Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?
I’m currently working on a book about the history of the American high-tech industry—from semiconductors to social media—and its relationship to the worlds of politics and finance. My interest and intent here is, to adapt a phrase, to “put the tech back in” to the study of modern American history, including urban history. Cities are among the many things that computer hardware and software have disrupted in the past half century—from the use of mainframes to run urban infrastructure and municipal services, to the personal computer’s transformation of workplaces, home life, and “third places,” to the role of social media in political mobilization, group identity, and sense of place. The high-tech revolution is rich and relatively underexplored territory, and as the PC reaches middle age and the smartphone approaches adolescence, it is ready for some serious historical analysis. I encourage other urban historians to join me!
Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?
I teach twentieth century political, economic, and urban history, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Every winter term—including this one—I teach my undergraduate survey course, “The City,” which covers North American urban history from New Amsterdam to the new economy. One of the joys of teaching this class is the wide variety of students who take it—engineering majors as well as history majors, freshmen to seniors, all drawn in by a curiosity about what makes cities work and how they’ve grown. Instead of a final paper, the students build a digital exhibition that uses the history of one Seattle city block to discuss broader patterns of urban change. The focus on the digital also allows me to introduce students to new scholarship and new scholarly voices, and to incorporate beyond-the-book digital platforms and sources like Mapping Inequality from the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab and the urban visualizations built at the Spatial History Project at Stanford University.
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
I’m excited by the transnational turn in urban history, a good slice of which is represented in the edited volume published last year from Penn Press, Making Cities Global (full disclosure: I’m a contributor) and reflected in important recent books like Nancy Kwak, A Nation of Homeowners and N.D.B. Connolly, A World More Concrete. These and other works placing urban ideas and institutions in global and imperial context have had a significant impact on both my teaching and my research. Also, with tax reform in the news—and, as urban historians know, taxation is at the center of everything!—I’m gaining much from the recent crop of books giving tax policy and politics a deeper and more nuanced history, such as Isaac William Martin, Rich People’s Movements and Ajay Mehrotra, Making the Modern American Fiscal State.
What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies?
One of the more refreshing trends in the profession today—call it the silver lining on the gloomy cloud of the academic job market—is that younger scholars are more willing and more able to practice history in public, whether by writing directly for public audiences, developing public history and digital history projects, or simply by being very good at Twitter. At a moment when “history” is so often wielded as a partisan weapon, it’s particularly important to have thoughtful and careful scholars out there engaging broad audiences. I encourage younger scholars to start thinking quite early about how they want to contribute to this conversation, how they delineate their scholarship and their activism, and how their scholarly expertise might translate to a broader scholarly community as well as to public audiences. Particularly good examples of this sort of careful, informed engagement can be found these days on the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) blog Black Perspectives, the Organization of American Historians’ Process: a blog for American History, and the online and print editions of the Boston Review, all of which are on my regular reading list.
You are the lead curatorial advisor to the Bezos Center for Innovation at the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI). What have been some of the highlights of serving in that capacity?
My work at the Bezos Center at MOHAI was a lightning-fast education in public history, and in the art and science of historical museums in particular. Creating an effective museum exhibit is a team sport involving players with a wide range of expertise, from my team of History PhD researchers to the to visionary architects and graphic designers who turned our research into words on a wall to the lighting maestros who set the mood and feel for the experience. It was also was an eye-opening lesson in how a well-designed museum experience can reach and educate so many different people, including those who don’t see themselves as “history people.” I also love that a future-tense business leader like Jeff Bezos has such an appreciation for the past—I hope other tech leaders will embark on their own philanthropic efforts to support history education and scholarship.
In many ways, 1977 represented a great deal of possibility for Seattle’s LGBTQ community. Granted in years prior, the Gay Community Center on Renton Hill had been bombed and Robert Sirico’s gay Metropolitan Community Church faced possible closure, yet on July 1, 1976 the state’s anti-sodomy law was repealed and the Seattle City Council had passed a fair housing act that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Through the leadership of LGBTQ leader Charlie Brydon Seattle residents witnessed their first Gay Pride Parade; advocates in the state legislature pushed further in an attempt to pass a Gay Rights Bill. The latter failed and the promise of 1977 curdled into “the bleakest year” in decades, writes Seattle University Professor and author of Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging, Gary Atkins. Forty years later, much has changed. The Metropole sat down (virtually) with Atkins to discuss Gay Seattle, the city’s present and past, and the future of LGBTQI activism and scholarship.
