Rummaging through the archives of the Harvard Law School library, historian and New Yorker writer Jill Lepore came across the files of a cold murder case dating back to the 19th century.
Lepore became transfixed on the case and grew increasingly engrossed in trying to solve it. But as she pondered who killed the victim, she found herself asking, "Who killed truth?"
“As I was taking the steps that you would take to try to solve an old murder, I realized that those steps kind of recapitulated the whole history of how we know things,” she says. “And it kind of seemed like a challenge to me, like, is there a way to tell the story of the investigation of a single crime as opening up a kind of meta history to the history of knowledge?”
The question is now the theme of the Harvard professor’s new podcast “The Last Archive,” which debuts May 14. Each podcast episode explores a different historical situation related to seeking truth — from a presidential election to the invention of the lie detector. The many threads weave together to explore the truth itself and how it’s become increasingly elusive with time.
Lepore says she was also inspired by a class she teaches at Harvard on the history of evidence. Truth is not something implicit, she says, rather a societal concept defined over centuries of laws and norms.