In Brief: Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

Since interest in the Nutshells has continued to grow, I thought I’d do a brief roundup of my contribution to recent web articles and blog posts (includes photos I’ve shared and links):

Wellcome Collection Blog: “Finding the Truth in a Nutshell,” by Erin N. Bush

Fangirl Nation: Mistress of Death Interview with Erin N. Bush

Mental Floss: “The Nutshell Studies: How a Wealthy Grandmother Revolutionized Crime Scene Investigation

Stuff You Missed in History Blog: Frances Glessner Lee

Fat Pencil Studios: Dollhouse Murders


In Brief: The Digital Past – Fall 2014

This semester, I’ve adjusted my H390 – Digital Past syllabus to focus student projects on Gilded Age/Progressive Era Chicago.

My last two classes, which consisted of mostly non-majors, struggled with the breadth of  my “pick a topic in history” final project instructions. I also found that since I am not an expert on all possible historical topics, I spent a great deal of grading time validating basic factual information and immersing myself in their topics so that I could adequately grade them. I’m hoping this is easier for me as well.

Additionally, I find that digital resources on Chicago during this time are quite prevalent. I already teach the Homicide Project Database out of Northwestern University Law School, so adjusting the rest of my in-class exercises worked out well.

The best part about teaching with technology? It’s a constant state of learning and adjustment.

Capital Cases in 1850s Virginia

Totals of Women in VAThis semester, I’m taking my very last course in the PhD program–the Doctoral Research Seminar. The purpose of the course is to research and write a substantial paper related to our dissertations.

I’ve chosen to explore the circumstances of capital cases involving women in Virginia in the 1850s. As seen in this graph, my research thus far leads me to believe that the largest volume of Virginia’s women were executed in this decade. I’d like to understand why.

My driving questions are as follows:

  • What are the circumstances of cases in which women were executed in the 1850s. What of the women who were pardoned or acquitted?
  • Are there trends or patterns that I can identify among and between these crimes?
  • Are these crimes/outcomes affected at all by the changing social and political situation in Virginia in the decade? Are there other macro circumstances that influence these trials?
  • Can I draw any conclusions about the effect gender, race, and class had on capital crime in Virginia in this decade? Are there specific constructions of deviance that influence the outcome of cases involving women in Virginia at this time?

Very early working argument: The thirteen slave women who were executed in Virginia in the 1850s had a larger burden to bear in the courtroom than their white sisters in crime. Due to the unsteady nature of master-slave relations in the Old Dominion during this decade, the murder of a member of the master’s family–as each of these cases represents–proved too threatening to manage on the plantation. Once the courts were involved, the possible mitigating circumstances in each of these individual murders were irrelevant.

I’ve made contact with the archivist in charge of local papers at the Virginia Archives and he’s helping me to identify the best way to answer these questions. I’ll begin my research with the papers of Governors John Floyd, Joseph Johnson, and Henry Wise to help me identify those cases where pardons were requested, and either accepted or denied. (The courts were required to send complete capital case files to the governor to review for pardoning reasons, so these records should be pretty robust.) Once I’ve identified cases by name, I can do a more thorough newspaper and county records search. From there, I’ll work my way out to identify cases in which the defendant women were acquitted. Admittedly, these will be more difficult and time consuming to find, but I’ll see what I can do in a semester.

If I find I have too much information to complete this study in a semester, I’ll dial it back to compare two locales–probably Richmond and Culpeper county, based on the initial research I have.

At some point, I’ll have digital components to share–hopefully a database and some visuals of the trends I find. Either way, I’ll document my progress here, so stay tuned.

