Pfeifer, Michael J. 1968–

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Pfeifer, Michael J. 1968–

(Michael James Pfeifer)


Born 1968, in Madison, WI. Education: Attended University of East Anglia; Washington University, St. Louis, B.A., 1991; University of Iowa, M.A., 1993, Ph.D., 1999.


Office—Department of History, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, 445 W. 59th St., New York, NY 10019. E-mail—[email protected].


Writer, educator. Evergreen State College, Olympia, WA, member of faculty, 1999-2006; University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada, faculty member of the history department, 2006-07; City University of New York, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York, NY, associate professor of American history, 2007—.


Fulbright grant, 2007-08.


Rough Justice: Lynching and American Society, 1874-1947, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 2004.

Contributor to books, including International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences and Encyclopedia of Appalachia. Contributor to periodicals, including Western Legal History, Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Louisiana History, and Gateway Heritage. Book review editor, H-Law, 2004—.


Michael J. Pfeifer is an associate professor of American history at the City University of New York. He formerly taught at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, Canada. He was born and raised in rural Wisconsin, where he first became aware of racism. He told Michelle Caplan in the Western News: "The population was not very diverse. I saw the racism there and was interested in where that came from." In college Pfeifer began looking at the history of lynching in America. "I saw," he told Caplan, "that this could tell me a lot about American history and American culture—I could use lynching as a window into American society." Since that time, Pfeifer has conducted extensive research into the history of lynching in the United States.

In 2004 Pfeifer published Rough Justice: Lynching and American Society, 1874-1947, an analysis of lynchings throughout the country. He writes in the introduction to the book: "Lynching occupies a unique place in American history and culture. Its special resonance is consonant with Americans' long-term preoccupation with violence, a still-pervasive mythology of the frontier, the unsettled legacy of a brutally racist past, and a long-standing skepticism of the law and legal mechanisms." While most scholars have focused on lynching in the South, according to the critic for the Western Historical Quarterly, "in Rough Justice, a book whose brevity belies its importance, Michael Pfeifer broadens the focus and intensifies the light by chronicling, analyzing, and comparing seven decades of lynching in New York, Wisconsin, Iowa, Wyoming, Washington, California, and Louisiana." Pfeifer found regional differences in the number of lynchings and in the motivations for them. While lynchings in the South usually involved racial motives, those in the West and in Midwestern rural areas were usually the result of public mistrust that the justice system would deal with a particularly horrendous crime in the proper manner. The Northeast, where most citizens were content that the state would use the death penalty, saw few lynchings. Middle-class citizens generally opposed lynching, while rural and working-class citizens favored it. The critic for the Indiana Magazine of History wrote: "In a short and commendable book, Michael J. Pfeifer examines how Americans defined, clashed, and compromised over the nature of criminal justice from the end of Reconstruction to the middle of the twentieth century." "Pfeifer is at his best," Terence Finnegan wrote in the Journal of Southern History, "when explaining the regional variations in lynching and law." Pfeifer looks in detail at lynchings in seven states—California, Iowa, Louisiana, New York, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. "These seven states," he writes in the introduction, "embodied key aspects of the legal systems of their regions…. Through newspaper accounts and coroner's inquests, I have collected information concerning virtually all postbellum lynchings in these seven states and composed case studies and aggregate profiles of mob violence. These flawed sources, when read carefully and in combination with other sources, yield much information concerning the circumstances and motivations of mob executions." Writing in the Historian, Norton H. Moses concluded: "This is a stimulating and valuable study, which effectively argues its premise." The American Historical Review critic found that "Pfeifer attempts to create order out of the chaos of thousands of lynchings by showing how and why lynching patterns reflected social identities, beliefs, and values." The critic for the Journal of American History believed that "this beautifully written and extremely well-informed study is a landmark that elevates lynching scholarship to a whole new level."



American Historical Review, June, 2005, review of Rough Justice: Lynching and American Society, 1874-1947.

Criminal Justice Review, Volume 32, number 4, 2007, Frank Morn, review of Rough Justice, pp. 483-484.

Historian, winter, 2005, Norton H. Moses, review of Rough Justice, p. 764.

Indiana Magazine of History, December, 2005, review of Rough Justice.

Journal of American History, September, 2005, review of Rough Justice.

Journal of Interdisciplinary History, summer, 2006, Paul A. Gilje, review of Rough Justice, pp. 145-146.

Journal of Southern History, August, 2006, Terence Finnegan, review of Rough Justice, p. 692.

Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, July, 2007, review of Rough Justice.

Social Service Review, March, 2006, review of Rough Justice, p. 210.

Western Historical Quarterly, winter, 2005, review of Rough Justice.

Western News, January 11, 2007, Michelle Caplan, "U.S History Meets Canadian Culture."


City University of New York, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Department of History, Web site, (May 19, 2008), brief biography of Pfeifer.