AHA Member Spotlight: Catherine L. Evans
Catherine L. Evans is an assistant professor at the Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies within the University of Toronto. She lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and has been a member since 2017.
Twitter handle: @Cath_L_Evans
Alma maters: BA (history), McGill University (2008); BA (jurisprudence), University College, Oxford, 2010; PhD (history), Princeton University, 2016
Fields of interest: 19th-century British empire, law, medicine/forensics/psychiatry, crime
Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today?
As an undergraduate, I was sure that I would someday work as a lawyer. I had loved history since high school—a few classmates and I even created a “History Club” (I was very cool, obviously. . .), and I found field trips to local university libraries (often to do research for debating—further evidence!) genuinely thrilling. In CEGEP, which in my home province of Quebec confers a college degree sandwiched between high school and undergraduate study, I majored in liberal arts, where I developed a perhaps unhealthy obsession with the Stalinist purges. I went on to an honors program in history at McGill, where I cobbled together a specialization in the global 19th century. I spent a year at the University of Edinburgh, where I found excuses to use the collections at the National Library of Scotland in between walking tours and long nights at the pub. Still, I thought of history as a hobby. After graduation, I studied law at Oxford, where everything around me was wonderfully, aggressively old. Surrounded by aspiring lawyers, I realized I was not one. Instead of revising for my law finals, I camped out at the Bodleian, trying to craft a plausible PhD application. It has been over 13 years since I learned I had been given the chance to become a professional historian, and the joy of that moment has not faded.
What do you like the most about where you live and work?
I teach in an interdisciplinary unit alongside anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, criminologists, and lawyers. I love that my colleagues have a wide range of disciplinary specialties and research interests. It can sometimes be a struggle to articulate what, exactly, is so great about leaving a day at the archives with frozen fingers, a backache, 5,000 photos of illegible documents, and a sweater impregnated with red rot. But having to figure out what a historical sensibility can lend to courses and projects firmly outside the discipline has been helpful for my own understanding of our field, including its limits.
What projects are you currently working on?
My first book, Unsound Empire: Civilization and Madness in Late-Victorian Law (Yale Univ. Press, 2021), is a history of criminal responsibility in 19th-century England, India, Canada, and Australia. I am currently beginning a new project on the legal history of fire, especially arson, in the British empire. Suspicious fires were ubiquitous, mysterious, and scientifically and legally complex, inviting political interpretation and defying boundaries between private and public law. The project considers fire in Canada, England, Australia, the Caribbean (currently, the Turks and Caicos Islands) and possibly beyond, depending on where the archives take me. I am also hoping to write a popular history of Victorian professionals and imperial administration told through the famous Osler family, but this might be a longer-term ambition.
What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives or while doing research?
I spent the winter of 2013 at the Provincial Record Office, Victoria, in Melbourne. The archive has an incredible collection of capital case files, and I was chasing down records related to insanity defences and homicide. One file, unusually thick, included a small envelope marked “Exhibit B.” The case was that of a convicted murderer, William Colston, who was hanged for killing two people with an axe in 1891. When I carefully opened the envelope, I discovered a ripped piece of thin paper smeared with brown. I soon confirmed what I had suspected: the stain was blood. Half of the ripped paper had been found on the body of one of the victims, and the other was later taken from Colston after his arrest. The two fit together perfectly. I have had a few similarly disconcerting, weirdly intimate moments in archives and museums since then. As a graduate student, though, Colston’s envelope fundamentally reshaped how I thought about archives, and how quickly they can collapse distances of time and space between researchers and the people of the past.
Is there an article, book, movie, blog etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?
Podcasts have become great resources, and I have been working to integrate more alternative media into my undergraduate syllabi. Recent favourites include The Last Outlaws, a critical re-examination of the story of Aboriginal Australian “outlaw” Jimmy Governor, hosted by Katherine Biber; Stolen: Surviving St. Michael’s, an affecting account of one family’s experiences of the residential school system in Canada, hosted by Connie Walker; and Bad Women, a feminist, social-history-inspired account of the infamous “Ripper” murders of the 1880s, hosted by Hallie Rubenhold.
AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, Perspectives Daily features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.
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