Launching "Unsound Empire": In Conversation with Catherine Evans

March 31, 2022 by Eunillyne Lazado

Congratulations to CrimSL Assistant Professor Catherine Evans on her new book, Unsound Empire: Civilization and Madness in Late-Victorian Law.

Unsound Empire is a history of criminal responsibility in the nineteenth-century British empire told through homicide cases tried across three continents. The book frames criminal law as essential to the ideology and functioning of the British empire, and responsibility controversies as moments where the viability of the common law as a tool of imperial governance was tested.  

A project eleven years in the making, the book began as Professor Evans’ Ph.D. dissertation in the Department of History at Princeton University. She first became interested in the history of insanity law while studying criminal law in the UK.

“In high school, I gravitated toward mental health-focused science projects. When I got to the UK and learned about the strange legal rules surrounding insanity and competence, I wanted to learn where they came from. The answer, I soon learned, was the 19th century. I'd done an undergraduate degree in history at McGill, and so this brought law and history together for me.” She also shares more on the genesis of her new book in the Literary Review of Canada.

As her first and only book to this date, the overall process did not come without challenges. “My dissertation was nearly 150,000 words long, and I had a hard cap of 110,000 for the book. I had to do a lot of cutting and refining along the way.”

“For me, the introduction was the hardest part. Trying to figure out what the reader needed to know without writing 50+ pages was difficult, and I'm not sure I've got the balance exactly right.”

Now that the book is finally out, Professor Evans reflects on her finished product and what comes next. “It's such a joy to see the book finally out in the world. It's definitely intimidating to know that I can't change it anymore, so any mistakes or omissions will be there forever.”

Looking ahead, Professor Evans is excited to start working on her second book project, which will focus on the legal history of fire in the British empire. In this new project, she will pay particular attention to the forensic investigation of fires in criminal and civil cases, fire insurance claims, and other similar topics. She anticipates the project to not only take her within the Americas and the UK but across the world. “I don’t expect the book to appear for several years, but stay tuned for more conference presentations and articles on fire from me in the near future.”


Join us in celebrating the launch of Professor Evans’ new book on April 13 at 2 pm at the Canadiana Gallery, with guests Bhavani Raman (University of Toronto) and Philip Girard (York University). Limited tickets are available. Register for your spot today.

Unsound Empire: Civilization and Madness in Late-Victorian Law is currently available online at and through the University of Toronto Libraries