The American Historian

Worlds Collide: The Boston Marathon Bombing, Historical Thinking, and Empathy

Katherine Rye Jewell

The morning of April 15, 2013, started like any other Patriot’s Day. I took the opportunity of a state holiday to do some research-related work, after which I planned, along with my young son, to head to Natick, Massachusetts, to watch my favorite local annual event: the Boston Marathon. As I sat editing at my computer that morning, I could not envision how the day’s events would transform my assumptions about the possibilities and responsibilities of historical scholarship. Through the process of using my skills as a historian to grapple with what would unfold, I realized new ways to connect the personal and scholarly. The connection of my personal documents generated by that applied, therapeutic research would enrich my classroom and my understanding of both the difficulty in and power of creating historical empathy. In relating this story to a wider audience, I hope to inspire other teachers of history to think about our responsibility both as practitioners of objective history but also as stewards of historical empathy, which remains a profoundly personal practice.

On Patriot’s Day 2013, I wanted my almost four-year-old son to experience the excitement of the marathon and see the accomplishment of the athletes. We went first to Natick so we could see the elite runners—I met some friends and we found a great spot to see the race. The cheering as the large pack of runners that followed the elite athletes excited Leo. He wanted to give a high five to as many as he could. We had made signs to encourage a high school friend of mine who was running, and Leo loved waving his creation and seeing the runners smile at him. 

After seeing my friend, Colin, pass, Leo wanted to experience more, and I was excited to take him on a bit of an adventure in the city. From Natick, we drove into Cambridge. We left my six month old daughter with her dad, Conor, in his Kendall Square office, and Leo and I walked down Mass Ave through MIT and across the Charles River: our destination was the finish line of the race. We took pictures and talked about the skyline and the boats on the river. We made our way past the blooming magnolias on Commonwealth Ave, a welcome site in the still chilly winds of late April in New England. 

We stopped to see runners ascending from the Mass Ave underpass and turn onto Hereford St. Leo wanted to be closer, to see the racers smile at him as he cheered. We made our up Gloucester St. and left onto Boylston St. toward Fairfield St., toward the finish line. We found a spot near one of the metal barricades where we could see the race. If you’ve never been to the last quarter mile of the Boston Marathon, it is a sight to behold. Even this late into the race, the span of Boylston St. roars with the sound of onlookers. It’s a bit of a madhouse, and with our stroller in tow, it was not possible to move past the twenty-six-mile marker and to the finish line. I asked Leo if he wanted to go further and see the finish line, but he was growing tired of the crowds and the noise. We took our picture and made plans to head back to Kendall Square. 

Then, as Leo rested from the excitement in his stroller, a boom cut through the cheers. Silence fell across the crowd. I froze, thinking that now was as good a time as any to go. To me, it sounded like MBTA trains had collided in Copley Square, or perhaps the grandstand had collapsed. I looked around for signs of what had happened to determine which way I should exit the scene. After what seemed like a minute, though I know it was only a matter of seconds, another boom sounded. This time, I could feel that it was an explosion. There was no quiet interlude this time. The screaming started, the crowd began to run, crashing into me, the stroller, in a frantic escape from the smoke that was billowing just 200 feet away. The air was acrid. I turned the stroller, and I ran—away. As the crowd rushed past, people hit my shoulder, nearly tripping me. The stroller slowed me, and I was gripped by the sensation that Leo was too far, just two or three feet in front of me. A horrible feeling crept into my throat as I began to think about grabbing him and shielding him for a seemingly inevitable third blast. I knew I had to protect my son, to get us off Boylston St. As people ran frantically by, I searched for an exit from the street. It seemed imperative that I escape, even though I really had no idea what had just occurred. I told Leo we were going to find a hiding place, and that he needed to listen to me. 

