Disagreeable Detective Work: Private Investigation in the US from the Civil War to WW2

Project overview

Robertson_PIThis project tells the story of how for six decades beginning in the 1870s private detectives conducted investigations that reached into American workplaces, leisure activities, and homes. They operated as a de facto national police force, filling a gap in policing services at the state and federal level that existed until the expansion of the FBI in the 1930s. Railroad corporations hired them for investigations of train robbery, and later banks and jewelers retained them to investigate robbery, theft, and burglary, and local police and prosecutors turned to them in cases of murder, bombing, and kidnapping. Business owners employed those same detectives to conduct surveillance in workplaces and to infiltrate radical political groups and labour unions, a practice that ended only after attention from a Congressional committee in the late 1930s. Private organizations tasked investigators with locating the illegal liquor sales, gambling, and prostitution, while individuals set them to watch suspected adulterers.

This project will be the first study to bring together all the activities of private detectives so that they can shed light on each other. When taken together, they reveal personal surveillance of a far larger scale and broader scope than has been recognized. I also extend those analyses by focusing on the practices of private investigation not just its subjects.

I have also begun to incorporate a spatial dimension in this analysis of private investigation and the labor it involved by mapping the locations of investigative activity. That innovation is particularly important to understanding shadowing and personal surveillance in general. Mapping the process of private investigation offers an additional variable to consider in exploring its success and failure, and what information it produced. At the same time, mapping involves tracing the movement of individual investigators, adding a spatial dimension to our understanding of the physical demands of shadowing and of the labor of investigation more generally.

Research Grants

  • Australian Research Council Discovery Grant, 2008-2010
  • Faculty of Arts Research Seed Grant, University of Sydney, 2006

In Progress

“Private Detectives and the Invasion of Privacy in the United States, 1880-1940”

Publications

“The Pinkertons and the Paperwork of Surveillance: Reporting Private Investigation in the United States, 1865-1940,” in Private Security and Modern States: Historical and Comparative Perspectives, ed David Churchill, Dolores Janiewski and Pieter Leloup (Routledge, forthcoming)

The Company’s Voice in the Workplace: Labor Spies, Propaganda and Personnel Management, 1918-1920,” Labor: Studies in the Working-Class History of the Americas 10, 3 (Fall 2013): 57-79

Harlem Undercover: Vice Investigators, Race and Prostitution in the 1920s,” Journal of Urban History 35, 4 (May 2009): 486-504

Presentations

“The Pinkertons and the Paperwork of Surveillance: Reporting Private Investigation in the US, 1855-1940,” presented at Private Security & the State, University of Leeds, July 9-10, 2017

Private Detectives and the Paper Work of Surveillance in the United States, 1855-1939,” presented at Paper Work: the Materials and Practices of Modern Information Cultures, University of Otago, May 24, 2013 [invited]

Private Detectives and Privacy in the Early Twentieth-Century United States, presented at the Australian and New Zealand American Studies Association Conference, Brisbane, July 4, 2012

Private Eyes and Ears –The Emergence of Covert Surveillance in America, presented at ASIS NSW, May 29, 2012 [invited]

The Company’s Voice in the Workplace: Labor Spies, Propaganda and Personnel Management, 1918-1920, presented at the Department of History Seminar, University of Sydney, March 19, 2012

“Private Detectives and Privacy,” presented at Surveillance and/in Everyday Life, University of Sydney, February 20-21, 2012

“The Company’s Eyes, Ears, and Voice in the Workplace: A Reconsideration of Labor Spying in Interwar Bag and Cotton Mills,” presented at the Australian and New Zealand American Studies Association Conference, Adelaide, July 2, 2010

“We Are Very Anxious To Have An Intelligent [Woman] Worker’s Point Of View”: Gender and the Practices of Workplace Surveillance in Interwar Cotton Mills,” presented at the Organization of American Historians Conference, Washington, DC, April 10, 2010

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