Reflections on Discipline and Punishment

Edward Ayers, Vengeance & Justice: Crime and Punishment in the 19th-Century American South (1984)

Edward Ayers, in Vengeance & Justice, explores the rates and types of crime patterns in the South. Broadly, he is taking a quantitative approach to understand how crime and punishment fit together, how they changed before and after the Civil War, how they differed across sub-regions in the South and how they were resisted by Southerners of both races. While the subject of his book seems to span the entire South (and the North in come cases), the bulk of his research spans only three communities in Georgia, each representing an important Southern subculture: urban, rural black belt, and upcountry. His framework and approach to the research, specifically in these three regions is appealing to me on a variety of levels. The same approach can be used to understand women and crime across Virginia.

Ayers’ community study across the 19th century allows him to chart the changes over time and also compare these communities to each other, a particular strength. Ayers’ approach firmly ties crime and punishment to political, economic and social catalysts, if not so much to the law itself. For example, he argues that prior to the war, trends in crime waves among city dwellers mirrored market ups and downs, whereas the rural areas remained more self sufficient with their crimes independent of market forces. (99) Once Reconstruction pulled the South into the broader markets, crime trends changed to reflect this.

Ayers suggests a continuum of crime that parallels economic development across America broadly with the urban North at one extreme and the rural South at the other. The challenge of course is that while he’s reading out from three communities in Georgia, the “North” and the “South” become monoliths devoid of subtlety and nuance. While his argument is compelling, it’s hard to tell where Georgia ends and the South begins. Furthermore, recent work on Southern history, Reconstruction and slavery have basically rendered a monolithic South unreliable.

Speaking of slavery, Ayers offers some interesting observations about slaves and crime that should prove important for my own work. He argues that prior to the war, blacks had rare encounters with the legal system, mostly because the slave system was the most significant form of control in the South. Most violent crime handled by the state was among whites, with black offenders relegated to the control of their masters, or the discipline of the churches to which they belonged. The changes on society brought by the War and Reconstruction led to the state assuming control over black criminals; more blacks were prosecuted and crime increased among the rural populations. I’m curious to see if Virginia’s crime records show the same patterns before and after the war.

Among all his talk of honor and violence, there is a curious lack of discussion about gender and masculinity. ((Bertram Wyatt Brown published Southern Honor around the same time and includes discussions of masculinity in ways Ayers does not. It could be argued that Ayers, who knew about Brown’s impending work, adjusted his own so that the two would fit together.)) He seems to weave class and race nicely into his study, but it’s unclear if these patterns have anything at all to do with gender. One assumes the bulk of the crimes are committed by males, but there’s no specific discussion of it. Likewise, Ayers is content not to define “crime” at all, despite the fact that he seems to recognize that crime is ultimately defined and prosecuted by the dominant classes. A particular strength is that he acknowledges that crime is mostly political, reflecting and reinforcing existing systems of power, but the powerful systems in his study are racial and classed. While much has been written elsewhere of the influence and import of Southern white womanhood, it makes no appearance here. As such, my own research will fit nicely among the paths Ayers has cleared with this work.

Stuart Banner, The Death Penalty: An American History (2002)

Banner, in The Death Penalty, offers an excellent synthesis on the history of the death penalty in the United States. Banner combines original research with secondary sources to help outline the trajectory of the debates and history of capital punishment. Because of Virginia’s good records, he does provide details about the role capital punishment played in the Commonwealth, especially with regard to slave laws.  He includes a particularly strong chapter on the relationship of capital punishment in the South to Northern penal reformers. In it, he argues that slavery created the difference that kept the death penalty strong in the South, even while it diminished in the North. His notes are strong and should provide a nice trail for me to follow.

Victor Streib, The Fairer Death: Executing Women in Ohio (2006)

Streib, in The Fairer Death, provides a quick snapshot of the death penalty in Ohio, the women who were executed there and those sitting on death row. I had high hopes for this book, thinking it would provide me with a way to approach executions of women in Virginia. While the book offers interesting factual tidbits about the death penalty, it’s remarkably ahistorical and clearly a republish of research from other earlier articles. I would be better served to mine the notes for the original articles and read those.

