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When the abhorrent becomes normal: Examining shifting beliefs and values through cultural history

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Events from the past can spark amusement, wonder, or horror when seen through the lens of the present day. Often the past can prompt the question, “How could they have thought that?”

Answers to that question are sought by Illinois State University Professor of History Amy Wood. She is a scholar of U.S. intellectual and cultural history, defined as the study of ideas—both those of learned writers and thinkers as well as those of everyday people.

Cultural beliefs and values are historical, noted Wood, who describes her work as examining the history of beliefs, values, and emotions in the 19th and early 20th centuries. “Beliefs change over time, often underpinning larger social or political events,” said Wood. “Even feelings, which we consider personal and subjective, are social in nature and are likewise historically driven.”

It is the dark nature of those shifting beliefs that intrigues Wood—in particular, how abhorrent or bizarre practices come to be socially acceptable. From lynching rituals to “mad-elephant” executions, Wood examines how watching spectacles of death and violence became normalized, or how hardened criminals became the object of public sympathy. Looking to popular culture such as photography, film, and literature, Wood seeks to uncover how public sentiment was both represented and shaped in the past.

Wood’s 2009 book, Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890–1940, won the Lillian Smith Book Award, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in history, and was named a Choice Outstanding Academic Book by the American Library Association. She has also edited the violence volume of the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture and has co-edited a special issue of Mississippi Quarterly titled “Lynching and American Culture,” in addition to numerous journal articles, book chapters, and book reviews. She won the College of Arts and Sciences Excellence Award for Outstanding Scholarship in 2010 and Outstanding Researcher Award in 2015.

Wood’s desire to comprehend the motivations behind social violence in the post-Civil War United States stems from a curiosity and temperament she describes simply. “I can tend to be pretty dark.”

“I became interested in studying the dark roots of my own culture.”—Amy Wood

She was drawn to the topic of racial violence during her time as a master’s student at the University of Mississippi when, as a research assistant for an Alabama Public Television documentary on violence in the South, she stumbled across a series of photographs and postcards of actual lynchings in an archive.

“It’s horrific. It’s atrocious, and—from our perspective—so bizarre,” said Wood of the practice of taking photos of black lynching victims in the Jim Crow South and selling them as postcards. Amateur photographers took some of the photos; others were taken by professionals whose function was to commemorate community events. “When they sold these out of their studios, it became a money-making, commercial venture for them.”

What struck Wood was the question of why. “Who took these? Why would anyone take these? What did they mean to people? How did they use them?” she asked. She took up these questions in her first book, Lynching and Spectacle. Wood examined the taking and distribution of photographs as a crucial aspect of the larger lynching ritual that legitimized white supremacy in the Jim Crow south. She also analyzed lynching rituals as they intersected with other cultural practices, such as religious rites, public executions, and motion pictures, practices that further helped to justify the violence.

As the postcards and other public images of lynching began moving out of the Southern communities, Wood said they ignited the opposite effect, sparking outrage outside the culture of the Jim Crow South. “These images were taken up by anti-lynching activists,” she said. “So the spectacle of lynching actually worked to undo the practice of lynching.”

Female professor smiling

Professor Amy Wood

It was never Wood’s intention to study history. She grew up the youngest of three children in Providence, Rhode Island. Her father was a professor of history at Brown University. “I was a rebellious child and thought I would never be like my father,” said Wood. “The fact that I teach history now is an irony not lost on me or the rest of my family.”

Wood majored in European literature and philosophy at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, but was drawn to American literature during her study abroad semester in Heidelberg, Germany. “In studying German culture, I became interested in studying the dark roots of my own culture,” she said.

Returning to the U.S., she wrote her senior honors thesis on female rebellion in the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and William Faulkner. After college, while working in a bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she continued her interest in Southern literature. “I started a Faulkner reading group with a friend. I became a bit obsessed about understanding the South, everything about Faulkner’s world,” Wood said. She finally responded to a longing only youth can fulfill. “On a whim, I quit my job, sold all my furniture, and moved to Oxford, Mississippi, without a job or a place to live, and without knowing a soul there.” She smiled at her impulsive uprooting from the Northeast to Faulkner’s hometown. Finding a job at a local bookstore, Wood later enrolled in the Southern studies program at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, with the intent to focus on literature.

The only Northerner in her graduate class, Wood initially found it hard to fit in, but eventually found her footing and her mentors. She was unexpectedly drawn to history classes, spurred by a desire to understand literature and other forms of culture as products of historical milieu. “Two of my advisors were both historians and had a huge influence on me,” Wood said of now Professor Emeritus Charles Wilson and Center for the Study of Southern Culture Director Ted Ownby. “They encouraged me to go for my Ph.D. Those two turned me into a historian.”

