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  • New York Undercover: Private Surveillance in the Progressive Era
  • Ellen Fitzpatrick
New York Undercover: Private Surveillance in the Progressive Era. By Jennifer Fronc (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2009) 256. pp $35.00

This imaginative study focuses on one of the more intriguing investigative techniques deployed to advance social knowledge during the Progressive [End Page 475] Era—undercover investigation. An array of reformers, with a eye to social improvement and a bold determination to capture real-life conditions, made forays during the period into places where they believed evildoing existed and, indeed, flourished. Often without revealing their identity or purpose, they sought to mingle, either directly or through hired agents, with the perpetrators and victims of various crimes in order to gather facts and statistics that they imagined would be efficacious in promoting effective reform. Undercover techniques were favored especially by organizations devoted to rooting out the “social evil” of prostitution. But they were by no means restricted to such groups. Muckraking journalists, liberal activists determined to expose the grueling conditions endured by working men and women, as well as prison reformers—among a great many others—all engaged in such tactics during the Progressive Era. Their detailed and voluminous reports are a treasure trove for historians interested in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century social research and liberal-reform endeavors.

In New York Undercover, Fronc makes extensive, and revealing, use of this material to examine the penchant for private surveillance among five reform-driven organizations. Three of the five groups that Fronc explores reflect familiar Progressive-era, anti-vice constituencies, ideologies, and interests. The short-lived Committee of Fifteen (1900–1902) and the Committee of Fourteen brought together academics, civic leaders, businessmen, and reform activists concerned with both the proliferation of vice in New York and the inadequacy, at best, of municipal oversight of prostitution and gambling. They relied upon undercover investigators, most largely untrained, to amass data that might persuade government officials to pursue stricter enforcement of existing anti-vice regulations as well as new statutes aimed at tighter moral and social control. The Committee of Fourteen’s “Colored Auxiliary” ironically reenforced Jim Crow, Fronc points out. By enlisting the co-operation of African-American bar owners and businessmen eager to protect their saloons and clubs, the Auxiliary aided in preventing allegedly illicit “race mixing” (122).

New York’s People’s Institute fares better in Fronc’s assessment. The organization focused its energies on improving the quality of neighborhood life and leisure for children and immigrants, infiltrating a “gang” of boys and conducting social surveys as a means to this end. The National Civic Federation (ncf) rounds out Fronc’s story. She recounts how the ncf surreptitiously gathered evidence about radical labor agitators and, during World War I, various other perceived political subversives in ways that enhanced a growing federal security apparatus.

Fronc sees the various groups that she surveys as both morally compromised in their endeavors and successful in enlarging government intrusiveness—conclusions that echo the themes of much recent historiography about the Progressives. The larger claims of Fronc’s study—that these organizations, and the techniques upon which they relied, were highly instrumental in paving the way for an enlarged “national security state” (a term usually reserved for the post–World War II period)—will [End Page 476] not persuade all readers. But she makes an excellent case that the groups examined exerted pressure, directly and indirectly, to enlarge government surveillance of private individuals, often advancing the interests of political, social, and economic elites in the process. Fronc’s analysis enriches understanding of a vital dimension of Progressive-era reform initiatives.

Ellen Fitzpatrick
University of New Hampshire


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pp. 475-477
Launched on MUSE
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