Reflections on Institutions: Female Prisons & Asylums

Benjamin Reiss, Theaters of Madness: Insane Asylums & Nineteenth-Century American Culture (2008)

Benjamin Reiss, in Theaters of Madness, questions the tensions between confinement and liberty in the early republic through an analysis of the cultural products relating to the asylum. He uses the writings of nineteenth-century literary figures and asylum patients to uncover the character of early psychiatric thought as a window to understand how American society viewed and processed the concept of insanity. Reiss argues that insanity-related culture was deployed as a tool to reinforce social norms and standardize behaviors. (4) In this way, the cultural products dealing with insanity worked in ways similar to the institutions, medical professionals, and social workers tackling other failures of antebellum moral thought–juvenile delinquency, deviance, mental retardation, temperance, etc.

Reiss crafts what is probably one of the clearest introductions in our readings thus far that works to firmly situate his work among his peers. David Rothman, in Discovery of the Asylum, analyzed the world of asylum superintendents as driven by a critique of the chaos of Jacksonian society. He argues that social tensions and anxieties driven by the loss of common traditions and communities influenced the structured response to insanity, in that asylums offered clear hierarchies and a sense of order, routine, and discipline. (8-9) Michel Foucault, in Madness and Civilization,  argues that power in the asylum focused on “procedures of continuous control,” which worked to control both bodies and behaviors inside the asylum. Medical professionals used minute tools of social control–like case notes–that worked to monitor, record, and count behavior. (10-11) Lastly, Erving Goffman, in Asylums, studied life in inside the asylum and argued that under the constant surveillance of the asylum, every act was monitored and folded back into the hierarchical structure of the institution. (12) Reiss uses all of these analyses, but adds subtly to them by reviewing the system of cultural control that worked as part of the clearly-established power dynamics between the insane and their keepers. Narratives thus are tools of power relationships–a very useful argument to my own work.

Reiss, an English professor, offers a literary analysis and uses fewer sources than a historian would ever deploy to support such broad conclusions. Still his work makes no apologies about the fact that he is choosing discrete slices of asylum life to draw these conclusions. He presents a multi-layered conclusion that recognizes the good intentions of reformers and the imposition of social control.

Estelle Freedman, Their Sisters’ Keepers: Women’s Prison Reform in America: 1830-1930 (1984)

Freedman, in Their Sisters’ Keepers, traces the changing history of female prisoner reformers in New York, Indiana, and Massachusetts. In a book representative of the “new social history,” she explores the origins of women’s concerns for female inmates from 1870 to 1920 using records from the institutions and reformers themselves. Freedman’s history of the changing nature of female prisons and the women who were their keepers follows the same general trajectory as the histories of reformatories, mental institutions, child-saving institutions, and juvenile court systems that we’ve studied thus far. (Of note: the trajectory of female prison reform seemed to stress women’s uniquely feminine realm more heavily than other institutional movements.)

Freedman draws upon the two frameworks that dominate the study of the history of women: the changing status of women after the Revolution as the economy turned from agriculture to industry, and the function of the separate female sphere. Freedman argues that the movement to aid female prisoners had roots in the antebellum, domestic, female sphere, yet it facilitated white middle-class women’s entry into public and professional work by the end of the century (2, 63-64).

Freedman argues that prisons were originally built to hold men and that early female criminals were typically policed by their separate female communities–family and church. By the early nineteenth century, 1840s to be exact, Freedman argues, female criminals entered the “criminal class” (12). This trend seems to align with Halttunen’s observation that the nature of crime literature changed from a community problem to social evil in the nineteenth century. Furthermore, Freedman’s distinction between the nature of women’s crime comparative to men is also illuminating for my own purposes–by and large, Freedman, argues, women were imprisoned for behavioral crimes whereas men were imprisoned for crimes against person and property (13-15).

