Illinois State University’s Professor of History Amy Louise Wood is the recipient of double honors with a $60,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and a year-long fellowship from the National Humanities Center (NHC). With the awards, Wood will dedicate the next year and a half to writing a book that examines the cultural and intellectual history of criminal justice in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
As part of the NHC Residential Fellowship Program, based in the Research Triangle in North Carolina, Wood will be invited to join a cohort of scholars with the aim of generating new knowledge in the humanities. Over the last 40 years, fellows have produced more than 1,700 celebrated books.
Wood’s research will produce a book called Sympathy for the Devil: The Criminal in the American Imagination, 1870-1930, which is under contract with Oxford University Press. The book examines the rise of criminology as a scientific discipline and a corresponding wave of prison reform in this time period, and focuses on the role that emotions played in both.
“Although criminologists presented themselves as clinical observers of the criminal mind who wanted to remove emotion, namely anger and vengeance, from the criminal justice system, feeling in the form of sympathy played a vital role in how they imagined criminals,” said Wood. “They were concerned with the physiological and intellectual make-up of the criminal, but also his emotional make-up.”
Both criminologists and penal reformers focused on the rehabilitation of the criminal. “There was a shift in thinking that the best way to reform a criminal was not through deterrence, which was based in fear,” said Wood. “It became a matter of instilling in him a sense of sympathy, compassion, and caring for others.” Reformers wanted state penal systems to model that compassion.
While, overall, reforms of prison systems failed, some ideas advocated by reformers took hold. “Prisons remained harsh places, but the concept that prisoners have rights expanded in this period,” said Wood. “Probation and parole came into being, and prisoners also gained the right to see family and receive letters, which were seen as important to their reformation.”
Rather than an indictment or praise of the era, Wood explores the wider cultural forces that led to new ideas about criminal justice and the state, many of which persist today. “Most histories focus on social control as reformers’ primary motive of reform, dismissing their humanitarianism,” said Wood. “I’m interested in why they had and expressed humanitarian sentiments, which they saw as fostering moral and social order.”
Wood is the author of Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940 (2009) and co-editor of Crime and Punishment in the Jim Crow South (2019). Her scholarly articles have appeared in publications such as the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, the European Journal of American Studies, and American Nineteenth Century History. She is the recipient of an Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship from the Huntington Library and has been honored with two Outstanding College Researcher awards from the College of Arts and Sciences at ISU.