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owning hazard

I brought together University of Wisconsin-Madison law, history and theatre students and faculty to produce a scene from the play “Owning Hazard” by Barbara Young Welke, Distinguished McKnight University Professor of History and Law at the University of Minnesota.

Welke explores the human cost of industrial accidents in a consumer society, tracing the injury and death of untold numbers of children from 1942 to 1954 when the DuPont fabric on their Gene Autry cowboy chaps burst into flames.

Originally published as the play “Owning Hazard, a Tragedy” and later as an academic article in the Journal of American History, Welke discusses her research in this JAH podcast. (1) She is currently working on related play and book projects.

Our experimental 2010 play reading, a conference keynote event at the University of Wisconsin Law School’s Institute for Legal Studies, included trial testimony and digital montage projections.

Welke’s goal was to “deliberately disrupt narrative, to provoke questions not simply about ‘what happened?’ but about the larger questions that flammable fabrics raises about owning hazard…The format was intended to take apart evidence that in the scholarly endeavor becomes reduced to a seamless narrative or marshaled in support of a particular argument, to restore to the reader/viewer a role in the interpretive process, to entertain divergent readings. Finally, I wanted to consider how one might combine the visual and performative in legal history.” (2)

(1) “The Cowboy Suit Tragedy: Spreading Risk, Owning Hazard in the Modern American Consumer Economy,” 101 Journal of American History 97-121 (2014).

(2) Midwest Law & Society Retreat Program, Institute for Legal Studies, University of Wisconsin Law School, 2010.


Children in cowboy suits, author’s collection.

Eleanor Packer, Gene Autry in Public Cowboy No. 1, Racine: Whitman Publishing Company, 1938.

Remaining images from Owning Hazard plenary presentation, 2010 Midwest Law & Society Retreat, Institute for Legal Studies, University of Wisconsin Law School.

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