Most historians dream of finding a trunk full of untouched papers in the attic. For one UF historian, though, a trunk with unexpected contents offered a different type of inspiration.
How do you write about a case that began when baggage workers in Pittsburgh opened an unclaimed trunk because it stank up the train platform, and ended when the last of the three defendants was hung and strangled to death in front of a crowd of nearly 2000 people?
In the mid 1880s five Italian immigrants were put on trial in Chicago for murdering a fellow countryman, packing his body into a trunk, and sending him by train to Pittsburgh. At the close of trial, the jury concluded three of the men were guilty; they were hanged in the courtyard of the local jail a few months later.
In her study, The Chicago Trunk Murder, Professor Elizabeth Dale looks at the grisly case to explore how context—both social and legal—influenced the outcome of this and other trials at the end of the nineteenth century. Intended as a companion piece to her earlier study,The Rule of Justice (2001), Dale’s study of the trunk murder looks at the interplay of popular ideas of justice and the formal demands of the rule of law. Where Rule of Justice looked at the ways in which extralegal forces influenced the formal legal system, The Chicago Trunk Murder looks at how popular forces were brought into the criminal justice system. From the investigations that led to the arrest of the five defendants through their trial and execution, we get a picture of law, and a legal system, that fails, at many levels and in many different ways, as it tries to balance public opinion against due process.
Those two books, Rule of Justice and The Chicago Trunk Murder, represent Dale’s ongoing interest in writing popular legal histories that help make the unfamiliar methods of the world of law more familiar to non-specialists. Both are intended to suggest how contingent the world of law can be, and to show the extent to which the interpretations of events, by the press, by lawyers, by witnesses, could shape outcomes and help determine verdicts.
To visit the press page for Dr. Dale’s book, either click on the image of the cover above or you can click here.