To what extent does Seattle’s LGBTQ history resemble and differ with other urban cities, particularly on the West Coast? For example, as you note in your book, WWII had a great deal of influence on the city’s expansion but also the creation of a larger LGBTQ (and I realize that individuals from that time would not identify this way, but for consistency in my questions I will use this term) community, but this was not unique to Seattle. San Francisco, L.A., NYC could all make similar claims, however, the creation of a Gay Community Center in 1969 in Seattle does predate L.A.’s own which I believe did not come into existence until the early 1970s. That said, the first attempts to establish a Mattachine Society in Washington occurred in Tacoma in 1959 and not Seattle, which I think would be a surprise to some readers. So the history is complex in this regard. I guess what makes Seattle unique in its development of an LGBTQ community?
Thanks to the effort historians have made to discover our stories, as well as what activists have done to create unifying symbols such as the rainbow flag, we’ve gotten used to the “idea” that LGBTQ folks have a national and even a global history, that “we are everywhere” as the saying goes. Having modern media and transportation systems that let us know and visit people all over the world has helped develop that consciousness too. But it’s easy to forget that sexual attraction and desire and the history of those are originally intensely local, that we are also “some place” when we as individuals develop loving relationships or “come out.” And those local places heavily influence how we express that.
Every city on the American West Coast was shaped by a slightly different set of historical factors. The Spanish missionary influence that helped shape San Francisco and Los Angeles, for example, was largely missing in Seattle, although a very different style of French missionary influence was present in other nearby areas of Idaho and Montana. In Seattle’s case, the city brought together its own unique cultural configuration of local native understandings of gender and sexuality, of pragmatic Midwest immigrants who wanted neatly planned communities, of utopians who saw in the natural beauty of the area chances for varied paradises, and of adventurers escaping their families back east by joining the Alaska gold rush and laborers in mostly male camps cutting timber and building railroads. That gave the city an eclectic blending of interests and cross-purposes. Yet, everyone was, ultimately, trying to survive in what for a long time was just a gritty rain-driven frontier town–small compared to San Francisco or Los Angeles. I think you had the emergence of Seattle’s fame for being a rather tolerant, get-along kind of place with lots of niche groupings that, ultimately, were going nowhere in public influence unless they learned to form coalitions and not get too passionately involved or ideologically troubled with their neighbors.
The LGBTQ community that emerged reflected that, right down to the police department’s decision from the 19th century until the 1960s to simply let one side of the city pass laws and another side – us – who would have been heavily oppressed by them be tolerated, albeit for a monetary price, of course. So no Stonewalls raids here, just some low-level police harassment whenever payment weren’t made. Seattle had the pragmatic university professors who created the early political groups of the 1960s and 1970s, the Dorian Society and subsequent Dorian Group, operating with their keen sense of respectability, connecting with politicians and business people, running their meetings according to Roberts Rules of Order. But we also had gay women and men setting up utopian-style rural communes on the Olympic Peninsula and on neighboring islands – or joining economic co-ops in the city and promoting consciousness raising groups where everyone could feel safe to tell their stories. We drew on influences from the socialist and labor movement in Seattle – those unions that formed to represent laborers in the seafaring and timbering world. Radical Women, a socialist group, would demand that other organizations – like the respectably capitalistic middle class Dorian Group — recognize that the way homosexuals were treated as sick or as illegal was not really the core of the oppression. Rather, it was the challenge we presented to a form of capitalism that had been built upon the idea of the monogamous heterosexual family.
To be sure, there were battles within the community as it emerged with a public voice, but ultimately if anything was to be achieved, multiple voices had to be consulted, resulting in a low-key Seattle style of LGBTQ organizing and expression that continues to this day.
As a professor who came to academia through journalism, do you think you view scholarship differently from more traditional academics (particularly since you see the occasional flare up between journalists and academics when covering the same issue)? If so how? If not why? Relatedly, when writing Gay Seattle how did your background in journalism help you? How did you decide on your sources for Gay Seattle?
When I told my high school counselor I wanted to major in History in college, she discouraged me by saying, “The only thing you can do with that is teach.” Since I enjoyed writing, she encouraged me to instead consider journalism – the profession of “historians in a hurry” as the phrase goes. It was a good choice because I eventually found that journalism actually let me follow both my interest in writing narratives about real people and their struggles AND my interest in the historical context within which they were operating. Story, after all, is made from a character confronting a significant problem, but within a broader context.
I think it’s unfortunate that academic writing and narrative non-fiction journalism sometimes seem to exist in two different worlds. One targets writing primarily for fellow specialists and exploring theoretical propositions often in a style virtually indecipherable to a general audience. The other aims at that larger audience but often forgets to ask those more theoretical or political questions. The division that has occurred between “queer theory” with its theoretical emphasis and “gay studies” with its original focus on uncovering specific stories about people and communities is an example of that.
