Today I worked with my class to explore genre using the harrowing true story of Chrissie Venn. I started by offering some background about the real life murder of the little 13 year old girl, Chrissie, in the Tasmanian town of North Motton, in 1921. The murder case was so poorly handled that nobody was ever convicted, and it remains an unsolved case to this day. A book was published in 2000 which explored elements of the case and told Chrissie’s story. That book only had a small print run, and my sister Fiona managed to get a copy through advertising in the paper, after her curiosity was piqued when hearing all about the tale. Indeed, there are many myths, legends, rumours and innuendos that have circulated throughout Tasmania about the death, the court case, and the suicide of the man who was originally accused but then acquitted. I read my students the following summary I wrote of the tale:
On Saturday the 26th February 1921, Chrissie Clare Venn was cruelly and brutally murdered at the once quiet and peaceful hamlet of North Motton.
The body was found on Allison Road, by the farm of John Hearps Sr. The appearance of the body showed unmistakable signs that a violent murder had been committed. The bodice of her white muslin dress had been ripped and shoved into her throat. Dr Ferris, who made the post-mortem, gave evidence that Chrissie suffocated from the gag in her mouth, placed there by her attacker, when she had uttered the piercing scream which was heard by the two young Hearps boys while ploughing in the farm some distance away. The scream not being repeated, no aid came to the unfortunate girl, who met with dishonour and then death after which the body was hauled into a gigantic hollowed out stump in the lonely and secluded site of the crime.
No one has ever been found guilty of the crime.
Hostility surrounds this murder and for over 80 years since the trial, nobody has spoken “on the record” of her murder.
Mr King, a pig farmer who had originally been convicted of the murder, was acquitted, but was said to have committed suicide some years later.
It turned out that one student in the class had actually been to the murder site, as it is customary for young people to engage in a ritual of visiting the site at night, t0 do a lap of the hollow stump in which she Chrissie’s dismembered body was buried. This has led, as the book attests, to “a fascinating mixture of legend, mythology, ghostly tales and eerie sightings”. My sister tells the tale of her own daughter who engaged in this practice, and how she was scared so much during the visit she became hysterical. My student said that her car stalled when she visited, and this is a common report by many. Others claim to have seen apparitions of axes appearing on the road. I think this story would make a fabulous movie!
So in small groups, I gave each person in the group a different character from the story and a few pieces of real information about the character. I explained that they had to write a recount of the day’s events as the police were collecting witness and testimony from all who were involved in sighting Chrissie on the day of her murder. This writing in role technique is one I use frequently, as giving them the role of “expert witness” provides both a motivation to write and also frames their language use in particular ways that can lead to elevated language use. We then spent time reflecting on structure and grammatical features typical of this kind of recount.
Next I gave the students the task, in their groups, to write a newspaper article about the event, for a range of differing purposes, using Wei Wang’s description of the micro genres of news commentary:
(Wang, 2007, based on Martin & Peters, 1985; Hoey, 1983; and White, 2002)
Again, we spent some time sharing and then reflecting on the way the language changes according to context and purpose.
Finally, since the story of Chriss Venn is the stuff of legends, I asked the students to create a poem, a nursery rhyme, a song lyric or cautionary tale about her. If I get permission, I’ll share some of the writing later, as it was amusing, clever, poignant, and “hair-on-your-neck-stand-up” spooky!
Here is a poem by one of my very talented students:
The Lament of Chrissie Venn
The stump lies
A dress undone
This is the dead
Eye stare of
A close knit
(c) Chris Rattray 2010
There is more to come!