Wood continued her study of Southern history and culture at Emory University, where she earned a Ph.D. in American studies in 2003, and worked for several years at the Southern Regional Council, an Atlanta-based civil rights organization. After receiving her doctorate, she arrived at Illinois State University, where she teaches courses in U.S. cultural and intellectual history and Southern history.

Her wit and interdisciplinary approach to history are known to draw in students, and they often challenge her to guess how future generations would view the culture of our time. “My students ask me how people will think about us in 100 years,” said Wood. She instructs students to picture walking into a classroom 50 years ago where all the men wore ties and jackets, and the women sported skirts and dresses. “What does that tell us about what they valued? Or what did they think about education? And what does it tell us about how as a society, we thought of students?” Wood referred to the students’ responses as “lively.” She earned the College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Teaching Award in 2018.

After publishing her award-winning book on lynching and spectacle in 2009, Wood has spent the past decade producing a slew of book chapters, articles, and presentations on the South, white supremacy, lynching melodramas, racial violence, public executions, and vengeance. That work includes her article “Killing the Elephant: Murderous Beasts and the Thrill of Retribution, 1885–1930.” Appearing in the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, the piece was honored as best article from 2012 and 2013 from the society that published the journal.

While researching her first book, Wood came across photos and even early films of circus elephants that were executed—by hanging, electrocution, or firing squad—after hurting or killing a human. “In the antebellum period, if elephants went on a rampage, they would just shoot them,” said Wood. “But after the Civil War, they began executing them as public spectacles, replicating criminal executions.” Circuses would sell tickets to the executions, and local newspapers would cover the events, describing the pachyderms with the characteristics of a human criminal. “There was one case in Madison Square Garden where they lined up the other circus elephants to watch the execution as a deterrent,” said Wood.

In the article, she placed these strange events in the context of popular understandings of the criminal and retribution as a form of justice. Ideas about criminality and punishment were changing in the late 19th century, and the elephant became a convenient stand-in for the criminal. “They were seen as savage and animalistic,” said Wood, “but, at the same time, they became objects of sympathy, as creatures who could not control impulses we all have.”

Wood’s interest in the history of criminal justice continues with her most recent book, Crime and Punishment in the Jim Crow South, an edited collection that provides case studies of the role criminal justice played as a tool of racial oppression in the Southern United States in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

“The majority of prisoners in the postbellum South were African American, up to 90 percent in the 1880s and 1890s,” she said. “Generally, white crime was overlooked. Black people were over-policed, more likely to be imprisoned, and given longer prison sentences.”

Wood included a chapter of her own on South Carolina Gov. Cole Blease’s prison reform efforts, noting how he used the language of reforms as a way to resist the modern bureaucratic state and bolster his own authoritarian power. Although he adopted the humanitarian rhetoric and some goals of national prison reform, he rejected the state infrastructure that would have allowed for reform. “Blease’s tenure shows the distinct ways that prison reform operated in the South,” said Wood. “Instead of setting up bureaucracies to create oversight on the state prison, Cole Blease does two things. He sends prisoners off to the counties to work on brutal chain gangs or he pardons them. In other words, he empties out the state penitentiary.”

For her next book project, Wood vowed not to write about violence. Instead, she wants to write a history of emotions to explore how compassion and sympathy operated as social and political principles in the Progressive Era in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She plans to do this by looking at … criminology and prison reform. “Yeah, I can’t get away from it,” she said about studying the dark nature of humanity. The book will be called Sympathy for the Devil: The Criminal in the American Imagination, and will include work from her Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship to study the papers of Jack London at the Huntington Library. “For a chapter of the book, I’m looking at representations of criminality in literary naturalism, which was a kind of literary movement that included writers like Jack London, Theodore Dreiser, and Frank Norris,” she said.

London, an advocate of prison reform, was a Darwinist, interested in the innate impulses that drive people to crime, and a socialist who saw the roots of crime in unjust social environments. “You can see his ideas about crime and punishment in works like White Fang,” said Wood. “It follows popular narratives at the time about criminals, their degradation and then
their redemption through the sympathy of others.”

Though Wood’s studies delve into the dark side of U.S. history, she often looks at the opposite—ideas of reform and redemption. Wood’s work provides a reminder that even as the nation walks through the darkest tunnel, there is a way toward the light.

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