Impact Studios

Australia’s no 1 university for research impact

Host:  Dr Tamson Pietsch

Co Host: Dr Alecia Simmonds

Executive Producer: Emma Lancaster

Supervising Producer: Sarah Mashman

HLAB S03 Bonus Ep Final.mp3

[00:00:00] If you’re Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, you should know that this episode contains the voices and names of deceased persons.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:00:22] Hi I’m Tamson Pietsch, your host. This is History Lab, where we explore the gaps

Alecia Simmonds: [00:00:26] Hang on, Tamson. Don’t I get to do that? I thought that was my job.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:00:26] Go for it.

Alecia Simmonds: [00:00:32] Alright. Thank you. Hi. I’m your guest host Alecia Simmonds. I’m an interdisciplinary scholar in law and history at the University of Technology, Sydney.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:00:41] And if Alecia sounds familiar, it’s because Alecia appeared in our very first season with her very own History Lab episode, Damages of a Broken Heart. And if you haven’t already listened to it, you can go back and get it on all your favorite…

Alecia Simmonds: [00:00:54] After listening to this episode, of course.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:00:55] Of course. And we are cracking on with that aren’t we Alecia. Because we have a brand new season. We thought we’d take this opportunity to go a little bit off script because that is not what we do at all and start to dissect the law’s way of knowing.

Alecia Simmonds: [00:01:11] So for those of you paying attention, you’d know that this season is dedicated to histories that intersect with the law, each in their own wonderfully complicated and demonstrably messy ways.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:01:22] Yeah. So we know both law and history have a similar obligation in a way to draw the most plausible conclusions based on the traces or the absence of traces that are left behind. And because Alecia straddles both these worlds, both the legal and the historical realm.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:01:38] Interdisciplinary.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:01:39] Interdisciplinary. Quite. We wanted to get you involved. So can you maybe say a little bit about how the law relies on traces and how this differs, say, to the way history relies on traces from the past?

Alecia Simmonds: [00:01:54] I think in order to answer this question, we need to go broad and we need to begin by outlining what the differences are. For instance, with law, words have a very different meaning. When a judge makes an order or delivers a judgment, someone could potentially go to prison. They may lose their money. They may lose their house, their family, or in some countries they may lose their life. This is based upon a word. Words or phrases that are uttered. So to that extent, law sort of takes place in a field of pain and death and legal words have coercive effects. Sounds dramatic, but it’s true when you look at it, you know, it’s a very violent kind of lingo.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:02:31] They have like power.

Alecia Simmonds: [00:02:33] Coercive effect. Power. Absolutely. When an historian writes a book, and this is not to undermine history at all, but it doesn’t quite have the same it doesn’t quite have the same effect. For the most part, they’re going to contribute to knowledge. They may shape notions of identity, of nationhood, democracy. In some instances, their knowledge may be incorporated into legal knowledge, but that will always be on the law’s terms. And nobody’s really likely to lose their life or their liberty as a direct result of something that you find in an archive. And to that extent, going back to your original question, the standards of proof and the needs for traces or for certainties are also higher. So there’s a branch of history, for instance, that’s practiced at UTS, called speculative biography. And this is where historians imagine their way into the past. You could say similar things about ethnography. They do a similar kind of imaginative reading based on these traces, based on these sources. They may make up things about a particular person’s life where they’re not certain that that actually happened to them, but it’s based broadly upon what they know in that particular historical area.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:03:41] So like there’s some material that has survived or that is available and in the gaps between those bits of evidence, people then insert their imagination.

Alecia Simmonds: [00:03:50] And they say that this is important for an empathic understanding and empathic relationship with the past, that you need to do that because the sources that they’re dealing with often, you know, with biography are slim, particularly if you’re dealing with with the poor. Now, the idea of imagining your way into a facts scenario, it would be absolutely impossible in law. The idea that you would have a speculative case would simply never happen. I think that ultimately it sort of comes down to the fact that each discipline and each field of knowledge has different social purposes and different effects. And we start from that. Then we can start to see why they deal with evidence and with grief in different ways.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:04:31] Which is what I wanted to ask you about.So both use this word evidence a lot, right? Both law and history. If the truth is uncertain, often in historical archives like diaries and letters and government documents and even oral testimony, is it harder or easier to find the truth in legal archives or legal jargon?

Alecia Simmonds: [00:04:52] When you talk about legal archives what we’re talking about is the writs, the summonses, the affidavits. You get these big bundles that are submitted to the archives, to the state records office after cases. And then as historians, you can go and consult those. So they have the appearance of truth of an authoritative collection of sources or remnants of the past. And as a result of this, from sort of the mid 19th century, where you have people like Jean Michel Chalet, he’s a French legal historian of the medieval period. They start to use legal archives to rescue the lives of the poor. And this also takes place in the 1960s and 70s with social history. So legal archives are crucial to that. In that poor people generally didn’t keep diaries. They didn’t write letters. And if they did, then they wouldn’t drop them off to the National Archives with an idea that other people are going to be interested in their very humble family in the future. And so to that extent, prior to historians use of legal archives, a lot of the time you’re dealing with bourgeois wealthy people and very constrained representations of the past, as a result. So the question about truth there is interesting in that at first people didn’t even question the veracity of them. It was simply just exciting to have this tear in the fabric of time. This glimpse into the lives of people who had otherwise been silent. And as someone who uses legal archives, I can totally see that, you know, you can hear their voices when you’re in the archives. There’s a there’s an a orality to it, even though it’s all written. You go to sleep with their voices in your head. And it’s it’s lovely.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:06:34] What’s interesting about the state’s way of poor people, prisoners in Australia, often Indigenous people that like because they’re surveilled by the state. Yeah. They have a kind of presence in archive that is disproportionate to their number.

Alecia Simmonds: [00:06:46] Absolutely. Absolutely. Which is why they’re such a rich source. At the same time, it wasn’t until sort of the 1980s and 90s, postmodernist historians in particular, Natalie Zemon Davis and Carolyn Steedman are crucial here. They came out and said, do you know what? There is a kind of fictive element to a lot of these sources. What you’re getting is not an unmediated representation of what these people were experiencing. Firstly, you’re getting them in the most desperate circumstances and they are creating a life story. A lot of the time, if you read an affidavit, it usually begins with I was born on this particular date. I was a spinster then a wife to prompt to autobiography in a way. And you can easily take it at face value until you go. This person is writing this story to save their neck. They’re writing this for various purposes to condemn somebody else, to try to get money. There’s a purpose behind it. They’re also not writing it. A scribe is writing it. And the scribe is also probably going to write it based upon how the lawyer has coached that person to give their testimony. Natalie Zemon Davis really pointed out the extent to which you have these stories that are constructed in so far as they are able to fit particular legal categories. They’re not these kind of free-form life stories that you might get in a diary or something like that. Instead, you have the crafting and the fitting of the story. For instance, in my cases, she needs to show that she’s being damaged. Regardless of how she felt during her break up. She might have been completely delighted. He might have been a complete cad, but in order to get money, she has to go, ‘I was utterly stricken’.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:08:26] You’re saying something interesting here, which is that the law and truth do not go hand in hand necessarily.

Alecia Simmonds: [00:08:34] Not at all. Yeah, I think that the law is sometimes the worst place to look for the truth or is certainly not the only place. And I think that that’s definitely there in sexual assault cases. And I think it’s partly behind the metoo movement. You know, the law hasn’t listened to women’s truths in that instance. So instead, you take to media or you take to a range of informal kind of courts.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:08:55] And you’re kind of talking about how the law then in taking to other kinds of courts and trying to bring about other kinds of social pressures. That, too, is the way the law is changed.

Alecia Simmonds: [00:09:04] Yeah. I teach law and I very much enjoy. But I think it’s a shame about the way that law is taught. That is the fact that there is a lack of context. You kind of teach these particular cases. You give you a students doctrine, you give them legal principles. At no point did they get any sense of the rallies that might have gone on around a particular case, which is often the case in Australian legal history. People are really involved in them. I mean, in the 19th century in particular, you have a lot of legal cases or the transcripts of them being written up verbatim in the newspapers. People have a level of legal literacy that we don’t have today. And to that extent, the context is completely important. You know, this was the domain of everyday people.That’s a really contributing to it.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:09:44] The citizenship people. Yes, it does go to this other question, which is about often we talk about how history is not necessarily about finding the right answer, but changing the questions we’re asking. And those questions are reflecting the times in which they’re asked. So how does the law respond to that kind of issue?

Alecia Simmonds: [00:10:05] The idea of the law lacks some sort of ontological foundation. But if you think about the way in which legislation and the common law change in accordance with shifting kind of social power relations and stuff like that, then yeah, it does. I mean there are certain legal historians, certain jurisprudences who would say that the law has its own internal dynamic and will change accordingly. I don’t subscribe to that view. I think that law is absolutely a cultural and social institution and will change accordingly. You know, in terms of your question, I think it’s best answered through an example what questions the law considers to be important or which are even permissible. And it’s a good example of that is obviously sexual assault, where firstly you have the fact that women’s testimony from the outset is not trusted. It’s stated very explicitly in Lord Hale’s dictum, which is 1736 judge who said these cases so often they’re lying. So we have to be very, very careful in to that extent. Women need corroboration. My breacher from us plaintiffs had exactly the same thing because it was a feminised action. It was the only civil action that required corroboration. And it was entirely because of gender, because of this idea that women are incredible, that they cannot be trusted, that they lack credibility. So branching out from that, you then have the extent to which recently, and by recently I mean sort of the last 30 years, there’s been protest against women being asked questions based upon their previous sexual history in sexual assault cases, being asked questions about what they’re wearing. As an academic, I think the interesting issue there is why were these questions being asked? What was it about the way that the law was framing a particular offense that resulted in the idea that these questions would arrive at a particular truth? And I think in the case of sexual assault, you have very clearly the case that the law historically viewed it as a trespass against property, that the woman was the property of an owning man. And to that extent, your sexual history is very important, because if you are common property, then nobody owns you. And to that extent, you can’t be trespassed upon. And so questions around your prior sexual history were quite significant. The minute that women start to be seen as having property in their own person and their own harm is emphasized rather than the harm of a father or a husband. Then you start having these different questions and you start having contestation over what questions are being asked of those women. And on top of that, the kind of trauma that results, you know, from that, the extent to which these court cases retraumatize the women who have already suffered harm.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:12:46] Yeah, right. So that framing question, which is deeply contextual and historically specific and changes, is in some ways a parallel to the kind of framing question that historians also ask?

Alecia Simmonds: [00:12:58] Yeah. The difference is I think that law is always dealing with categories and elements that you tick them off. You have to prove these particular elements in order to satisfy the commission of a crime or, you know, in order to to win, basically. So that really constrains how you can know and what is important to knowing everything outside of that is kind of shorn away. So I think that’s really interesting. And that’s why legal history is great, because you get both you know, you get the wider context as well.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:13:24] One of the episodes that is coming up in history lab is going to feature Professor Claude Roux, who’s the director of the UTS Center for Forensic Science. He’s really interested in this question of indeterminacy, too. He helps us examine the modern history of forensic science. And he’s helped to develop a number of really world leading forensic techniques and technologies that are taken up across the globe. So I want to play something that he told us.

Claude Roux: [00:13:50] We work with a lot of shades of grey. We work with uncertainty right from the beginning. And I guess a big characteristic of forensic science and of a forensic scientist is to be able to to manage that uncertainty properly and express that uncertainty appropriately and as clearly as possible.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:14:09] Find this really interesting. Obviously, forensic science is used regularly in the courtroom, but Claude’s saying here that he believes that forensic science, well, its reliability is dependent on the question that you’re trying to answer. And this means that asking the wrong questions will undoubtedly deliver the wrong answers, even if the best and the most fully validated forensic method is applied. Given Claude’s theory, how good is history and the law at expressing uncertainty?

Alecia Simmonds: [00:14:37] Good history I think he’s a lot better than law at expressing uncertainty. History will always say that it’s provisional in any case. But also that it it accepts that it is a humanities rather than a science, that it’s a process of interpretation rather than an exegetical extraction of particular truths from a text.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:14:55] Are you saying that the law will never admit that it’s provisional?

Alecia Simmonds: [00:14:58] No, not at all. I think that what’s interesting with the law is that you have these two levels of understanding of it. On the one side, you have principles like the Rule of Law and you have popular perceptions of law which need it to claim its certainty. Otherwise you don’t send someone to prison. You know, you don’t have these kind of dire consequences. It has to make a claim to that. At the same time, we’re also quite okay with the idea that you can have seven dissenting judges. You can have a range of different interpretations. You’ve always obviously got to have a majority, but they can offer very different arguments about what comprises the law. When you’re working with it, you see just how much uncertainty there is in it. And there needs to be as well. Otherwise it’s not going to change and it’s not going to be relevant to society.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:15:45] Do you think, Alecia, that there’s a historical way of knowing that’s different to a legal way of knowing?

Alecia Simmonds: [00:15:51] In terms of there being a legal way of knowing. In this instance, I would say that an evidence lawyer would be your best bet to ask that question of I don’t claim any expertise in that area, but I can certainly say that as a legal historian, the law’s way of knowing has changed dramatically over time. And I think that’s really interesting and not something that law students are certainly taught throughout their degrees. So as an example, for most of the 19th century and prior, plaintiffs and respondents in civil cases were not allowed to give evidence in their own cases, which goes against completely our idea that your proximity to a particular event is a guarantee of your veracity or better quality of your your truth. And they were incapable of doing that because it was thought that the risk of perjury was just too high for those directly involved. So in breach of promise cases, you’d instead have gossiping neighbours stand up and say what they thought was going on in the most intimate of affairs, love letters, gifts, all of these things would step in. So these rules were partly about the relationship between credibility and credit.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:16:58] What do you mean? What do you mean by credibility and credit?

Alecia Simmonds: [00:17:01] I mean that your capacity to be taken seriously and to be considered credible in court was dependent upon your credit. There was a property requirement.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:17:15] Was there? So there’s a property penalty for the franchise and for the jury?

Alecia Simmonds: [00:17:19] Absolutely. For some time that that expands. Like it changes throughout the 19th century and it follows the franchise generally for voting. But no, absolutely, you needed property. And this is why you read any legal case, if you have someone poor, they will always have letters of credit. So, again, I’m using that sense of the word letters of credit from people who are wealthy. We still do today. You know, you ask someone to be a referee. You generally go for the person who is highest up in your particular field. We still have it, but this was much more pronounced. Obviously, women being unable to own property in the 19th century, in fact, being considered property of their husbands if they were married, lacked credit completely and did the poor, as did Indigenous people. So what changes is it the rules of evidence change in accordance with democracy really. You start to have this opening up of who is allowed to give evidence. And as a corollary to that, you have a closing down of what constitutes evidence, what constitutes truth. So it’s an interesting kind of process like parallel.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:18:23] Why do you think that is?

Alecia Simmonds: [00:18:23] Because I think that at the end of the day, they still don’t trust them. I think that and I think that’s a big question.It’s less a part of the weave in the fabric of society. People don’t just turn up to court to watch a court hearing in the same ways you’d go to the pub, which is what people are doing in the 19th century. So I think as that happens in a Weberian sense, I think it becomes bureaucratised.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:18:47] Max Weber. Like we’ve been getting from you just now, I’ve realised is a historian’s take on the law. So all of this talk about the societal imbedding of what counts as authoritative is a way a historian thinks. It’s not necessarily the way a lawyer that is arguing a case in the high court this afternoon would think.

Alecia Simmonds: [00:19:10] Yeah, which is why I did begin it with ask the civil lawyer. Yeah, no, you know, rather than a legal historian. Yeah. I don’t think that I could give her a good answer on what is a legal way of knowing. Nor do I think that there is one. And so it’s going to depend upon which particular area of law.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:19:29] But what is history’s way of knowing?

Alecia Simmonds: [00:19:33] What do you think it is?

Tamson Pietsch: [00:19:33] I think history signs up front to its provisionality, as we’ve said. It’s interested in power and how it is not natural for a historian. It is embedded in processes and therefore it’s open to change. So that question of structure and agency is a kind of analytic

Alecia Simmonds: [00:19:54] And how does that affect sources and knowing?

Tamson Pietsch: [00:19:56] Well you’ll take that to a source and ask those questions of a source. The source won’t speak for itself. I think a historian is very aware that is making the source speak and that it is asking questions of our time to a source that would then be asked differently in the next generation. So in that sense, it’s very embedded in its own conversation. We talked earlier about democracy and citizenship and that that emphasis on agency and the ability of collectives and individuals to change the structures of power is why citizenship was such a key product of the discipline, because a citizen is somebody that is fundamentally embedded in a time and a place and a structure of power, but has abilities to act in context in a way that a consumer is not.

Alecia Simmonds: [00:20:48] So, I mean, they’ve been people who’ve been denied citizenship throughout.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:20:52] Of course. Of course.

Alecia Simmonds: [00:20:53] But the very category of citizenship is premised upon an idea of active engagement

Tamson Pietsch: [00:20:57] And is able to be made porous at the edges. What’s inside the bucket is changed. And it’s that it’s the epistemic nature of placing that kind of actor at the center of the stories you tell.

Alecia Simmonds: [00:21:11] I don’t think that the law is blind to those power dynamics. But I don’t think it is anywhere near as attentive to the history because it’s completely bound up in them. It’s talking about an arm of the state. You’re just not going to have the same questions there.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:21:28] That’s ultimately backed by force.

Alecia Simmonds: [00:21:30] That’s backed by force. Exactly.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:21:32] So I’m glad we’ve settled that not inconsiderable discussion. You know, field of history and law. But there has been something else I’ve been wanting to totally pick a fight with you about. And you know what’s coming. Because one of my biggest peeves is the historical present. Yes, I hear you are. What is the historical present? Well, it sounds a lot like this.

Samadhi Driscoll: [00:21:54] It’s about 1903 and this is the first encounter with the law. Would be the first of many. A police officer comes to her shop to arrest her for false fortune-telling. And so she lifts up her skirt and underneath her skirt in her stocking. She’s got this pouch full of gold coins and she just takes it and goes, well, Georgie, you better have this then and passes it over to George. And the police officer is dumbfounded. Probably has never seen that much money in his life and just looks to George. And George says, what do you think of a woman like that?

Tamson Pietsch: [00:22:31] This is Samahdi Driscoll. And no, it’s not 1903 it’s 2019..

Alecia Simmonds: [00:22:36] I’m sorry. Suddenly I am completely on your side.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:22:40] This bit of tape comes from our episode Making a Fortune. And in this episode, we’re hearing about Samahdi’s great great grandmother, Mary Scales, who Samadhi discovered was a working class woman who turned from a washerwoman to a fortune teller and made her fortune doing so at about turn of the century Federation Australia.

Alecia Simmonds: [00:23:00] So by the historical present in Tamson, you mean the use of basically just the present tense to refer to an event that took place in the past. Which look, to be honest, I’m doing in the book that I’m writing at the moment and I love it.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:23:13] You’re not using that in your book?

Alecia Simmonds: [00:23:15] Yes, I am. Yeah. When I am in the archive, in my book. I am using it. We all tend to use it quite a lot, Tamson, for a reason. It’s intimate, it’s immediate and it’s fun. Don’t be so afraid.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:23:28] And deeply confusing. It kind of enacts all of the crimes that we pretend not to.

Alecia Simmonds: [00:23:36] What do you mean?

Tamson Pietsch: [00:23:37] Firstly, it suggests that you know, what it’s like to be in 1903.

Alecia Simmonds: [00:23:45] I fail to understand how that’s different to other historical writing, particularly historical writing that is done in with an omniscient third person narrator, which to my mind has far more of a sense of authoritative claims to knowing than a creative use of the first person.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:24:05] You’re not stealing someone’s voice, though.

Alecia Simmonds: [00:24:07] Stealing. This is very high crimes.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:24:13] Well, they are high crimes.

Alecia Simmonds: [00:24:14] It depends on how you use it. Personally, I would not put my own sources in the historical present. I put myself when I’m in the archives, in the historical present.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:24:23] That’s very middle of the road.

Alecia Simmonds: [00:24:23] I just think that it works better for my book, but I’m not opposed to it. Like I think, for instance, Hillary Mantel, pretty much the best writers of creative forms of history. They do use the historical present. As masters of the art of writing, and she is, she’s a brilliant writer, she understands that the historical present gives the reader a sense of immediacy of being there that you simply don’t have otherwise. I also think that it’s an issue of not patronising your reader. I think that people are quite aware that they’re not in 1909.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:25:04] This premise is patronising. To say that you have to make something more alive by rendering it present is itself a kind of patronising. Well, it suggests that you need to kind of do an act of translation in order to make it palatable.

Alecia Simmonds: [00:25:21] It simply says that it enlivens.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:25:23] Why is the device of the present tense in your book, like what work does it do when you’re using it? And what work are you not wanting to do when you’re not using it?

Alecia Simmonds: [00:25:31] I don’t like to speak for other people with this, but for me it is about your claims to truth and your claims to knowing. I can genuinely tell you how I feel when I’m in an archive at a particular moment. I don’t feel I can say genuinely how my particular historical sources, my breach of promise women were feeling in that time. I feel awkward about it, which is not to say that other people don’t. It means that you’re absolutely right. I stand somewhere on the middle road. I don’t want to be able to claim that I know the inner worlds because I think inner worlds are so historically contingent, they come out with such strange things. You know, as an example with one of my first chapters. It’s about a woman who, all of her love letters are written by her sister. She keeps them on the kitchen table and they don’t really read like love letters to me. I don’t really quite understand them as love letters. But they are you know. That’s its sensibility that I don’t entirely understand and I would feel awkward.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:26:29] You’ve made my point for me. I’m very happy to bury the hatchet at that place. The other thing is that as historians, we know a lot more often about the world that our actors lived in than they did. Now, we don’t know a whole lot of things that they knew. But let’s say, you know, you’re back in Federation era. There’s a fight in the market. As a historian, you’ll be able to gather a bunch of materials probably about what’s happening. One block over where the police cars coming from. You know, who’s reported it, who’s dispatched it, what the onlookers are saying that the people involved in the fight do not have access to the time. So when you slip back into the historic present and try and situate someone in that context, you’re imbuing them with godlike powers, but you’re not making that clear.

Alecia Simmonds: [00:27:21] I don’t think that that would be a very good use of the historic present. Like, I think that when you look at the people who do it well, they don’t do that. It all it does is that it allows, in fact, more than anything for a certain fragility and fallibility on the part of the protagonist. You get much more of a sense of their humanness. Also through the writers efforts to do things that historians often don’t do, which is describing the texture of everyday life, which we don’t have just from a series of reports. But you can get when you go ‘alright, she was in a court room. What was the wood made of?’ You know, cedar smells like this. Okay. I’m gonna say that this is what it was. You know, any building a much richer picture of what the world looked like then. But I think you’re also talking about two very different types of writing history. One can be the more analytical where you’re explaining broad change over time. Another one is trying to resurrect a lost world. And that’s where I think that it can become useful.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:28:15] Do you think of the past? I mean the manuscript of your book itself is telling. I think that you want to bring this cordial duel to a conclusion. Since you’re the guest host of this episode, would you do the honors and tell everyone what they can expect to hear later this season?

Alecia Simmonds: [00:28:31] Sure, I would be delighted. Next time on History Lab, we revisit a theft of the most intimate kind that was said to be sealed by a thumb mark and was later settled by the courts. It was known as the Cubillo and Gunner case.

Archival Tape: [00:28:51] The decision a devastation for those determined that justice would be there. After sitting for one hundred and seven days, Justice Maurice O’Loughlin dismissed the landmark compensation case based on claims relating to the removal of two children from their Aboriginal communities. In Mr. Gunnar’s case, the judge accepted his mother’s thumbprint as evidence that she had authorised his removal.

Alecia Simmonds: [00:29:16] And we’ll also be hearing more from our friend, Professor Claude Roux, on the history of modern forensic science and the Locardian theory.In theory.

Claude Roux: [00:29:23] Every contact leaves a trace.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:29:25] I can’t wait. Thanks for joining us on this bonus episode of History Lab and a big thank you to my brilliant co-host, colleague and confidante, Dr. Alecia Simmons. History lab will be taking a break over the Australian summer, but we’ll be back in your years with our second episode, Making a Fortune on February 4th, 2020. Set the clocks and have a safe and happy holiday.

Alecia Simmonds: [00:29:51] Okay. How do we take this thing off?

Tamson Pietsch: [00:29:52] You’ve got to turn the volume.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:30:02] History lab is made on the lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation whose land was never ceded. Our award winning podcast is a collaboration by the Australian Centre for Public History. Impact Studios, which is a new audio initiative at University of Technology Sydney and our media partner to 2SER.

Podcast playlist


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The Spanish authorities found a plastic bag a few blocks away from one of the bomb sites with a single, incomplete fingerprint.


This was the trace linked to a man living 9000 kms away, a US Attorney in Oregon by the name of Brandon Mayfield.


We’ve been told that every fingerprint is unique to every finger, but what if this is the wrong question to ask?


Forensic Science was founded on the principle that ‘every contact leaves a trace’ but history shows we can’t always rely on one trace alone.




Reading the signs

February 17 · 38 MIN


When was the last time you were asked to sign something and did you stop to think how the strange squiggly mark you make on a page could be used?


The signature is a performative act, crucial to the law’s way of knowing, but it’s also been used as an instrument of power and control.


In this episode of History Lab we hear from a boy who was stolen, the man who took him away and the Judge who was asked to decide if a mother’s thumbprint was a sign of consent.


The presence or absence of a signature on a legal document can speak volumes and throughout history Aboriginal people have been reclaiming this marker of individual identity to represent the many and speak back to an empire.


Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this episode contains the voices and names of deceased persons.



Making a fortune

February 03 · 34 MIN

‘Making a Fortune’ looks at the popularity and persecution of two of the most formidable fortune tellers of Federation Australia.


In the first decade of the 20th century, Australians were focused on the future. It was the dawn of a new century, and a newly-formed nation. But during this time, police were cracking down on a booming industry dominated by women—it was a service that society deemed superstitious, archaic and fraudulent and one that is unlawful to this day in some parts of Australia. This is a story of entrepreneurship, independence and the force of the law.


Why were these female fortune tellers so aggressively pursued by the police and how did they use the law to fight back?