Event—Scholarly Seminars

Daniel Immerwahr, Northwestern University, and Bench Ansfield, Harvard University


P. T. Barnum and the Order of the Phoenix, Daniel Immerwahr, Northwestern University

The nineteenth-century United States was extraordinarily prone to fire. “Great fires” punctuate its urban history, but lesser ones were constant. These fires burst out especially in places of concentrated economic activity: gold rush towns and booming cities. Surprisingly, this did not phase up-and-coming economic strivers, who often perversely cheered the fires on. This paper considers the strange affinity between fire and nineteenth-century capitalism and reveals a hidden economic war between the pyrophiliacs and those determined to put the fires out.

A Triangular Trade in Risk: Reinsuring Landlord Arson in the 1970s Bronx, Bench Ansfield, Harvard University

Revisiting the story of landlord arson in the 1970s Bronx, this paper traces the transnational financial circuits that spread the resulting losses across a global network of reinsurance. With a declassified FEMA memo serving as a roadmap, I chart tens of millions of dollars in insurance and reinsurance transactions from one large arson-for-profit scheme in the South Bronx to a Florida-based shell insurance company, then to the venerable underwriting room of Lloyd’s of London, and finally to IRB, a Rio de Janeiro-based reinsurance firm. What emerged from these dizzying routes of racialized risk was a distinctly postwar triangular trade, offshoring risk from the Bronx to Britain to Brazil.

Respondent: Stephen Mihm, University of Georgia