Also of note, she endeavors to address the tensions that were created when women clung to the definition of women’s separate nature,  which limited their own power and often stifled the inmates they sought to help. Nineteenth-century prison reformers used this “separate sphere” argument, while Progressive-era reformers began to question it. While the observation that nineteenth-century prison reformers relied on the “separate sphere” argument is firmly established and well-argued, I’m less comfortable with the discussion of the Progressive-era reformers discomfort with it. She seems to be arguing that the shift from the biological roots of criminology to a focus on environmental and social factors played into this attitude change (I’m not entirely sure if this is her actual argument or if I’m drawing on our other books to fill in holes in her discussion).

L. Mara Dodge, Whores and Thieves of the Worst Kind: A Study of Women, Crime, and Prisons, 1835-2000, (2006)

Mara Dodge, in Whores and Thieves of the Worst Kind, writes an exhaustive history of prison reform in Illinois between 1835 and 2000 (although rich detail is scarce after 1970). While she includes no detailed insight to how she used her sources–her sources appendix is limited to the types and information available, not her methodology–one can make the argument that this is the type of research project that could only be accomplished by significant digital database work. And for that reason alone, it is an impressive read. There is so much rich detail that absorbing all the information covered in the 135-year period is tough.

Dodge traces the creation and changes across the Illinois state prison system from the first woman incarcerated in 1835 to a modern period. In so doing, she traces the social forces that shaped the imprisonment of women during this time. It’s a long book, with fourteen chapters and three different sections, each behaving really like mini-research projects. She alternates between a strict chronological approach and a thematic one.

Part II traces the social construction of crime and criminality and this where I thought her best work lived. Fundamentally, Dodge argues that criminality and the treatment of female inmates in Illinois was socially constructed. In these chapters, she covers important broad topics useful for my own work: social and legal processes through an act or behavior gets cast as criminal; statistics on the crimes that landed women in jail; and a useful collective demographic profile of female prisoners, including how race, ethnicity, nativity, age, and other subjective assessments affected their lived experiences in prison.

I don’t feel I fully absorbed all the information in this book, but I am concerned that such a rich picture of Illinois is read out as exemplary of the experiences of female prisoners across all of America. Since I am also working on a state study, navigating how to position the importance of such a study, and its application beyond state boundaries, are top of my mind.


Reflections on Homicide in America

This week, we’re evaluating two vastly different views on homicide in America–one from the perspective of the cultural work done to explain it and an another from the broad statistics and trends associated with the crime.  These readings offer two approaches to how to balance very broad questions that attempt to identify patterns with the use of case studies as exemplary of those patterns.

Karen Halttunen, Murder Most Foul: The Killer in the American Gothic Imagination (1998)

Halttunen, in Murder Most Foul, studies the transformation of how early American culture explained murderers and their behavior. She explores this cultural transformation through an encyclopedic cataloging of execution sermons, confessions, memoirs, court proceedings, and published trial reports (broadsides, pamphlets, books, news columns, etc.) Halttunen argues that the narrative response to the crime of murder transformed from the colonial/Puritan period, wherein execution narratives focused on the spiritual condition of the murderer and explained behavior as inherent in the human spirit to the more secular, Gothic imagination of the nineteenth century. In this period, she shows, narratives focuses on the crime itself, the nature of violence, and the murderers motives and impulses. In so doing, these narratives focus on the sensational aspects of the crime–the horror and the mystery–which Halttunen argues served as a strategy for coming to terms with murder on a grand cultural scale. Over the course of American cultural experience, then, murder narratives have reconstructed the transgressor from common sinner [Chapter 1]  in the community (which could be any one of us) to moral monster and mental alien [Chapter 7].  It is through this process of “Othering” the murderer, she argues, that both creates and reinforces the constructions of criminal deviance and society’s institutionalization of those who are. “For the criminal’s moral otherness was deemed to require his or her full separation from normal society, within an institution which, though expressly designed for rehabilitating inmates and restoring them to society, in fact constructed impassable barriers between the normal and the abnormal.” (6)

