Laurier history students use Peeps to depict Victorian crimes

Wilfrid Laurier University history professor Amy Milne-Smith has asked her students to create dioramas of Victorian crimes using marshmallow Peeps.

The Peeps 'take a little bit of the horror out of some really disturbing imagery.'

This diorama shows Christiana Edmunds, an Englishwoman who became known as The Chocolate Cream Killer. She poisoned several people by putting poison into chocolates. She killed one. (Wilfrid Laurier University)

A witch burning in Ireland. A cheating husband, a jealous mistress and two murders. The execution of British serial killer Mary Ann Cotton.

They're all fascinating crimes dating from the Victorian era.

But history professor Amy Milne-Smith knows simply writing a research paper about the facts can be, well, a little dull.

So the Wilfrid Laurier University professor has asked her students to create dioramas of the crimes.

The twist to this plot: All the people are represented by Peeps, the marshmallow candies often popular around Easter.
This diorama is of the burning of Bridget Cleary. She was killed in 1895 after her husband became convinced she had been abducted by fairies and a changeling was left in her place. (Wilfrid Laurier University)

"They take a little bit of the horror out of some really disturbing imagery," she said.

Milne-Smith – who admits she has never eaten a Peep – said the pink bunnies and white ghosts allow her students to focus on the facts rather than get caught up in the art of the diorama. Some students use other candies in the dioramas as well.

"I wanted to get them to engage with these sources in a very concrete way, but with the end result being a little bit more interesting and interactive than just a research essay might be," she said.

"These dioramas are absolutely grounded in the material culture of the past and students realize how hard it is to find out what would a working class house look like, what would a farm look like, what are these interior spaces like. And they spend as much research time doing that as on the particular crime scene details."
Student Leah Parent did her diorama on the Red Barn Murder, which happened in Suffolk, England in 1827. “As a student, after putting in all this effort, it’s really rewarding to have your work published and out in the public,” Parent said. (Wilfrid Laurier University)

Fun but a lot of work

The students, who are taking the course Victorian Crime, Sex and Scandal, are graded on the setup of the dioramas, not the artistry behind them, as well as an online component which explains the Victorian crime or court case.

"The peep shows are fascinating, and some of them actually are quite artistic, but what they're being graded on are the details of those peep shows," she said.
Mary Ann Cotton was an English serial killer. She was hanged for her crimes in 1873, which is what is being shown here. The dots on the photo are points that you can hover over on the course's website to get more information about what each marshmallow character is. (Wilfrid Laurier University)

A lot of dioramas are very simple, she said, because the students can't add in anything that wouldn't normally be there. There has to be a reason for everything, and then it gets tagged on the website to explain it.

"Most of them admitted to being surprised to how much work it was and how much time they put into it," she said.
This is another diorama showing the burning of Bridget Cleary. (Wilfrid Laurier University)

The dioramas are on display at Laurier's library until March 17.

The projects can also be viewed online on the course's website under the heading Peep Shows in the top right corner.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.