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Emory historian Daniel LaChance named 2022-23 Chronos Fellow
Daniel LaChance

Emory historian Daniel LaChance, whose research examines harsh punishment in the United States, has been awarded the Chronos Faculty Fellowship in Emory College of Arts and Sciences.

Historian Daniel LaChance has spent much of his spare time in the last decade scouring digital records for news coverage and fictional accounts of American executions. His examination of the media coverage, and how it changed in the nine decades following Reconstruction in the late 1870s, may help explain why many Americans have come to think of executions as private dramas rather than political events.

His research will take a big leap forward next academic year. LaChance, the Winship Distinguished Research Professor in History, recently was named the third recipient of the Chronos Faculty Fellowship in Emory College of Arts and Sciences. The award provides a full year of leave and additional support for research and writing.

LaChance will apply the award to completing his next book (tentatively titled “Empathy for the Devil: Executions in the American Imagination”) and to creating humanities-research positions for undergraduate students.

“I have published some research about how journalists and fiction writers have portrayed the condemned and the government agents who put them to death in certain moments in time,” LaChance says. “Now I’ll have the chance to finish collecting the data and get the full bird’s-eye-view on 90 years of history.”

“This fellowship is such a gift because I’ll now have uninterrupted time to take all of these threads of a project I’ve been working on for years and really figure out how to braid them together,” adds LaChance, who joined Emory College faculty in 2013 as an expert on the law’s relationship to violence.

Funded by a grant from the Abraham J. & Phyllis Katz Foundation, the Chronos Fellowship aims to support ambitious scholarship in the post-tenure period, when time for immersive research, deep thinking and writing can be difficult to secure.

It includes a year of leave and $10,000 in research/travel funds. Instead of travel, LaChance plans to hire undergraduates to help with his archival research and analysis, which will give students invaluable experience in humanities-based research.

“The Chronos committee was extremely impressed by Professor LaChance’s proposal on multiple levels,” says Deboleena Roy, the senior associate dean for faculty in Emory College. “This humanities-based research project focuses on a timely topic and contributes to the mission of Emory College by extending scholarly generosity and supporting the intellectual curiosity of our undergraduates.”

Advancing research on complex death penalty issues

LaChance wove together pop culture and legal history in his first book, “Executing Freedom: The Cultural Life of Capital Punishment in the United States,” to explain why many Americans in the late 20th century strongly distrusted government yet approved of the government taking fellow citizens’ lives.

His Chronos project delves into the 19th-century roots of those attitudes, starting with the gradual move to make executions invisible to the public. Meant to keep people from forming their own impressions and judgments about executions, private executions instead gave journalists and authors enormous power to shape the public’s perceptions of the death penalty.

In his preliminary research, focused mostly on southern states in the late 1800s, LaChance found a martyrdom narrative. Although African Americans were much more likely to be executed, journalists lavished their attention on white male criminals. They portrayed those criminals as facing pending death with bravery. The accounts similarly humanized wardens and jailers as those providing the condemned or their families some measure of dignity.

The book project expands such research to nine states around the country and Washington, D.C. to see if there are similar trends in every region of the U.S.

Coverage that minimizes the brutality of executions, while also distorting the reality that a disproportionate number of Black and poor Americans are put to death, may be a key factor in Americans’ enduring support for capital punishment.

“My speculation is that the death penalty raises anxiety-inducing questions of how the state uses power,” LaChance says. “So when we humanize the condemned, it masks the racist ways capital punishment has been used and comforts us against the broader worry that government is anonymous and indifferent to the needs and the souls of ordinary people.

“It’s complicated, so I’m grateful to have the Chronos Fellowship to take the time and really figure out how it all comes together,” he says.

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