I escaped from Boylston St. via an entrance to businesses and exited through the loading dock. I remembered that businesses above could be accessed from small street entrances, and I chose a nondescript door to flee through. For a moment I considered going upstairs and hiding until I could find out what had happened, but Leo told me he wanted to go home. I left the stroller in the hallway, and we climbed down the stairs to the loading dock behind the building. I wasn’t sure of the address where I left the stroller, and so to document its location, I did the fastest thing I could think to do: I took a picture. 

two girls run frantic down a street
                                                                                               A photo by the author in the aftermath of the Boston Bombing

From the alley, we walked, avoiding the crowds and main bridges, until we could cross into Cambridge. I made my way to the Boston University History Department, where we stopped and rested. Confusion swirled through my head. I managed to get a phone call to Conor letting him know we were walking. Leo’s little legs kept moving bravely, and as we passed people on the bike trail along the Charles, he told them, “That was a really loud noise!” He told me that there was a monster in the ground, firing at people. I told him to keep walking. Finally, we crossed the bridge towards River Street in Cambridge, where Conor had the car to pick us up. I still didn’t really know what had happened, but during the car ride home, my hands began to shake. That night, I put my story on Facebook.

In the days that followed, I resisted the search for context. I knew I had been close to the bomb, but I didn’t know the exact distance. Part of me didn’t want to know. I drove to work the next day, refusing to turn on the news, and instead listened to the Sirius/XM “Spa” station, trying to stay blissfully calm despite the thoughts I continued to bat away. I returned to the classroom less than twenty-four hours after the explosion, and I told the students my story, and for the first time I let myself feel some of the emotions. 

That day in class, like the entire month afterwards, is a bit of a blur. We had been scheduled to discuss the home front during World War II. I had brought examples of letters to soldiers, including one my grandfather had sent to his family from the South Pacific. Students shared their family connections to the war; one student observed that her family had been in Ireland, and she always felt disconnected from the war. Another student shared that his one connection to the war had died. His grandmother, whose experiences had been focused much more on the political conditions in her nation, Haiti, had died a few years earlier in that country’s devastating earthquake. Sharing these reflections felt oddly calming, reassuring, connecting me to the resilience of people in the past. 

After the lockdown a few days later, I began to seek greater insight into the events. I knew others near me had experienced similar sights, smells, and sounds, and I yearned to compare the fuzzy memories in my mind with those of others at the event. I could not ask my son for fear of traumatizing him further. And so, I looked to what I had created, my primary sources, and I began to compile them to confirm as real or not the images that swirled through my head.

History as Therapy

As a historian, I am trained to corroborate eyewitness testimony, to treat primary sources with caution, to always back up a source with additional research, data, and analysis. I continued to search, to explore maps and plot my position using visual clues from my photographs of the event, and to reconstruct my escape route and the timeline of events using text messages and social media posts. 

I wrote about the process ten days after the bombing in a blog post entitled, “History as Therapy: Reconstructing the Boston Bombing.” I stumbled through the post, half connecting with what I was describing and half distancing myself. This perusal of personal evidence using the skills of the historian was not satisfying. The data set was not extensive and the eyewitness—me—had huge gaps in her memory. I had vague ideas about a person with blood streaming down his face walking past me. I had echoes of people crying in my head, of snippets of conversation. Above all, I felt incredibly isolated. How could what had constituted only five minutes in my life come to occupy a huge space in my head, in my memory, and lead to so much confusion?

I looked at the maps I had created and began to connect the idea to my immediate experiences with the bombing. What if I could reconstruct the crowd? To map different stories? To find out if others who were near me reacted in the same way? In a different way? If I could get the word out, I could have others contribute their stories, plot them on a map, and create a data set to not only add to my own imperfect memories, but also create a record of an event for future researchers. Maybe, if I could do that, I could find out that these images and sounds in my mind were the construction of later events, an amalgamation of images from the media and my imagination in the absence of concrete, reliable memories. This, if I could pull it off, would indeed be history as therapy. My therapy. And maybe for someone else, as well.

So I constructed a map. I consulted a friend’s son, a geographer, about tools, and settled on Google Maps Engine. I created a free website and put up a post on social media. The Worcester Telegram and Runner’s World, among others, picked up the story. I began to see people telling their stories, putting their stories to a geographic location.