As is true of most long-form narrative journalists, I try to hit that sweet spot that links those two worlds of inquiry. As Mark Kramer and Wendy Call, two of the best once wrote, the particular genre I work in “mixes human content with academic theory and observed fact, allows specialized understanding of everyday events, and unscrambles and sorts the messages of a complex world.” Or at least tries to. So I always look for what we often refer to as the “ladder of abstraction” – those points within a particular character’s story where it’s possible to illustrate a broader theoretical or political context. My books are built upon characters and their problems, but woven through each are explorations of broader theories. Gay Seattle, for example, was built upon theories of geographic sense of place from Yi-Fu Tuan (especially his books Landscapes of Fear and Space and Place) and of figurative public architecture from Christian Norberg-Schulz (The Concept of Dwelling). The question that guided Gay Seattle was this: What communication experiences are required to transform individuals who have been marginalized as sexual or gender criminals and perverts into citizens who can participate equally in the public civic discourse that marks a city — into an empowered group that is no longer outcast but that can truly be said either to have found or at least be well on their way to creating a sense of belonging within a local urban environment? How do they gain a public voice?
But, whew, I wasn’t about to put all that into the prologue!
Instead I talked about an 18-year-old sailor, John Collins, who went looking for some male companionship on a cold Monday night in downtown Seattle in November 1895 and found another teenager named Benjamin Layton. The two ended up in a room in a nearby saloon catering to sailors, loggers, gold rushers – and female prostitutes. That’s when they got reported to the police by a jealous prostitute, turning Collins into one of the first men in Seattle to be prosecuted for violating a law he didn’t even know existed – the newly adopted state sodomy law intended to regulate male-male sexuality. The case had to be dropped, though, when Layton – coerced into being the state’s witness – hopped a train and disappeared. I was very fortunate to find the transcript of Collins’ hearing in court records. From there, it was easy to pivot repeatedly to aspects of the story of what was essentially a century-long saga to overturn that law and resist the police, as well as challenge various medical practices. That carried readers through the history that LGBTQ citizens had experienced to secure a voice and a sense of place in Seattle.
According to your book, 2017 marks the 40th anniversary of the earliest organized attempts to pass legislation that protected individuals from discrimination based on sexual orientation. How do you think about this moment in Seattle history and the city’s LGBT community? What might be some important take a ways not only in terms of history but also modern politics and Seattle municipal politics?
Unfortunately, there’s a sad irony this year to that particular anniversary. It took from 1977 until 2006 to get the law adopted – three decades in a state often considered progressive. Success didn’t actually happen until the business community came on board, especially the power of Seattle’s new high-tech corporations. That’s certainly one lesson about how the effort to secure a public voice is a saga that evolves over many generations and that must involve both political and economic organizing.
Ed Murray was the gay state senator who helped complete that battle in the state Legislature and finally secure the non-discrimination law that bears his name. Murray also helped pull together a coalition to pass a marriage equality law in 2012 and then went on to beat an incumbent and become Seattle’s first openly gay mayor.
But as the city learned for the first time this spring, during Murray’s efforts to pass those bills, he was repeatedly being privately subjected to highly questionable charges that he had paid teenagers under the age of legal consent for sex in the 1980s before he entered the Legislature. The accusations never became public because those making them were considered not credible. But this spring, with Murray positioned to win an easy re-election and leading a very public effort to resist the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigrants, the local conservative newspaper, the Seattle Times, decided to publicize many of the charges it had actually known about and dismissed at the time as not reliable. It did so because of a lawsuit filed by a man who claimed Murray had paid him for sex when he was 15 — but who himself has severe credibility issues since he has dozens of criminal convictions and mis-described critical parts of Murray’s anatomy. (Yes, we’ve been treated to awkward press descriptions of the mayor’s genitals.) Murray flatly denies any molestation or ever paying for sex.
Compounding the suspicion about the nature and timing of the lawsuit is the fact that an attorney known for his past anti-gay stances heads the law firm handling the suit. So a pallor of political opportunism hangs over the accusations. Still, because of the media coverage of the supposed – and still unproven – sex scandal, Murray, the man who led the final successful battles for that non-discrimination law, was forced to withdraw from re-election.
The local LGBTQ community has been split and shaken – not wanting to buy into trumped up stereotypes of molestation that are often slung by political opponents against gay men, but also not wanting to seem to be challenging the credibility of those who claim to have been sexually abused. After all, many gay, lesbian and transgender youth do become victims of crime or exploitation. So now we wait for the civil trail.
