Katherine Ranum Explores the Past in Cincinnati and Beyond

Written by Erin Michel, Graduate Assistant for the Graduate School

A woman in a black blazer leans thoughtfully against a lion statue.

“History was one of my first languages,” Katherine Ranum tells me. We sat down to talk about her historical research, which won her a Graduate School Dean's Dissertation Completion fellowship for the 2021-22 academic year. But our conversation strayed, as many good conversations do, into a variety of topics big and small, including the value of history as a discipline and how she first fell in love with it. “My mom started giving me books about history when I was about four. I wasn’t even asking questions about it at the time […] it just became part of my intellectual architecture,” says Katherine. 

  “I grew up in religious communities, so I was hearing from religious leadership, arguments about why we are doing things or should be doing things that referenced history. Sometimes, even as a child, I would think, ‘that doesn’t sound right.’ I would go look it up [...] I wasn’t a sophisticated researcher, [but] in order to know if that was legitimate, I needed to go to the past and inquire.” This interest in the connections between history, morality, and spirituality has continued throughout her life, forming the basis of her doctoral research and serving as a compass of sorts to guide her life through life’s grey areas. “I think history is at the core of almost any moral question that we have,” says Katherine. “How did we get here? What are we supposed to be doing? What is the part that I’ve played? I’ve meaningfully experienced the discipline of history as an ethical voice that has made a claim on me.” 

This ethical voice has guided Katherine’s doctoral work to explore issues of identity, namely the intersections between disability/the human body and religious practice. “My specific path [...] is what happens when people’s bodies are different and how that impacts their religious practice and how they view themselves as spiritual beings [within] their religious community.” Katherine’s interest in disability specifically is an extension of her lifelong curiosity in nuance; she points out that much of disability is socially constructed and has to do with context and the ways in which an environment is accessible or inaccessible to a person. “Disability seemed like a fixed category to me until I started to study it, and then I realized it was the most wiggly, difficult to pin down category, which makes it super interesting. If it was easy to pin down, we’d be done studying it by now.” 

Katherine's dissertation examines these questions in the context of the Atlantic World between 1600-1860. Her work connects three distinct topics related to bodies: disability, ritual body alteration, and burial, using a specific historical case study to analyze each. Katherine’s first case is that of Sarah Pratt, a Deaf and mute Puritan woman in Weymouth, Massachusetts at the end of the 1600s who gave testimony that she had experienced a personal encounter with the Holy Spirit. “This lady is deaf and mute, and she never learned to read. She’s never heard a sermon. How did this even happen, first of all?” says Katherine. The story is doubly confounding because during that time period in the same area, women were being expelled from the church for their spiritual encounters which were viewed as a challenge to the moral foundations and structure of the church. Through her research, Katherine is trying to answer this question: why not Sarah Pratt? According to Katherine, for some reason the clergy at the time seemed to view Sarah’s story and disability as proof of God’s intervention, which was antithetical to the dominant discourses about disability at the time and throughout the historical record. “It’s not an overcoming story,” says Katherine. “This isn’t the disability theory that I keep reading about where it excludes people and is a way to uphold a power structure. Her body completely defies that theory, so that really excited me.” 

The second story that Katherine examines involves ritual body alteration within the context of Jewish communities in Philadelphia in the 1820s. A prominent, wealthy family comes into conflict with local rabbis over the burial of their infant son, who had not been circumcised prior to his death, a necessary precursor to burial within a Jewish cemetery. “Over this one, little nine-month-old body, this whole community comes to blows about what it means to be a Jew,” says Katherine. Further, circumcision as a practice is of historical interest to Katherine’s work, especially as it relates to different religious and political entities’ views of the human body. “The Christian community around them was looking at the Jewish community and they were really freaked out about circumcision. [In their view], you’re taking a whole body and you’re making it a partial one. And the male body is so important to citizenship, right? You had to be a white, mentally competent male. The British in the home counties had just been making some decisions about whether or not Jews could be citizens, and there was a lot of anxiety about circumcision,” Katherine adds.  

