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ISU Historian Uncovers Sympathy For The Devil

Amy Wood's new book examines the changing attitudes towards criminals in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Attitudes toward criminals have changed a great deal in the United States, and Illinois State University historian Amy Wood is using a prestigious Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship to further her research into those remarkable changes.

Wood is at work on her latest book, "Sympathy For the Devil: The Criminal in the American Imagination." In it, Wood examines the social development of moral responsibility towards criminals in the late 19th century, which eventually led to prison reform efforts into the 20th century.

"I was interested in the ways in which our responses to crime and criminal justice are guided by feeling and emotion. Crime produces a lot of social emotions, like grief, outrage, desire for vengeance and even sympathy. So I came at this project with this interest in the ways in which our criminal justice system is guided by emotions."

Credit MaxPixel / Flickr via Creative Commons
Prison reform went through a great deal of change a century ago.

Wood focused on the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a time of rapid transformation in the country.

"In the case of criminal justice, you see two phenomena.  You see the rise of criminology as a science, which drew out of fields like anthropology and psychology. And then you also see a prison reform movement. And out of that movement came a lot of aspects of our modern-day penal system, things like probation and parole. So this is a real moment of change."

Initially, criminologists were very invested in the concepts of nature versus nurture, said Wood.

"They started to look at biological predispositions to crime. They looked at patterns of criminal behavior through families, plus they looked at things we now reject, which is physiological aspects of criminals."

A low brow or a cleft chin were considered signs that a person might have criminal tendencies. On the other hand, criminologists began looking at environment, including poverty and bad schooling, and the impact on those who who entered  into a life of crime.

"The ideas is that society creates the criminal. And if society creates the criminal, society bears a responsibility toward the criminal. What this leads to is what does the society owe a criminal, and how can we help restore the criminal back into society. So there's much more emphasis on rehabilitation." 

Wood researched much of her book at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, and while there she looked at the papers of author, Jack London.

"He's going to be a crucial character in my book," Wood revealed. "He himself actually spent 30 days in a penitentiary in Pennsylvania. He was arrested for vagrancy. And that experience opened his eyes to the abuses in the criminal justice system. He felt  railroaded. He wasn't given a lawyer and didn't have a trial. It opened his eyes to the lack of civil liberties. Once he became a famous author, he became interested in criminology. I got to see his library, the books he was reading. He read the books of prison reformers."

Wood said London used his research in his writing, plus he established relationships with prisoners in San Quentin, learning from them and using what he learned in his books, "The Star Rover" and "White Fang."

Wood continues to work on "Sympathy For The Devil."

You can also listen to GLT's full interview with Wood:

GLT's full interview with Wood.

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Reporter, content producer and former All Things Considered host, Laura Kennedy is a native of the Midwest who occasionally affects an English accent just for the heck of it. Related to two U.S. presidents, Kennedy appalled her family by going into show business.