I wrote in Gay Seattle that 1977 had been a particularly rough year for the local LGBTQ community as it began to deal with severe backlash against what had been some important legal accomplishments. Now, 40 years later, we see some similar things happening. I think it’s historical moments like this that will go on to become particularly crucial ones in shaping the next steps in the local community’s sense of itself.
[Update: The suit against Murray was dropped as Atkin’s pointed out in an email to The Metropole, “the accuser and his lawyer dropped the lawsuit, adding to the impression that the original lawsuit was — as Murray has termed it — a ‘political takedown’ using old stereotypes about gay men.” See here for more details. ]
You write about the concept of “coming home” in Gay Seattle. Can you explain this concept (which seems to some extent multivalent in the book) and how places like Seattle fit into or draw out this idea?
As a writer, I look for themes that are universal in our lives. Creating a sense of place is a struggle many of us engage in. It involves more than just “coming out” and letting the world know who you are. In Gay Seattle I use a quotation from the theologian Walter Brueggemann who said that when you’re writing about people whose common experience is that of being emotional outcasts, rather than sharing a common race or social class, then the central question is not going to be about emancipation but about “rootage” – in our case, not just about “gay or LGBTQ freedom” but about “LGBTQ location” within a story about a series of generations gaining a promise and looking for fulfillment.
That’s one reason that in Gay Seattle I tried hard to locate the historical evolution of the gay community within the history of the city itself rather than treating it as a kind of “ghetto” history. So I spent a lot of time writing about the geography and overall factors that shaped the city, and then situated the lesbian and gay stories within that broader context. One of my goals, actually, was to be sure that the book ended up in the “Seattle/Northwest history” sections of bookstores and libraries and would not be ghettoized in some “Gay/Lesbian Studies” section. To this day, when I walk into one of the few bookstores we still have left in Seattle, I’m happy when I see it sitting there, right in front of the store, in the Seattle and Northwest history section – not several aisles back in the LGBTQ section. I wanted it to be clear that we were part of the entire urban history of the city, not some niche.
In political terms and scholarship, where do you see the movement and field going? You mention more work on transgender issues in the introduction to the paperback edition of Gay Seattle. Can you expand on this or discuss other directions you see both politics and academia moving?
I guess it might be said that we’re poised on intermingled waves. One wave brought us the new discoveries of historical stories and documents and is exemplified by the efforts of folks likes John Boswell, Lillian Faderman, Esther Newton, George Chauncey and all the other historical writers who are still giving us richly detailed accounts of the people who have been part of the LGBTQ saga. There’s a continuing international expansion of that research that I think is very exciting as we get more chronicles from Asia, Africa and South America.
Another wave has given us “queer studies,” building on theoreticians such as Michel Foucault and Eve Sedgwick. That has drawn us into deeper theoretical reflections on how knowledge about sexual and gender identities are constructed through local deployments of language and power.
Where does it go? I recently attended the world conference of the International Lesbian and Gay Association in Bangkok. It brought political activists from all over the world. Very importantly, the association adds the “I” for “intersexual” onto LGBTQI. It was fascinating to me to see how capably people from all over the globe and from all races are fusing what I refer to as those two waves – the specific stories of struggle and community and the critical theories about gender and sexuality. The thinking and the political activism going on in China, in Africa, in New Zealand, in South America – that’s the next big story in LGBTQI scholarship and history. It’ll be written city-by-city and nation-by-nation but always with an eye toward global impacts.
How did your work on Gay Seattle influence your second book, Imagining Gay Paradise: Bali, Bangkok, and Cyber-Singapore? What are you working on now?
The question that I looked at in Imagining Gay Paradise was essentially the same as in Gay Seattle: What communication experiences are required to transform individuals who have been marginalized because of their sexuality or gender into citizens who participate equally in the public civic discourse and who feel they have a strong sense of place?
But in Imagining Gay Paradise I wanted to look at a region rather than a city, and I wanted it to be an area that had been influenced by European colonialism. Hence, Southeast Asia became a logical choice, with three very different geographical areas being the focus: Bali, Bangkok, and Singapore. I wanted to see what communication processes were available when the American civil rights influence that helped shape the experience in Seattle was missing. So the processes of communication I looked at were quite different. There were no big public marches or civil rights actions. Instead, there was the creation of an art-based community in Bali in the 1930s and 1940s, one that was effectively then destroyed by a Nazi-inspired sex scandal. There was a very famous gay men’s sauna in Bangkok that reflected both the sexual image of Bangkok but also created a place for sexual dissent. And there was a new wave of cyberspace activism occurring in Singapore.
