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  • Uncle Sam's Policemen: The Pursuit of Fugitives Across Borders by Katherine Unterman
  • Sam Lebovic
Uncle Sam's Policemen: The Pursuit of Fugitives Across Borders. By Katherine Unterman (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015. 288 pp. $35.00).

In the first half of the twentieth century, international policing involved a degree of improvisation. In the early 1890s, for instance, William Schreiber absconded to Canada after robbing the US bank at which he worked. He could only be arrested on US soil, so detectives employed an erstwhile love-interest to lure him to Detroit. Dealing with a criminal in Mexico several decades later, police resorted to abduction, towing the fugitive across the Rio Grande in a bathtub. In Uncle Sam's Policemen, Katherine Unterman uses these and similar cases to explore the little-known, but fascinating, history of American cross-border policing from the late nineteenth century to the 1930s.

Unterman's approach to this history is, broadly speaking, that of a cultural historian. She is interested in using the problems of international policing to reconstruct American attitudes to the world and does so by combining legal history, political history, the colorful details of the cases, and analysis of contemporary press commentary. While Unterman does not ignore institutional and legal developments in telling her story, her approach is to see them [End Page 579] primarily as expressions of cultural attitudes to American internationalism, identity, and social order.

This method is perhaps most effective in the book's first chapter, which explores what Unterman calls the "embezzlement epidemic." The chapter is a nice reconstruction of a forgotten moment of moral panic about the "boodler"—the clerk who stole money from his employer and fled beyond the reach of the law. The extent to which there was an objective rise in such crime or a shift in cultural attitudes remains, as is typical of such studies of moral panics, somewhat ambiguous, but Unterman does a nice job of explaining the significance of this new figure. Like the "confidence man" of the 1850s or the "juvenile delinquent" of the 1950s, the "boodler" was a repository for broader social anxieties—in this case, anxieties about the rise of white-collar work, new modes of financial capital, and new forms of international travel and mobility.

The remainder of the book goes on to explore how the "boodler" and other international criminals were policed. In recounting the legal, tactical, and political development of international policing, Unterman makes three noteworthy contributions. First, she emphasizes the importance of private police forces, such as the Pinkertons, to international policing. Until the rise of the FBI in the interwar years, such private police forces had far greater capabilities than state forces. As a result, much international policing in these years was concerned with financial crimes, in which rich private interests could deploy police power to reclaim their property.

Second, Unterman shows that the rise of harder legal borders in the late nineteenth century created, somewhat counterintuitively, greater possibilities for American unilateralism in dealing with international crime. Unterman stresses particularly the importance of the decision in Ker v. Illinois (1886), in which the Supreme Court declared that arrests made in foreign jurisdictions were not subject to the same constitutional constraints as arrests made within the United States. As Unterman puts it: "previously, international borders had constrained policing, but now they actually facilitated it because they gave law enforcers more power to act outside the country than within it" (62). At the same time, the rise of deportation gave the United States the power to unilaterally remove foreign criminals from its soil, without becoming enmeshed in the delicate diplomacy of extradition.

Third, Unterman shows that international policing was an important element of American foreign relations. She charts the forgotten geography of international havens, as American criminals raced to locations without extradition treaties—at first Canada, and then Chile, Honduras, Argentina, Costa Rica, and others. And she reminds us that the subsequent negotiations over extradition treaties were, in fact, central features of the diplomacy of the period and worthy of inclusion in our thinking about the history of hemispheric relations.

Unterman's approach in developing these arguments may leave specialists with questions...


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