Soon, the Our Marathon team at Northeastern University contacted me. They were creating a digital archive of the event, crowdsourcing, as I was, oral histories, images, documents, social media posts, websites and blog posts, and collecting oral histories from the public. They asked if I would contribute my map points to the archive as well. Their project gained momentum, and soon they created their own map based on the information collected. It is an archive project born of our digital era, reflecting the new ways that first-hand accounts are documented, communicated, and preserved. I became able to compare my story with that of others close to me, to corroborate and add detail to what I experienced. By using history, I and other digital humanists could reconstruct events using the array of sources created from an event: the process of history would continue, and I could use it for my personal purpose. While the endeavor remained profoundly personal for me, public efforts to catalog and capture artifacts and memories of the event are ongoing.

I remained unsatisfied, however. Something about this experience continued to bear on my mind in thinking about what it is I do as a teacher and as a scholar. That collection of primary sources: what were they good for? What story could they speak to, what significance did they have? When I stepped into the classroom on April 16, 2013, it was impossible to leave my personal experiences behind. Yet by being honest with my students and discussing this experience I had with them since, I realized how the personal and the scholarly are intimately connected. In that class session we looked at the events of the past with fresh eyes, more aware of the human experience—the frightening atrocities we can commit, but also the power of communities and identities to shape and understand these events, creating legacies, reshaping history and historical understanding. By scholars embracing public scholarship and teaching, and infusing those roles with our own humanity, students can better understand the mission of education grounded in the liberal arts. Students can transform from being recipients of knowledge to being creators of and participants with knowledge.

My quest for therapy thus began to transform. I began to think about how to blend the historian’s practical skills—attention to detail, corroboration of sources, the use of context, historical empathy—with the broader mission of helping students think like historians. Too often students miss the point of learning history. They think it’s about the memorization of facts, of stories, of learning about people who lived long ago whose actions may not connect directly to their lives, to their daily decisions, problems, and skills that they need to be competitive in the twenty-first century American economy. 

In a class in the spring of 2014, I began an experiment. These students, all history majors, would purportedly be open to the task of doing history. I printed up my collection of primary sources from the event—all fifteen of them. Luckily, there were fifteen students in the class: each student had his or her own source. My experiment was simple. I gave them their sources, and I asked them to collectively construct a narrative. A simple, straightforward narrative describing what this person experienced and what he or she did in the timeframe documented. I told them I had a few hints if they got stuck, but other than that I would give them no other information: no context, no characters, no details. 

I watched as students began comparing sources with one another, wary at first to discuss these strange documents with people they had barely met. What were they looking at? What did they mean? A picture of someone’s kid, clearly. Some text messages. Okay. Some looked confused. One student said, “uh, I’m not really sure what she wants us to do.”

Then, someone made a connection. April 15, the photo caption read. This looks like Boston. These girls are running from something. Something bad happened. “The bombing, it’s the bombing.” 

The social dynamics of the room took over. Some students went to their strengths, others held back. Some pulled out computers, phones, or tablets. One outgoing student decided to be the teacher and to use the whiteboard. They tried to put the documents in chronological order, to identify the cast of characters—this is her! Is this your son (he’s cute!)? Who is Matt? Who is Colin? Wait, there is also a Conor. Is that her husband? Come on, it’s not cheating for me to ask who your husband is! Wait, you were at the bombing? 

“How close were you?” they asked. “Figure it out,” I told them. 

Eventually, they began to piece the details together, making many mistakes along the way. They mined the text messages for details related to the characters in the story, the lines of communication, and when I managed to connect with my family. Their assumptions usually led them astray, but sometimes provided useful insights. Some insisted I must have been at the Boston Common because they thought that was where the finish line is. They zoomed in on details, such as the texture on the brick wall behind me in my picture, comparing it with Google Street View images. Others figured I must have run towards the river, because who in their right mind would run towards a bomb? Each class I’ve tasked with the narrative, now totaling four, eventually constructed a rough timeline, describing the event from my perspective—with varying levels of success. 

I congratulated them, told them what they got right and where they might have made a misstep or two. And then I gave them the traditional historical document: the firsthand account. In this case, it was my post from that evening on Facebook. And I gave them one more task: find the error. From the maps they consulted and the timeline that they constructed, they eventually realized that my testimony reflected my mindset from that day and week—the woman listening to the spa station in her car and not the news, refused to confront how close she was to the blast. “Two blocks” was really “half a block”: perhaps this was not a significant finding other than that it illustrated the miscues that can be innocently contained within primary sources, reflecting the writer’s bias, mindset, or psychology—intentional or not. 