I bounced around through time and space to try to understand particular characters and their contexts over a period that ran from 1910 until 2010. That included the early 20th century king of Siam, Rama VI, who got rid of his father’s harem and began to adjust family laws to enforce British concepts of romantic heterosexual monogamy in what would become Thailand – and yet who himself resisted that type of marriage even while writing plays about romance. I examined the role of the famed German artist Walter Spies in Bali in the 1930s, as well that of Khun Toc who developed the Babylon sauna in Bangkok in the later part of the 20th century. And I focused on a fourth major character, Stuart Koe, who created a cyber-organizing platform called Fridae in Singapore. In all cases, they used a type of “magical reality” to create a sense of place for the expression of gender and sexual differences – so the book became a narrative non-fiction exploration of how “magical reality” – as a communication process — can be used to create places that serve as LGBTQ homes.
As for my next story: Given the spread of new communication technologies throughout the world – as well as global LGBTQI organizing and backlashes to that organizing – I think I’ll be looking at how we, as now much more public LGBTQI citizens, continue to evolve our understandings of ourselves especially through new media. I don’t think I’ll be writing history about particular bars or even political groups, but rather about the evolving impacts of technology and of concerns about environmental changes in the places we call home.
I’m interested in the next generation’s stories so I’m going to watch – and write – as they make the next history.
Although Professor Holly Tucker wrote her new book for a non-academic audience, City of Light, City of Poison: Murder, Magic, and the First Police Chief of Paris begins with a scene uniquely suited to evoke terror and handwringing from historians. The preface, which Tucker entitles “Burn Notice,” is set in the palace of Versailles in 1709. King Louis XIV and his minister Louis de Pontchartrain stand before the hearth in the counsel room, where “Page by page, Pontchartrain handed … documents to the king, who fed each of them into the hungry flames. The two men watched the parchment curl and catch fire.” The king and Pontchartrain thought they were destroying all evidence of a seventeenth century scandal amongst the nobility, the Affair of the Poisons. “[T]he king silenced the horrors of the affair and the screams of its victims for good,” we read, before Tucker deftly assures us, “Or so he believed.”
Thankfully, the man who uncovered the scandal kept his personal papers separate from the archive of incriminating records that Louis XIV burned. Nicolas de La Reynie, Tucker’s central subject and the chief of police of Paris, was an obsessive note taker and recorder of information—indeed, this attention to detail was what made him so well suited to the job. From these papers and the records of the Bastille prison, Tucker painstakingly revived the characters and events of the Affair of the Poisons. In La Reynie’s investigation, noblewomen, debtors, renegade priests, and discarded mistresses were prime suspects in the epidemic of attempted poisonings so pervasive that not even the king was safe.
The captivating figure of La Reynie not only enlivens the story and creates a natural narrative tension, but he also makes City of Light, City of Poison so essential to historians of the carceral state. More than 160 years before British politician Robert Peel wrote the “Principals of Law Enforcement,” considered by many to be the foundational text of modern policing, La Reynie assembled a network of spies, a bureaucracy of commissioners, and a corps of officers to fight crime in Paris. Resembling a hybrid of municipal police forces and domestic intelligence services like the FBI or the French Gendarmerie, La Reynie and the Paris police defended the monarchy and the French state with the same vigor with which they defended Parisians from crime. I spoke with Holly Tucker about the parallels between pre-enlightenment and modern policing, what historians can learn from the Affair of the Poisons, and how humanities scholars should approach writing for a non-academic audience.
Avigail Oren (AO):City of Light, City of Poison tells the story of Nicolas de La Reynie, appointed lieutenant general of police by King Louis XIV of France in 1667 to clean up the city of Paris and improve public safety. The job seemed to be equal measures Director of Sanitation as Chief of Police. Why were sanitation and public safety so interrelated in seventeenth-century Paris?
Holly Tucker (HT): I think that although Louis XIV made Nicolas de La Reynie police chief, he was also really looking for someone who would serve, in a way, like Mayor of Paris. There had really been no one in Paris looking after the day-to-day aspects of life for Parisians. Jean-Baptiste Colbert was one of Louis XIV’s ministers, the prime interior minister, who was responsible for the construction of some of the eye-popping buildings built in seventeenth-century Paris. In the book I focus a lot on sanitation, but Nicolas de La Reynie was also responsible for responding in times of flooding. The Seine River flooded a lot. La Reynie dealt with the problem of bridges being swept away, and then the attendant problems of transportation. He was also very involved in food provisions, and policed and oversaw Les Halles, which was the main (huge) market for Paris. He looked as well at pricing mechanisms. In all, there was very little about Parisian infrastructure that he did not concern himself with.