Halttunen traces this change mostly chronologically and offers an almost encyclopedic array of examples for her themes. There are so many, in fact, that the reader can easily become lost in a sea of narratives and cases. For general points of fact about these particular cases, she cites the sensational literature itself as opposed to trial reports or other third-party documents (72). Patricia Cline Cohen showed in Helen Jewett that because murder narratives worked to shape popular opinion, historians must read them with a keen eye to their rhetorical purpose. Halttunen’s reliance on the very sources she is attempting to “read” is troubling. But how do you manage such a large volume of primary sources with the need to use a variety of examples to prove out broad patterns? In this respect, Gordon’s use of a few complete cases to exemplify her broad trends works quite well.

Halttunen deftly shows how tropes about gender both reflect cultural norms and drive narratives at trial. However, she does not extend her study of these narratives to follow their course of influence on the law itself. In comparison, Odem and Knupfer both gracefully articulate the symbiosis between the  narratives of juvenile deviance and the law. In Halttunen’s work, one wonders about the impact of Gothic narratives on jury instructions, their responses to evidence, and the resulting verdicts and sentences–events I consider part of the legal proceedings, but different from the antics of attorneys in the courtroom. If gender tropes drove narratives, did the narratives drive the court proceedings themselves? This is one downside to a broad study; the cases are too complex and varied to follow this many cases to closure. In my research, I’m going to need to draw some boundaries between the law, the theater of trial, sensational coverage, and the institutions that carried out sentences and verdicts.  If I can effectively evaluate how  these different legal proceedings intertwined with popular narratives in Virginia, I believe my work will have particular relevance and fill some broad gaps in the scholarship.


Randolph Roth, American Homicide (2009)

Roth, in American Homicide, attempts to expose broad patterns in the murder rate in the United States and explain why the United States is the most violent nation among affluent Western society. Roth relegates the usual suspects in explaining homicide trends–urban poverty, unemployment, substance abuse, support for law enforcement–to secondary status and instead argues that political reasons affect the murder rate. He argues four elements have a direct impact on the homicide rate:

  1. The belief that the government is stable and that its legal and judicial institutions are unbiased and will redress wrongs and protect life and property.
  2. The feeling of trust in the government and its officials who run it.
  3. Patriotism and empathy arising from racial, religious, or political solidarity.
  4. The belief that the social hierarchy is legitimate, that one’s position is or can be satisfactory and that one can command the respect of others without resorting to violence. (18)

Roth looks specifically at homicides resulting from assaults (intentional or unintentional, legally justified or indirect) among unrelated adults, perpetuated predominantly by men, of Anglo-American or European descent, African-Americans, and Native Americans. His analysis predominantly comes from a review of homicide data from specific regions of the United States and a handful of counties within those regions covering varying time spans. Roth marries data that he collected with data from other researchers and other projects. Some of these projects were conducted as early as 1914. With such a wide variety of individual projects and research, the reader cannot assume the methods in each project showed the same parity or discipline in coding.

Additionally, Roth is is drawing very broad conclusions about homicide in the United States through an analysis of not only disparate projects, but also using only random counties and date ranges. For example out of 95 counties and 40 independent cities in Virginia, Roth pulls data from 15. For his analysis of trends across the South, he is using data from some counties in Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia. Recent scholarship on the South has argued, quite convincingly, that the complexity of experiences there have rendered traditional broad narratives of such topics as slavery, Reconstruction, industrialization, and the civil rights movement almost useless in understanding the experiences on the ground. His use of only four states to elucidate trends across the South is problematic.

Roth’s study seems to focus on the broader side of data analysis and by sewing together disparate projects and data, the statistics that fill the book’s 600+ pages (and the murders he describes) become overwhelming.  Thankfully, Roth and his colleagues have made their data available through the Historical Violence Database. This allows for a great deal of transparency not only in understanding the omissions in the project, but will also allow other researchers to build upon what has already been collected.