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February 6 Provost’s Lecture on the History of Innocence in America

Ian Burney

Ian Burney – Staging Innocence Erle Stanley Gardner’s Court of Last Resort and the Imaginative Landscapes of Frontier Justice in Post-War America

Ian Burney
Ian Burney

Ian Burney is Professor of History at the University of Manchester’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine. He is the author of Bodies of Evidence: Medicine and the Politics of the English Inquest (Johns Hopkins, 2000), Poison, Detection and the Victorian Imagination (Manchester, 2006), and, with Neil Pemberton, Murder and the Making of English CSI (Johns Hopkins, 2016). With Chris Hamlin, he has edited a collection of essays entitled Global Forensic Cultures: Making Fact and Justice in the Modern Era (Johns Hopkins, 2019). For the 2019-20 academic year, he is working on his “history of innocence” as a fellow at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina. In May 2019, he was also awarded a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation to pursue this work.

Abstract: We live in an age of innocence consciousness. Since the first US case of post-conviction DNA exoneration in 1989, national advocacy organizations have championed the cause of potentially innocent prisoners, raised public awareness and promoted policy reform. These developments have been hailed as the dawn of a new moral, legal and scientific order – an “innocence revolution” – driven by a unique set of contemporary forces: principled critique criminal justice bias, media advocacy and the declarative power of forensic genomics. But, of course, the pursuit of innocence has a history, and this talk will consider one of its more colorful chapters – a post-war experiment in the public pursuit of justice driven by Erle Stanley Gardner’s Court of Last Resort. Best known today as the creator of Perry Mason, the intrepid attorney who successfully cleared underdogs caught up in false criminal charges, in 1948 Gardner established his “Court” as a group of handpicked freelance “experts” in law and criminal investigation charged with investigating possible cases of wrongful conviction. Its work was publicized in feature articles in one of America’s leading popular men’s magazines – the Argosy. This talk will focus on the relationship between Gardner’s initial conceptualization of his project and the representational space in which this conception was articulated. For his Court to succeed, it required an engaged public following, and in turn the means of achieving this depended on the nature of the “public” being solicited. As Burney will argue, the generic features of the post-war men’s magazine industry presented Gardner with a well-specified set of textual and visual themes from which he might forge links between individual readers and his projected collective cause. Burney will focus on one such trope, one that was a staple of this publishing genre, but one that also resonated well beyond it: the spirit of the Western frontier. Through an analysis of the Court’s first published case – featuring a shoot-out set in the Southern Californian desert – he will show how the frontier figured at once as a physical space and as a site for conceiving and acting out a set of highly stylized values that Gardner sought to associate with his quest for an authentic version of American liberty and justice.

This Provost’s Lecture, co-sponsored by the Department of History, will be held on Thursday, February 6, at 4 pm in the Charles B. Wang Center, Lecture Hall 1.

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