AO: Although Nicolas de La Reynie was put in control of Paris in this hybrid role of police chief/mayor/bureaucrat, and he successfully implemented policies to light the city at night and have the streets cleaned by day, from your story it seemed that there were limits to how much control he was able to exert over Parisians. The Montorgueil quarter, for example, was a part of the city where La Reynie struggled to assert control over vice—to such an extent that it became the node, or the point of origin, in the web of events that became the Affair of the Poisons that you so vividly describe in the book. I was wondering if you could tell me what La Reynie would have seen while walking the streets of Montorgueil in the 1670s, in terms of both sights and sensory experiences?
HT: First, it’s really up for debate whether La Reynie physically went into the quarter. There’s some legend that he took a group of officers with him under the cover of night and went into the Court of Miracles [Ed: the name for the headquarters of beggars and organized criminals in Paris]. And that may indeed be apocryphal, but he did have a fair number of spies and other officers who would come into the quarter. But anyone who would have walked into that neighborhood would have seen abject poverty. They would have seen houses that were made out of wood, basically makeshift homes. And then at the same time, there was a major church and a few better-off residences, some homes made of stone—that still actually exist, there are a few seventeenth century homes that are still there. The bulk of the buildings on that street now are mostly eighteenth century residences, but the street grid is still the same. Of course, like the rest of Paris it would have been very dirty, perhaps even dirtier. Keep in mind that it’s just about five to eight minutes walking, assuming no obstacles, from that neighborhood to Les Halles, the main market, which was busy, crazy, stinky, and filled with thieves and prostitutes, and then from there only 10 minutes away from the Louvre, Louis XIV’s Paris Palace. I can walk from Montorgueil to the Louvre in 12 minutes.
AO: So this is really in the King’s backyard.
AO: In terms of geographic distance it seems incredibly close, but Montorgueil was in stark opposition to the opulent court of King Louis XIV, where much of the book takes place. Could you describe the Affair of the Poisons and how it demonstrates that the social distance between nobility and poor Parisians was closer than most people would suspect?
HT: Most inhabitants who would have been associated with the court weren’t living in the Louvre. The king himself was rarely at the Louvre. Louis XIV tended to be at a palace called Saint-Germain-en-Laye and the nobility themselves were over in the arrondissement that would have been about 20 minutes away. For as close as it is to many of the major landmarks, physically it would have been unlikely that we would have seen a lot of intersection between these two communities. But the Affair of the Poisons was basically a scandal—a very well known scandal in seventeenth-century history and amongst French historians—in which La Reynie, the police chief, discovered there was this cabal of poisoners, midwives, abortionists, so-called witches, and also renegade priests who were performing services for the nobility. And there was some question over time whether or not the nobility, particularly some of the king’s mistresses, were employing them in order to reach the king—either to have the king fall in love with them or to punish the king. And of course La Reynie wanted to clean up the city of crime, but he also wanted to protect the king to whom he was very, very dedicated. He ended up arresting over 400 people, over 200 people were tried in a secret tribunal, 30 people were executed, and among those many people were tortured. But what it showed was just how permeable the social spaces between the nobility and the lower classes actually were in the seventeenth century.
AO: I was really struck by that while reading the book. It didn’t seem so difficult for these noblewomen, whether they were the lower nobility or a mistress of the king like Athénaïs de Montespan, to seek out and get connected to some of these shadier characters.
HT: A number of people from the lower classes of course worked in the households as servants to these noblewomen. That was one of the “rewards” that could be had, that through these connections that the herbalists and midwives made, they gained an opportunity to place some women from the lower classes into jobs in noble households. And in fact, one of the king’s mistresses, Madame de Oeillets, the superstar actress who had been in the court of Montespan, came from Montorgueil. So as much as we’d like to think that these communities were so distinct, both physically in how the city was laid out, and socially, they were not as distinct as we would imagine.
AO: When translated to policing, I imagine that this social interplay lessened the distinction between controller and controlled. That could create confusion: what rules applied to whom, and who had the power to punish and enforce? You write a lot about how La Reynie exerted his control over the lower classes, but the King must have exerted control over the nobility and the members of his court as well. Ostensibly, until the Affair of the Poisons, it was not through the use of the police. Why did Louis XIV decide that a police force was necessary for Paris, but limit its reach into the King’s court?