Katherine’s third story takes place a little closer to home—right here, in Cincinnati. Eleven years ago, construction crews excavating land by Washington Park uncovered two old Christian cemeteries containing some very strange anomalies. “[They found] a very young girl, three to five years old, who was buried face down and fully clothed, which was not typical. It was really obvious from the coffin that she had not been jostled [...] it wasn’t an accident,” says Katherine. According to Katherine, at the time Christians had a very uniformed manner of burial: face up, with arms crossed over the chest or on the thighs, facing Jerusalem on an east-west axis. “I am still working with church archivists and forensic pathologists and criminologists, trying to interpret this burial...They obviously put her in this Christian space and disregarded all the rules of a Christian burial,” says Katherine. 

A woman in a purple dress sits in front of an old tombstone.

The story of this young girl is of particular interest to Katherine because it hits so close to home, to a subject that is near and dear to Katherine’s heart: Cincinnati history. She is fascinated by the history of the area, and rightly so. “There’s old money here [...] and that means we have these big cultural institutions and beautiful buildings,” says Katherine. “I had a crush on Cincinnati when I first came here, and it has remained.  Cincinnati is overlooked by a lot of people when they think about important historic American cities. And it shouldn’t be, because so many things have happened here.”  

As part of Katherine’s career, she has had the opportunity to conduct research on the subject of Cincinnati history for several prominent historians and writers, including New York Times-bestselling author Karen Abbott. Katherine assisted with Abbot’s book The Ghosts of Eden Park, which tells the story of George Remus, a lawyer-turned-Prohibition era bootlegger who at one point controlled over 35 percent of all liquor in the United States. Remus, a millionaire even in the 1920s, lived in a mansion near Eden Park, and his story ends in one of the most sensational criminal trials and murders of the era. I asked Katherine what it was like, conducting research for such a prominent writer. Katherine describes doing legwork in terms of gathering and organizing sources, especially ones local to Cincinnati. “There were some local archives that I’d go visit first to find out if what they had was even relevant, so [when Karen arrived] she could dig in on the nicer pots of gold that I’d identified for her,” says Katherine.  

And George Remus’ story is far from the only piece of landmark Cincinnati history. Katherine brings up the topic of Jewish history in Cincinnati. “Most of the Reformed rabbis of any note of the 20th century had combined degrees from the University of Cincinnati because they went to Hebrew Union College,” says Katherine. And Hebrew Union has a rich cultural importance of its own—according to Katherine, it contains the largest collection of Judaica outside of Israel. In fact, at one point in time a security copy of roughly half of the Dead Sea Scrolls (comprised of over 950 manuscripts) had come to HU’s Cincinnati campus for safekeeping in return for early access to the works once they were made public by the Israeli government. The scrolls, discovered between 1947 and 1956 in 11 different caves in what is now modern-day Israel, are estimated to be over 2,000 years old and comprise the basis much of our contemporary knowledge regarding ancient Jewish culture and history. A Hebrew Union professor and his assistant, believing that an artifact of such importance shouldn’t be kept a secret, shared the texts themselves, free of charge, to the general public. “They did some renegade, rebellious academic-ing, and they translated and publicized on their own the entire text of all the scrolls,” says Katherine. “So they are available for any scholar to see. And that happened right here in Cincinnati, [the publication of] one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century.” For more information about Hebrew Union’s relationship to the Dead Sea Scrolls, read this Dayton Jewish Observer article on the subject.  

It is evident through all of these conversations about the history of Cincinnati and beyond that Katherine is passionate about the past, and particularly about using the past to understand and inform the future. In this same vein, I decide to ask her what can be learned from her own past as a doctoral researcher to benefit other students who might be just embarking on this path. “Other people like to talk about their interests,” says Katherine. “And not only will you learn new factual things by asking other people about their research, but you’ll make relationships... and that has value just for itself. We should be relational people [...] because that’s how we take data and turn it into knowledge and then turn it into wisdom.”  

And what’s next for Katherine? “My dream is to be at a teaching and research institution,” she says. “I love students. I love being in the classroom and I’ve learned to love research. It was really intimidating when I started,” she continues. “That beginning period where you’re just digging through a sandbox looking for treasure still frustrates me sometimes. But now, I’ve had the experience of finding treasure, so I’m willing to do it.”