Unit Title: Interpreting the Past – The Case of the “Bloody Massacre” Designed by: Fran O’Malley Director, Delaware Social Studies Education Project

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Teacher Tips

  • You are encouraged to recruit a local attorney as a guest presenter to help students understand legal procedures (contact the Delaware Law Related Education Center at delrecntr@aol.org for assistance in recruiting attorneys). He or she could share with students trial strategies, and explain how to ask effective questions and how to make effective presentations.

  • The gender of the witnesses is dictated by historical reality. Do not, however, let the gender of the witnesses prevent you from assigning male roles to the young ladies in your class or vice versa. Few students object to gender reversal in role-play activities.

  • Under 18th century rules, defendants were not permitted to testify on their own behalf because the accused were expected to lie. Although Captain Preston did not testify at his own trial, Captain Preston gave his deposition sometime between March 5th and March 14th. Do not share Preston’s deposition until the unit is completed as it may influence the outcome of the verdict in a way that it would not have in 1770.

Check for Understanding

Suggest two different questions that might be asked at the trial of Captain Preston that would lead jurors to two different conclusions. Be sure to include answers to both questions.


2 – This response offers 2 different questions with 2 different but plausible responses.

1 – This response offers less than 2 different questions and/or does not provide plausible responses.

Strategy 2: Extending and Refining

Arrange the classroom to mirror a courtroom prior to the students’ arrival. Conduct the mock trial of Captain Preston. The defense and prosecution should use the notes that they compiled in Strategy 1. The witnesses may use the primary source depositions as they testify. Legal teams can call witnesses in the order that they were actually called (see Appendix 5 and Appendix 6) or in an order that seems to make more sense.

Practical Considerations

With class sizes ranging in the high 20s, a challenge with many mock trials is the limited number of roles. The case of Rex v. Preston contains many witness statements (not all of which are included in this unit). There are a variety of ways to approach this case. In most mock trials, there are 3-4 witnesses and 3 attorneys. You may decide to limit the size of the legal teams (3-4), have each attorney examine multiple witnesses, and use some students as jurors. Or, you may wish to pair one attorney with each witness. Either approach will work. Sound teaching practices imply that you will adjust the materials to the special needs of your class.

If you have a small class, you may have one class challenge another to a mock trial competition. One class may play the prosecution while another plays the defense. Jurors may be drawn from other classes, from the faculty, or from your pool of active parents. Or, you may screen the witness statements and select those who you feel bring out the central issues of the case.

Distribute or have students re-create the chart that appears below. Tell students that each of them will be asked to write a closing statement at the end of the trial. Their task will be to convince jurors that Captain Preston is either guilty or not guilty (their choice). Students should record information in the chart that they can use as notes when they write their closing statements. Tell them that they do not have to record everything they hear, just that which seems particularly significant to Preston’s guilt or innocence.

Which helped Captain Preston’s case?

Which hurt Captain Preston’s case?


Which questions did the attorneys raise that most effective?

Use of Sources

What did specific witnesses say that helped/hurt Preston’s case?

Check for Understanding

Have students write an abbreviated closing statement for the case in which they try to convince a jury that Captain Preston should be found guilty or not guilty of the charges. Emphasize that the students can write a closing for EITHER side, i.e., they are not restricted to writing one for the side that they represented in the mock trial. Tell them that they must demonstrate their understanding of the case by:

  1. Being persuasive.

  2. Supporting their arguments with appropriate source (testimony) information.

  3. Noting any question(s) that each side raised and/or answered effectively.

Remind students that History Standard 3 anticipates that students will be able to explain why people arrive at different interpretations of the past due to the questions they ask or the manner in which they use sources (depositions). This exercise is tailored to let them demonstrate that understanding.


2 – This statement convincingly argues a specific verdict (interpretation) that is supported by questions and evidence.

1 – The closing statement either convincingly argues a specific verdict (interpretation) argument that is supported by either questions or evidence but not both, or the argument is unconvincing in spite of the questions addressed and evidence presented.


Review History Standard 3 with the students and the chart on which they took notes during the mock trial. Ask them to share the questions that they found most effective in the trial and indicate which verdict those questions supported. Do the same with the use of sources highlighting the question—which witnesses could have been used to both help and hurt Captain Preston’s case?

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