Barbara Y. Welke is a Distinguished McKnight University Professor, a professor of history, and a professor of law at the University of Minnesota, where she codirects the program in law and history. She is the author of Law and the Borders of Belonging in the Long Nineteenth-Century United States (2010), which considers the history of legal personhood and citizenship, and Recasting American Liberty: Gender, Race, Law, and the Railroad Revolution, 1865–1920 (2001), winner of the American Historical Association’s Littleton-Griswold Prize. Her current research on consumer product injury in the twentieth-century mass consumption economy has appeared in an article, "The Cowboy Suit Tragedy: Spreading Risk, Owning Hazard in the Modern American Economy," in the Journal of American History (June 2014) and a related podcast, as well as a play, "Owning Hazard, A Tragedy," in the UC Irvine Law Review (2011). She is also working on a book that traces the history of the curriculum vitae and its role in constructing the boundaries of knowledge.
Between 1942 and 1952, an unknown number of children were severely burned when the Gene Autry cowboy suits they were wearing caught fire turning them into “human torches.” A number of the children died, others were crippled for life. The cowboy suit tragedy unfolded at mid-century, in a context in which Americans were increasingly dependent on the consumer marketplace to meet their basic needs, in which consumption had come to be understood as the engine of American economic growth and stability and as critical to capitalism and democracy, and even as the purchasing power of consumers and providing a social safety net had come to be seen as public, governmental obligations. The cowboy suit tragedy offers a powerful, haunting window into risk, insurance, law and the meaning of owning hazard in the modern American consumer economy.