HT: Actually the monarchy had been in great jeopardy not too long before, between 1648 and 1653 with La Fronde, the civil war. There was an uprising of the noble classes represented through the parliament, which is the main legal body of France. Louis XIV was only 5 years old and his mother, Anne of Austria, was regent. At the heart of the uprising was the very sustainability of the monarchy. Who would control the State? Louis XIV kept in mind throughout his adult years that, if not properly controlled, the nobility could bring about the end of the royal political structures. He also remembered being frightened as a child by death threats during the civil war that lasted five years. That’s also where we begin to see his reluctance to be in Paris. He was taken out of his bed in the Louvre when he was a very, very small boy and then taken to the palace of Saint-Germain, where he was born, and I think that he’d always seen Paris as being this unruly city. To the extent that we can speculate, I think for a while he was willing to let Paris go down its own path, it was just this necessary evil. Then in 1665, when two of the main proactive lawmen of the city—the criminal lieutenant and the civil lieutenant—were both killed, I think Louis XIV realized that by international reputation, Paris was out of control. I think it also was his call to action to make sure that the city did not give him more trouble, personally as monarch, than the nobility did years earlier. That’s why he gave La Reynie such broad powers, because my sense is he really wanted La Reynie to be acting as his physical proxy. La Reynie was very dedicated to the king, but Paris was his kingdom in a way, on behalf of the King.
AO: Although La Reynie was the lieutenant general of police, I was surprised that the force he oversaw did not seem to resemble the modern police departments familiar to most American readers. Most notably, La Reynie used a system of local commissioners to enforce his orders. In what ways did the seventeenth century police force differ from the professionalized police departments that would develop in the nineteenth century?
HT: I think we’re in the mid-range there, because the commissioners were part of the ad-hoc police force. There would be one or two commissioners per quarter responsible for receiving the complaints of the citizens who had already experienced some sort of crime or felt that they had experienced a crime. And La Reynie still engaged those commissioners in that he relied on them to collect the mud taxes, to mobilize their quarter according to his rules to clean and light the streets. But he brought in several hundred, if not up to one thousand, new officers, who were typically on horseback conducting surveillance in the city. He also had the Royal Musketeers as well, whom he would call in from time to time. So I wouldn’t call it the kind of modern police force that we might imagine, but La Reynie was definitely leaning in that direction. He ends up putting this all together in the matter of just a couple of years, which is really quite remarkable.
AO: In addition to these officers and commissioners, La Reynie collected intelligence “from a web of civil servants, lawyers, judges, doctors, and merchants,” and became known for his detailed reports about the goings-on in the city (p. 20). Indeed, King Louis XIV and his ministers came to trust and rely on La Reynie on the basis of the information he was able to collect and provide to them. This complex interrelationship between La Reynie, intelligence, and the state reminded me more of the FBI than a traditional urban police force. What does this early history reveal about how the relationship between national or state and local policing developed?
HT: I’ve also been really fascinated by spies and spying. Because so much of it was under the radar, it’s hard to know with great certainty what was going on. Information could be transmitted via little pieces of paper or parchment, folded and put in buttons that would be covered over in fabric. It’s only in the 1660s that Louis creates the French postal system, which came primarily out of an interest in wanting to know what was happening and what the citizens were talking about. In the king’s palaces, it has been documented that for letters that were going among the nobility within the palace, to have a centralized postal service the letters would have to go to special room where there would be several people who had all different types of ways of opening the letters. So at the same time that La Reynie is starting his police force, the king has started the postal service—and all of this is for the purpose of spying and keeping an eye on things. In fact I stumbled upon several letters—some are at the University of Pennsylvania actually—letters between La Reynie and Colbert where Colbert was saying, “Hey, I’ve been hearing at court that this person or that person, they’re riding around Paris in these extremely elaborate carriages. Help me figure out what’s going on.” Or, “the king is very unhappy about this, help us stop it.” Another thing that La Reynie did is he made it illegal to gamble in private homes, in favor of requiring people to gamble in public spaces. Why? So he could actually put spies in there to get a sense of who was doing what, what they were talking about, who was losing tons of money and who was gaining tons of money. Now what he did specifically with that information, we can’t be sure, but knowledge gathering during this time period went hand and hand with state building.
AO: I think that comes out really clearly in the book, and raises very interesting questions for historians to think about the carceral state and about state discipline across more levels of policing, from local to national.
HT: Toward the end of the Affair of the Poisons, when it was clear that La Reynie’s investigations were getting closer and closer to some of the people who had direct contact with the king, the fact that Louis XIV, who wanted to know everything about everything, instructed La Reynie to stop the investigation and to put under seal the most incriminating documents—and then, years later, to burn those documents—shows a clear recognition that public knowledge of certain events could be extraordinarily dangerous and powerful. And that means private knowledge can also be equally powerful, if not more powerful.
AO: In the book’s epilogue, you quantify the impact of the Affair of the Poisons. You mentioned some of these numbers already, but 442 people were questioned and 218 were imprisoned—28 of them for life—and 34 were executed for the crimes. It seems from your narrative that justice was not meted out equitably, and that the accused’s class affected the punishment they received, with some very notable exceptions. We see similar patterns of racial and class bias in policing and in the justice system in America today, and I assume in France as well. Yet most histories of the carceral state do not extend back to the seventeenth century. What insight can the Affair of the Poisons, as a lens into early policing, provide to historians interested in the history of policing and incarceration in the 19th and 20th century?
