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  • Uncle Sam's Policemen: The Pursuit of Fugitives across Borders by Katherine Unterman
  • Torrie Hester
Uncle Sam's Policemen: The Pursuit of Fugitives across Borders. By Katherine Unterman. ( Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 2015. Pp. [viii], 280. $35.00, ISBN 978-0-674-73692-4.)

Uncle Sam's Policemen: The Pursuit of Fugitives across Borders by Katherine Unterman is an important, deeply researched book on law enforcement and international fugitives in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The book traces through U.S. history the evolution of rendition, which is "the transfer of a criminal suspect from one jurisdiction to another" (p. 5). A company's bottom line, as Unterman points out, drove major developments in rendition during these years. Banks and corporations turned to various forms of rendition, ranging from extradition, kidnapping, and deportation, to halt the growing and relatively new crime of embezzlement. The cultural legacy of this history is readily apparent. We know of people like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in part because contemporary newspapers and novels depicted international manhunts, many carried out by private firms like the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Unterman points as well to even larger tactical and legal legacies; the federal government developed an internationally expansive jurisdiction of U.S. law that endures into the twenty-first century.

Drawing from an impressive range of archival sources, including work done at archives in Canada, Costa Rica, Honduras, and England, Unterman ties local law enforcement to economics and international relations. Government officials who provided asylum to fugitives sometimes grappled with how those outlaws served as a resource. As Unterman writes about Canada, "In many ways, the boodlers' [embezzlers] loot was simply one more form of American capital helping to build Canada" (p. 30). This was true throughout much of Central and South America. Some Latin American officials saw white U.S. fugitives as a kind of racial resource, too, tying them to the racial politics of the era. The book makes an incisive addition to the historiography of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America by documenting the role rendition played next to dollar diplomacy and military intervention in the growing hegemony of the United States. For instance, officials from Latin American nations sometimes refused to approve extraditions in resistance to U.S. power. Oftentimes, however, those same fugitives facilitated foreign direct investment in their country of asylum, which had the effect of advancing U.S. business interests in the region.

The contributions that Uncle Sam's Policemen makes to legal history are some of its most evocative. Unterman writes about the 1886 U.S. Supreme [End Page 445] Court case Ker v. Illinois, making the important observation that the decision "furthered the power of law enforcement by limiting the reach of law" (p. 73). The case originated when Pinkerton detectives abducted Frederick Ker in Peru, where he had fled after embezzling over fifty-five thousand dollars from a Chicago bank. The Court ruled the irregular nature of his rendition constitutional and created the legal doctrine "wrongly captured, properly detained" (p. 62). Courts in the United States thereafter could not use "stolen evidence, but they would admit stolen people" (p. 212). In the early twentieth century, U.S. officials deprivatized rendition. The federal government signed more extradition treaties, and the FBI rather than the Pinkertons emerged as a key organization involved in tracking down international fugitives. Federal officials, however, continued to rely on legal rationale established earlier, such as the Ker doctrine.

Unterman's ability to connect the history of rendition to the more recent past makes this book of great interest to an even broader audience. Federal officials carrying out the War on Terror and the War on Drugs pursue fugitives on the legal and tactical foundation built a century earlier, but with even fewer limits nationally or internationally. As a result, she concludes, "Instead of an empire of law, Americans had created an empire that claimed to be above the law" (p. 219).

Torrie Hester
Saint Louis University