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History's Brown wins Guggenheim
April 13, 1998

Richard D. Brown, professor of history, has been awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship for 1998-1999.

He is one of only 168 artists, scholars and scientists chosen from about 3,000 applicants for Guggenheim fellowship awards totaling $5.4 million.

"It is an honor to receive such a prestigious award," Brown says. "I also feel extremely lucky, because there were other candidates no less deserving than I who were passed over."

Fellows are appointed on the basis of unusually distinguished achievement in the past and exceptional promise for future accomplishment.

Brown, an expert on early American social and cultural history, will use the grant to continue working on a book manuscript in collaboration with his wife, Irene Quenzler Brown, a professor of family studies. The book will be a micro-history of an incest rape trial in Berkshire County, Mass., in 1805, and the execution that followed in 1806.

Brown plans to do extensive archival research in the public and legal records of Massachusetts and the specific communities where the people involved in the events lived. He will also work with private records, such as letters, diaries, and journals, and examine other criminal and capital cases in the early 1800s, in order to establish the context for this particular case, that of Ephraim Wheeler.

Wheeler was brought to trial for the rape of his 13-year-old daughter, Betsy, and then executed.

In 1806, the hanging of a white man for rape was an astonishing event, Brown says. The last execution for rape in New England prior to that occurred a full generation earlier.

"What drew me to the Wheeler case," he says, "was the readiness of a young woman to send her father to the gallows. That must have been quite a burden for her. I wondered about what was going on in that family."

But Brown says he might never have decided to examine the Wheeler case had it not been for the O.J. Simpson trial.

"Both cases are shocking," he says. "In one case, a man is charged with killing his ex-wife, and the other involves a man raping his daughter. In both cases you are talking about families that have gone deeply wrong, and in which violence is playing a profound role."

He says that the study of history helps in understanding the struggles and problems society is facing today. "I've always believed that one can learn by exploring the past. By examining the Wheeler trial, it is easy to see that the difficulties we have with family crime and punishment are not new, and that they have long been complex and difficult to resolve."

Brown's Guggenheim Fellowship marks the third year in a row that a UConn faculty member has received the award. Deborah Muirhead, a professor of art and art history, held a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1997 and John Davis, the Emiliana Pasca Noether Chair in Modern Italian History, in 1996.

Luis Mocete