The Pinkertons and the Paperwork of Surveillance: Reporting Private Investigation in the United States, 1855-1940.




Robertson, Stephen

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For six decades beginning in the 1870s, American private detectives operated as a de facto national police force, filling the gap in policing services at the state and federal level that existed until the expansion of the FBI in the 1930s. The major private detective agencies were bureaucratic, centrally controlled organizations, whose mechanism for coordination and control was “a complex and extensive formal communication system depending heavily on written documents of various sorts.” The paperwork produced by individual detectives was a distinctive feature of private investigation, with the dual purposes of communicating information and providing a product for a client. This chapter focuses on the Pinkerton National Detective Agency to trace how this paperwork evolved in response to the changing focus of the work of private detectives from railway spotting to labour spying and then to criminal cases. It looks at how the paper work of recording and reporting information in writing helped shaped the conduct of an investigation and what information was gathered. The paperwork itself followed a form borrowed from industrial capitalism that emphasized a modern understanding of information. Presented as not involving the authority and judgment of the author, information was objective and able to be extracted from the context of its creation and presentation. However, as reports went to clients, they also had to account for operatives’ time and obscure sources and practices in order establish their expertise and professionalism. If the result of this tension was to make the agencies’ paperwork less efficient as a way of conveying information, nonetheless it helped give them an ability to conduct complex and wide-ranging investigations that municipal police lacked.


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