Spies, secrets, and information work

Allan Pinkerton’s detective agency is generally recognized as a model for the FBI, and he established the U.S. Secret Service during the American Civil War.  His vast network of spies and paramilitaries was a privately-funded nationwide, quasi-governmental law-enforcement agency.

Pinkerton dealt in brute force and secrets. But simultaneously preoccupied with publicity, he published eighteen book-length and numerous shorter works of true-crime fiction; these were public narratives of his operatives’ exploits and explicitly based on their secret reports. Pinkerton’s fiction competed directly with contemporary detective fiction, and it inserted itself into discourses of Pinkerton’s reputation, labor conflict, detection and law enforcement, crime, and national security.

I will use some of these documents—public fictionalized accounts and a set of secret reports from Pinkerton operatives to a mine owner—to argue that covert information work produces both true and false information.

The Information Work of the Pinkerton Detective Agency and the Nineteenth-Century Surveillance State was presented by Alan Bilansky (MS ’14) on Tuesday, October 14th, 2014.


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