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New York Undercover

Private Surveillance in the Progressive Era

To combat behavior they viewed as sexually promiscuous, politically undesirable, or downright criminal, social activists in Progressive-era New York employed private investigators to uncover the roots of society’s problems. New York Undercover follows these investigators—often journalists or social workers with no training in surveillance—on their information-gathering visits to gambling parlors, brothels, and meetings of criminal gangs and radical political organizations.

Drawing on the hundreds of detailed reports that resulted from these missions, Jennifer Fronc reconstructs the process by which organizations like the National Civic Federation and the Committee of Fourteen generated the knowledge they needed to change urban conditions. This information, Fronc demonstrates, eventually empowered government regulators in the Progressive era and beyond, strengthening a federal state that grew increasingly repressive in the interest of pursuing a national security agenda. Revealing the central role of undercover investigation in both social change and the constitution of political authority, New York Undercover narrates previously untold chapters in the history of vice and the emergence of the modern surveillance state.

256 pages | 7 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2009

Historical Studies of Urban America


History: American History, Urban History

Sociology: Social History


New York Undercover is a smart, surprising, and important book. With the keen intelligence and sharp wit of a good investigator, Jennifer Fronc unearths the roots of our culture of surveillance by taking us back to New York at the start of the twentieth century and following the undercover agents who followed gamblers, prostitutes, anarchists, immigrants, children, and men and women just out for a good time.”

Ann Fabian, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

“Jennifer Fronc ventures into the hitherto unknown world of private surveillance in the Progressive Era, when scores of do-gooders donned disguises and went undercover in order to document the nefarious activities of the other half. Fronc tracks these investigators and discovers that they created social knowledge that equated racial mixing, working class women’s sexuality, immigrant neighborhoods, and radical politics with social disorder, and that their private policing formed the basis for the development of federal surveillance. An illuminating book with great relevance for twentieth- and twenty-first-century history.”

Nan Enstad, University of Wisconsin–Madison

“This impressively researched book makes an important contribution to a wide range of central themes in modern American history, including the growth of state power and the policing of class, race, and gender relations. In this age of terrorism, ‘homeland security’ initiatives, the expanded use of wiretapping and other forms of surveillance, and a new debate about the relationship between civil liberties and governmental authority, New York Undercover is also timely.”

Jeffrey Adler, University of Florida

Table of Contents


ONE / A Genealogy of Undercover Investigation
TWO / Public Raids, Undercover Investigators, and Native Informants
THREE / Gender and Undercover Investigation
FOUR / Race Mixing, Investigation, and the Enforcement of Jim Crow
FIVE / Children and Immigrants in Working-Class New York
SIX / Public-Private Partnerships during World War I


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