Spies among us!

Jennifer Fronc
New York Undercover: Private Surveillance in the Progressive Era

New York Undercover, Fronc argues that Progressive social activists used private investigators to spy on Americans in a variety of settings. They went looking for information to confirm their suspicions about their fellow citizens, “produced the knowledge necessary to alter conditions,” and because they were willing to “tamper with civil liberties, cross lines, and perform tasks that would have been illegal” for government employees, “they were central to the creation of a stronger federal state during the Progressive Era and World War I, one that became increasingly repressive in the interests of a national security agenda.” Fronc distinguishes between the evangelical approach of earlier reformers and the “instrumentalist pragmatism” of these people (who she calls “social activists” to avoid using the term reform, which she says “generations of historians have used in their desire to impose organizational synthesis on the contingency and chaos” of the actual situation), who sought to “enforce their own moral codes” upon society by creating “new types of knowledge about urban neighborhoods and their residents.” Fronc demonstrates that these private, often untrained undercover investigators played an “essential creating social knowledge and constituting political authority.” And she calls attention to the problem with this: the “entire process was teleological: the predominantly middle-class social activists set the parameters of the investigations, had their concerns confirmed by their investigators’ findings and reports, and then moved to solve the problems their employees uncovered (or caused).”

Fronc’s narrative reveals interesting glimpses of the little-seen underside of early twentieth-century New York, through the reports of these investigators. She also describes the activities of the main private organizations, like the Committee of Fourteen and the People’s Institute, as well as more the “liminal and vigilante” National Civic Federation. The evolution of “moral reform” from “benevolent societies” to “preventive societies,” and then to these semi-public committees and ultimately to government agencies, is interesting and disturbing. In some cases, like the “undercover investigation of midwives,” the reader can clearly see the medical profession lobbying to “safeguard against the usurpation of the function of the physician” -- a function the physician had only recently wrested away from its traditional practitioners. But overall, Fronc says “The desire to control and regulate--rather than ‘save’ or ‘redeem’--differentiated Progressive Era activists from their predecessors.” The elite condescension contained in these programs, and their racial, ethnic, and class biases did not go completely unchallenged at the time. Fronc documents a series of letters between W.E.B. DuBois and Frederick Whitin (Executive of the Committee of Fourteen), in which DuBois challenged the legality of the segregation the Committee tried to enforce on New York businesses.

Fronc also highlights aspects of the period that get less notice than they ought. She calls attention to the fact that the period of 1914-1916 saw “nearly two years of monthly bombings in munitions plants, explosions aboard ships in New York harbor, and the arrests of German, Austrian, and Italian immigrants for bomb making in their apartments.” She traces the National Civic Federation’s 1900 establishment back to its roots in Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. She points out that the NCF “opposed groups like the National Association of Manufacturers, which wanted the government to protect small business interests from competition at the hands of large corporations and the demands of organized labor.” And that “On August 1, 1914, ‘the day after war was declared by Germany,’ the New York City Police Department officially expanded the Italian Squad and renamed it the Anarchist and Bomb Squad.”

Surveillance was undertaken by these activist Progressives, but is this type of somewhat sinister elitism pervade only their part of Progressivism? Jane Addams is named several times in the text, but Fronc never suggests that she had any knowledge of the type of surveillance that was going on. But in the sense that some of this spying
was finding out interesting new things about people in the major cities (which is part of the reason they’re still so interesting), isn’t this exactly the type of information Addams would have been interested in, if she had known it existed?

I also wonder how far outside the major cities this type of surveillance extends? Clearly, by the time the government takes it over in WWI, they’re looking at “enemies of the state” wherever they may be. But how does that develop, outside the cities?

And aren’t the vigilantes who work with the government really manifesting the same principle that motivates the anarchists themselves? A different concept of public and private spheres? The anarchists and the vigilantes both believe it’s within their legitimate scope of activities, to take on (violent) projects in the public sphere, which will later come to be (and is still, for us) understood as the monopoly of the state. So really, in one sense, the same impulse is behind the vigilantes that ally with the government to attack outsiders, and with the outsiders who attack the organs of the state.

The best things about this are that Fronc really uses things written by her subjects to great advantage. You “hear” their voices. This is a great example for me, since I’d like to do the same thing. The other great thing is, she wasn’t even looking for the investigators. She found them by accident. That’s
so cool for those of us who spend our time in archives...