Top Young Historians: 12- Michael Willrich


Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Associate Professor of History, Brandeis University; (Chair of the Brandeis Graduate Program in American History, July 2003-June 2005)
Area of Research: American social and legal history, urban history, and the Progressive Era (1890-1920).
Education: Ph.D, University of Chicago, 1997
Major Publications: City of Courts: Socializing Justice in Progressive Era Chicago (Cambridge University Press, 2003); Michael Willrich JPG Untitled on smallpox, public health, and the politics of vaccination in the Progressive Era, work-in-progress, to be published by Penguin Press, New York (The Penguin History of American Life series).
Awards: City of Courts won the American Historical Association’s John H. Dunning Prize for 2003.
William Nelson Cromwell Foundation Prize, 2004, awarded under the auspices of the American Society for Legal History, “to recognize and reward excellent work by young scholars in legal history.”
Charles A. Ryskamp Research Fellowship, American Council of Learned Societies, awarded January 2004; research leave planned for 2006-07.
Residential Fellowship, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard, 2004-05.
Biennial Prize, Society for Historians of the Gilded Age & Progressive Era, for “the best published article treating any aspect of U.S. history in the period 1865-1917,” 2000.
Erwin C. Surrency Prize, best article on law or constitutionalism, American Society for Legal History, 1999.
Nominated by University of Chicago for Allan Nevins Prize, Society of American Historians, 1998.
Additional Info: Formerly Assistant Professor of History, Rice University, 1997-1999.
Willirich is on the Editorial Board, of Law and History Review, for a five-year term starting January 1, 2005.
Willrich was a journalist in Washington D.C. from 1987-1991 where he wrote articles on politics and urban affairs that appeared in The Washington Monthly, Washington City Paper, The New Republic, Mother Jones, The California Republic, and other magazines.

Personal Anecdote

Forgive me for being sentimental, but my dissertation sources stunk. Really. They made my eyes tear, my skin itch, and my nose explode. Working in the old archives room of the Chicago Historical Society in the mid-1990s, I’d taken to wearing a mask, the kind other folks wear when they’re sanding chipped varnish off an old bed frame or driving a five-pound sledge hammer through dry wall. Only I was poring over the contents of an old scrapbook of newspaper clippings that a long-deceased local judge, Chief Justice Harry Olson of the Municipal Court of Chicago, had kept in the early twentieth century. The scrapbook had apparently spent much of the previous seventy-five years in someone’s basement or attic, where the damp and the vermin and the mold spores had made a home in its brittle newsprint pages. I couldn’t have been a pretty sight myself. Archie Motley, the much-beloved dean of Chicago archivists (who passed away in 2002), would chuckle sweetly as he padded by my table. When Archie had first laid his hands on this scrapbook in 1994, I’d already been coming to the society for years, most recently to research a dissertation centering on the criminal courts of the Second City in the Progressive Era. Archie quietly slipped the disassembled scrapbooks onto my desk one day. And weeks later, mask and all, I still couldn’t believe my dumb luck.

I’d learned to shut up and just be thankful for everything that wind-ripped Midwestern metropolis had unceremoniously laid before me since I first arrived at the University of Chicago, in search of an education, in the fall of 1991. After a few years working as a journalist in the nation’s capital, I’d come to Chicago to study urban history. My best bet was that I’d stay maybe a year. But by the time the first subzero night spun permafrost like white cobwebs onto my apartment windows, and Max Weber’s Economy and Society had found a permanent place on my desk, I guess I knew I’d settled in for the long haul. I’m not entirely sure what did it. It might have been Kathy Conzen’s incredible first-year research seminar in social history, Bill Novak’s classes and interdisciplinary workshop in legal history, Tom Holt’s seminar on race, conversations about urban culture with George Chauncey, or the many nights swilling history with my grad school friends at Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap. Or it could have been all of those deep archival sources-including criminal court records, feeble-minded commitment proceedings, unpublished sociological dissertations, manuscript collections, and newspapers-some of them just turning up, like some gangster’s body, in a county warehouse, just when I needed them most. But looking back there’s no question that Chicago itself had a lot to do with my decision to become a historian and to do the kind of history I do. That city and its people and its institutions and its music and its history: they fed my head, my body, my senses. I tried once to get away-tried to contrive a dissertation that would carry me back home to California. But it was no use. Chicago had, at least for the time being, become my home, Sweet Home.


By Michael Willrich

  • “The problem of crime in the modern city raised two far-reaching social questions, which could not be resolved within the cultural and legal framework of late nineteenth- century, Victorian liberalism. The first was how far one could trace the actual autonomy, personal agency, and moral responsibility of the individual self in an ‘interdependent’ urban-industrial society. The second question, intimately related to the first, was what role the courts, the workhorses of nineteenth-century governance, should play in the regulation of a complex economy and society. . . . How Americans in the Progressive Era debated these two great issues of their day illuminates the momentous upheaval in cultural perception and liberal ideology under way in their lifetimes. The outcome was an unprecedented expansion of governmental power, through the criminal courts, into the everyday social life of American cities.” — Michael Willrich in “City of Courts”

About Michael Willrich

  • “…painstakingly researched and beautifully written…” — Social Service Review
  • “Willrich tells an important story; and he tells it very well. The research is rich and deep. This book is one of the best, most insightful, and provocative studies in American legal history that has appeared in recent years. It could serve, in many ways, as a model, in its adroit blending of social and legal history.” — H-Law
  • “Willrich’s account is complex, insightful, and wide-ranging; City of Courts incorporates the history of science, legal history and political history in a narrative that casts new light on crime and punishment in the second largest city in the United States.” — The Times Literary Supplement
  • “Michael Willrich shares with Fyodor Dostoevsky and Theodore Dreiser an absorbing interest in the ancient riddle of whether crime should be reckoned as an individual or a social failing. He probes that riddle to magnificent effect in City of Courts, freshly illuminating the social, political and cultural landscape of Dreiser’s own Chicago. This book announces the arrival of a major new scholar of the progressive era. It also surely heralds a rebirth of interest in that formative period when Americans struggled to define the ideas and institutions appropriate to the myriad challenges of the twentietth century. Indispensable reading for all students of the conflicted and consequential history of modern American liberalism.” — David M. Kennedy, Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History at Stanford University and author of Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945
  • “Willrich is God… what an amazing class, what an amazing lecturer.”… “He is one of the best professors I’ve had in college. The combination of well developed and delivered lectures and willingness for discussion made this class a great learning experience for me.”… “Great professor, really interested in the topics he teaches. Always supportive and encouraging, although completely honest when work is just not up to par, which, in the long run, is more helpful than not. Extremely approachable, great discussion leader!” — Anonymous Students

Posted on Sunday, January 29, 2006 at 11:55 AM

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