The students seemed to enjoy the experiment, remarking that it was a good ice breaker, and that it showed them how important attention to detail is. As one student later told me, “I was able to experience firsthand what historians do, and not in a lecture/question-response/reteach manner.” He and his peers had to use, as he put it, “our own creativity, our understanding of modern society and social behavior,” and he testified to enjoying the competitive nature of the assignment.[1]

After grappling with the flawed nature of primary sources, the problems of firsthand accounts, and the detailed analysis needed to do a historian’s analysis, my students the confronted the “so what?” question that all historians must address concerning their work. What was the significance, if any, of this story? Of MY story? Certainly, it was a way for students to conduct research, to act like investigators, and to “relive” the events, as the student I quoted earlier explained. But what more did it represent, if anything?

This exercise cultivated historical empathy. Students had to put themselves into my shoes, to think as I might have thought, to impartially observe while also reconstructing the experiences of another human in the past—the not so distant past, but the past nonetheless. This is an important skill; it is, as the scholar of historical thinking Sam Wineburg puts it, an “unnatural act.” Historical thinking, in this manner, involves, “a humility before the narrowness of our contemporary experience and an openness before the expanse of the history of the species. It grants people in the past the benefit of the doubt by casting doubt on our ability to know them as easily as we know ourselves.” That students could not fully reconstruct the timeline of my experiences at the bombing, that they took several missteps, granted them humility in the face of basic problem solving while also asking them to set aside their own worldviews and enter that of another. The lesson here is not to enter the past to judge it, to “confirm their prior beliefs,” as Wineburg explained, but to learn from it. Perhaps the goal of empathy is a bit more obtainable with the subject sitting right there in the room, but I hope that students remember the lessons of the experiment as they turn to people in more distant times and places—and that they maintain, in all areas of their lives, their willingness to see the world through someone else’s eyes, seeking to understand and learn rather than to judge.[2]

Even as historians continue to work in their specialized fields and write for expert audiences, social media and new tools are helping bring this work to wider audiences, and we in turn are able to apply our skills to a broader set of questions and problems. With information access rising, the critical thinking skills of the historian become increasingly essential: our students are barraged by information (and misinformation); they need the ability to question, to separate fact from fiction, propaganda from persuasive argument. They need to be able to understand how the statements of others reflect worldviews and experiences different from theirs. As they create a digital world of their own, they need to understand its permanence and impermanence, and that through it they can access wider audiences and have a deeper effect on the world they live in. With polemicists charging that digital media is dumbing the younger generation, or altering the nature of political and public discourse, enhancing students’ critical thinking is an increasingly important task.[3] Rather than letting that term slip into banality, invoked as a rote reaction to defend higher education, we need to continue to show what it means, and why it is valuable. For this to happen, first scholars need to recognize their public role, to embrace it, and to allow the scholarly and the personal to meet. As students of the human condition, scholars have a responsibility to apply not only our skepticism and our skills, but also our ability to imagine, to enter into the worldview of someone else, and to do so with understanding and compassion. 

In my moments of reflection, of insecurity, and self-doubt, I wonder if this is the skill I have imparted to my students. As I inject my own experiences into the classroom, as I acquaint them with the skills of doing history, of seeing how the cataloging of historical artifacts is changing, as I entreat them to put themselves in the minds of others—whether it be my own, or Richard Nixon’s, or a factory worker’s in a nineteenth-century cotton mill—I hope that they come away with a deeper realization about their own power to create, to think, to critique, and to imagine, and ultimately negotiate competing narratives, shaped by conflicting motivations, interests, or even memories. 


Katherine Rye Jewell, PhD, is Assistant Professor of History at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts. Her recently published book, Dollars for Dixie: Business and the Transformation of Conservatism in the Twentieth Century (2017), explores the emergence of free enterprise ideology among politically active southern business leaders. She is currently researching a project on college radio, student protest, and the culture wars. 


[1]Personal correspondence, David Demosthenes to Katherine Jewell, March 25, 2015.

[2]Samuel Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other “Unnatural Acts” (2001), 21-22.

[3]For example, see Mark Bauerlein, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30) (2008); Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (2010).