HT: I do think that there’s been, in reception studies, work that has shown both the contributions and also the disservices that Foucauldian approaches to incarceration and policing have given us, and I do think that studies like this help make the thesis much more complicated—in ways that others have also done through the whole debate twenty years ago about Foucault. There is still a lot that we can do to provide welcome nuance. The very fact that you’ve got different prison systems for different groups, the nobility were more likely to be in the Bastille, the lower classes were more likely to be at the Chåtelet. The Conciergerie in Paris were for very high-level cases and were typically tried by the Parliament. But that doesn’t exclude, either, the ecclesiastical courts. So the court and particularly the prison system in early modern France was extraordinarily complicated. And it was complicated both from the legal point of view, of course, but also because of the socioeconomic standing of those on trial.
AO: I wanted to conclude with two questions about writing for a non-academic audience. City of Light, City of Poison is the second book you have published with a trade press. How did you begin writing non-fiction? What are the advantages of publishing with a press like W.W. Norton?
HT: I think that, as humanists, we often do ourselves a disservice by not recognizing that we are storytellers. So I gave myself the freedom to think of myself as an academic-slash-researcher-slash-teacher-slash-storyteller, because that’s what we also do in our classes—for those of us who teach history or cultural studies or literature, we are re-creating something for our students that’s based on scholarship. So when I started thinking about what my next book would be, and this was after tenure, I stumbled on an interesting story. I’d been teaching the history of medicine for a while and I was teaching about William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood in 1638 and I really wanted to pep up the lectures somehow. I decided to show some primary documents, so I started going through the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society and searching for references to blood. And that’s when I stumbled on these blood transfusion experiments. And the more I looked into them, the more I thought, oh my gosh, this is all about a modern biomedical technology that most people can’t imagine medicine without, and it’s got this fraught history because the first experiments were animal to human. And one of the first blood transfusion patients was actually murdered in the 1670s and the transfusionist was put on trial for what appeared, for all practical purposes, to be one of the first malpractice trials. Blood transfusion was effectively banned after that trial and in the court record it said, “the three doctors responsible for the patient’s death will come to justice shortly.” I read that and thought, “Oh my, what? There’s a cabal of doctors who have done what?” And I discovered that the patient had actually been poisoned. And so when I was thinking about how I wanted to write this—this was going to be my promotion book—the story was so rich and the characters were so amazing and the implications were huge because, underlying the murder was this concern that if animals were being transfused to humans there could be a real possibility of creating chimeras.
AO: I mean, clearly.
HT: Right? So I decided that I didn’t want to write for a small handful of people. So whether or not I was going to get promoted, it didn’t matter, and so I did my research to figure out how one goes about publishing for a larger audience and so I pitched agents. Then I picked an agent who worked really well with me and then she pitched it to different publishers and actually we had a number of publishers interested in it. And so that’s why, it was an amazing story. The challenge was trying to figure out, so what does this mean? Because I was used to writing academically, and it’s a completely different experience to write for a larger audience than it is for an audience of one’s peers. And I will say these last two books that I’ve written have been the hardest intellectual research experiences that I’ve ever had. You really have to get into cultural documents to find ways to bring readers into that period. So it’s not just about the ideas, it’s not just about the events that occurred, it’s about providing an accurate as possible snapshot of the time period so that readers can live the experience. It’s really hard to do that.
AO: How would you recommend scholars who have an idea for a non-fiction project begin to pursue non-fiction writing? How should they go about acquiring an agent or a publisher?
HT: I think the advantage we have as scholars is that we know how to ask questions and we know how to get information, and so when I had this idea I just started Googling. And then also, as far as writing style, I read books targeted to larger audiences that I really appreciated for the scholarship, like those by Jill Lepore, Jane Kamensky, Stephen Greenblatt, and a book I really enjoyed called The Most Famous Man in Americaby Debby Applegate. It won the Pulitzer Prize, so I got that book. I got Seabiscuit. We, as researchers in the humanities, we’re used to looking at texts carefully, digging through and looking at narrative structure, not just what’s being said but how it’s being said. I don’t think we give ourselves enough credit! If there was one good book I’d tell everyone to start with, it’s Susan Rabiner’s Thinking Like Your Editor. It’s a little bit older but I just looked at it again not too long ago and it gives extraordinarily good advice about how to know whether your idea is appropriate for an audience, and how to go pitching that, and what agents and editors are looking for, and how one goes about putting together a book proposal that is targeted for larger presses.