp; Marketing History,<br />Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections</p>

A surveyor cut a "benchmark" into a stone or a wall when measuring the altitude and/or level of a tract of land. A bracket called a "bench" was secured in the cut to mount the surveying equipment, and all subsequent measurements were made in reference to the position and height of that mark.

The term "benchmark" was first used around 1842 to refer to a standard of quality by which achievement may be measured.

The foundation documents available through the Benchmarks site attempt to help teachers establish standards for assessing student learning of the modes of thought that constitute historical thinking.

John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History,
Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections