Students bring history alive for the weekend

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Just portraying Abraham Lincoln would appear to be a big challenge for 12-year-old Erin Mahoney.

The sixth-grader at Sewickley Academy raised the stakes on Saturday by also bringing to life assassin John Wilkes Booth and Dr. Samuel Mudd. She was one of almost 400 students who are taking part this weekend in National History Day at the Heinz History Center.

Participants from 27 school districts in southwestern Pennsylvania are presenting papers on historical topics, setting up exhibits, producing documentaries, launching websites and performing as important figures and everyday people from the past.

Middle school students competed on Saturday for a chance to go on to the History Day state contest in May at Millersville University. High school students will present the results of their projects for the same opportunity today at the history center.

In preparation for her presentation on Lincoln's assassination, Erin and her parents, Dolores and John Mahoney of Franklin Park, visited some of the actual sites that figure in the story. They included Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C., where Lincoln was shot; the Surratt house and tavern, where a plot was hatched to kidnap Lincoln; and the home of Mudd, who cared for Booth after he broke his leg. Booth injured himself when he leaped from Lincoln's box after shooting the president. Mudd's house and the Surratt homestead are both in Maryland.

She estimated that she had spent about 300 hours, including travel time, preparing for her presentation.

Mudd's role in the aftermath of Lincoln's murder remains controversial. He was convicted of being part of the conspiracy and jailed for several years in a military prison off the coast of Florida.

Family members have claimed for a century and half that their ancestor did not recognize the man he was treating as Lincoln's killer. Booth, however, had met Mudd at least twice and had stayed overnight with him at his farm.

"He lied about certain things," Erin said of Mudd. "He seems kind of guilty."

Erin and other presenters were making use of visual aids to tell their stories. Her props included an old-fashioned doctor's bag, a journal similar to the one Booth wrote in and a copy of the "wanted" poster with photos of suspects in the presidential assassination. She also wore different facial hair for each of the characters she portrayed.

Addie Best, her face smudged with dirt, portrayed a French fishwife. The 12-year-old home-schooler from Confluence said her character was part of the working-class mob of women. The women were angry over rising bread prices and shortages, and they forced King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and their son to leave their palace at Versailles and return to Paris during the early stages of the French Revolution. Addie is the daughter of Jody and Jay Best.

Her props included a cart filled with fabric fish and backdrops she had painted herself. One shows a peasant woman, holding an upraised sword, standing before the Bastille prison, a symbol of monarchical tyranny.

"Fishwife," which literally refers to someone who sells fish, has the connotation of describing a rude, crude female. Addie said her anonymous fishwife may have been vulgar and ill-mannered, but she was influential both in her family and in French history. As a businesswoman, she was the keeper of her family finances. As a participant in the 18-mile Women's March to Versailles in October 1789, she and other participants ultimately forced King Louis to accept the French National Assembly's Declaration of the Rights of Man.

The theme for this year's History Day is "Rights and Responsibilities."

Ethan Schroeder, 12, looked at "The Rights of Patients and the Responsibilities of Caregivers" for his presentation on Ignaz Semmelweis.

Dr. Semmelweis was a physician working in 19th-century Vienna before Louis Pasteur developed his germ-theory of disease. Although he didn't understand why, Dr. Semmelweis discovered that vigorous hand-washing could almost eliminate women's deaths in childbirth.

Ethan said his performance as Dr. Semmelweis let him escape writing lengthy history papers like those his older brother and two sisters prepared for previous History Day competitions. "But I still had to do a script, a bibliography and a process paper," he said. A sixth-grader at Mary Queen of Apostles School in New Kensington, he is the son of Maryellen and Edward Schroeder of Tarentum.

Ethan's coach, Janet Casper, said History Day projects help meet two important educational goals: "They teach important research skills and presentation skills," she said. "Students in every category have to explain their work to teachers and judges from other districts."

Mack Godfrey, an engineer from Upper St. Clair, has been one of those volunteer judges since 1997. While his own professional background is heavy in math, science and business, Mr. Godfrey said he believed it was critical for students to get a balanced education that included history and social studies.

"Programs like History Day encourage young people to get the most out of their studies," he said. "It is important to turn out graduates who are well rounded and are ready to be good citizens."

Len Barcousky: or 724-772-0184.

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