The Infernal Machine: A True Story of Dynamite, Terror, and the Rise of the Modern Detective

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Release Date: 
May 14, 2024
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“brings together Hoover-style surveillance and Goldman-style anarchism with the force of inevitability [that] reflects both top-notch detective work and consummate crime writing.”

The December 1919 deportation of the resolute radical anarchist Emma Goldman by future FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover—then a rising star in the Justice Department—starts to seem like destiny when one considers the trajectory of their respective careers. Yet their brief, barbed exchange aboard the S.S. Buford, mere minutes before it set sail to transport Goldman and 247 other deportees convicted under the Alien Act to the Soviet Union seems almost too good to be true.

“Haven’t I given you a square deal, Miss Goldman?” Hoover asked Goldman, as he stood facing his first prize catch for the first time. “Oh, I suppose you have given me as square a deal as you could,” Goldman replied. “We shouldn’t expect from any person something beyond his capacity.”

But the seeming collision course that brought a characteristically unbowed Goldman and self-congratulatory Hoover to this shipboard encounter was a circuitous one, and a complex story that Hoover entered only near its end. To a great degree, Steven Johnson’s briskly paced The Infernal Machine: A True Story of Dynamite, Terror, and the Rise of the Modern Detective is the multi-threaded narrative of how Goldman’s and Hoover’s lives came to converge on that ship.

The “Infernal Machine” of the book’s title refers to dynamite itself, and Johnson carefully lays out its origin story in the 19th century experiments of Alfred Nobel, its fruitful application in drilling, mining, railroad building, and other civil engineering projects, and its unintended appropriation as a tool of political violence in the hands of anarchists committed to advancing their cause through “the propaganda of the deed.”

Anarchists’ deeds were attempted and accomplished both with and without the use of dynamite, notably in the assassination of William McKinley at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition (World’s Fair) in Buffalo by Polish-American anarchist Leon Czolgosz, who didn’t know Emma Goldman but insisted that he’d been inspired by her ideas and oratory, and the attempted assassination of Carnegie Steel industrialist Henry Clay Frick in 1892 by Emma Goldman’s lifelong partner Alexander Berkman.

But The Infernal Machine does far more than chronicle the bomb-throwing exploits of 19th century anarchists, and Johnson also takes pains to explain the emergence of their ideology as a pro-labor response to the dehumanizing industrialization of the era and also to distinguish them from the anti-government terrorists like Timothy McVeigh or the January 6 insurrectionists.

“As a theory of social organization,” Johnson writes, “anarchism was equally opposed to the hierarchies of capitalism and the hierarchies of what we would now call Big Government. For this reason, it lacks an intuitive address on the conventional left-right map of contemporary politics, which partly explains why the movement can seem perplexing to us today. Whatever you might say about Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman and Peter Kropotkin— the three main anarchists in this book— they should never be mistaken for free-market libertarians. They wanted to smash the corporate regime as much as they wanted to smash the state.”

Moreover, Johnson argues, the anarchists’ attraction to bomb-throwing and other forms of political violence stemmed from two things. First was the recognition that the ability to cause explosions put extraordinary power in the hands of people who were otherwise powerless in an expanding industrial and imperialist state. The other was an understanding of the everyday violence the capitalist state routinely imposed on the workers whose labor propelled it: “For every death at the hand of a bomb-wielding anarchist, a hundred or more would die from factory accidents.”

The parallel story The Infernal Machine tells concerns the evolution of detective work from the sort of bare-knuckled brutality that beat confessions out of witnesses and thrived on payoffs and to a more data-driven approach—crimefighting as an information science—that evolved contemporaneously with the rise of anarchism as the 20th century dawned, and increasingly emerged as its foremost challenger.

In Johnson’s analysis, it was J. Edgar Hoover’s criminal database, the “Editorial File System” that targeted Goldman and Berkman and landed them on the S.S. Buford in 1919. It also “proved to be, over the decades, one of the most menacing expressions of state power in American history, paving the way for now-notorious undercover investigations into Martin Luther King, Jr., the Kennedys, John Lennon, and others.”

Though Hoover learned the index cards and taxonomies as a young Library of Congress staffer in the years before he transferred to the DOJ, the origins of data-based crimefighting began, as Johnson recounts, began with French police officer Alphonse Bertillon, a biometrics researcher who developed a scientific system to identify criminals based on physical measurements. To collect data for the system, Bertillon’s officers would take extensive measurements of every detainee, and file them by characteristics such as the length of a suspect’s middle finger.

“The genius of Alphonse Bertillon’s system—arguably the single most important breakthrough in the long history of battling crime,” Johnson contends, “was not just the measurement of physical traits but also the filing system that allowed you to find a match in minutes out of a pool of ten thousand potential suspects.”

Johnson carries forward the story of scientific crimefighting through its arrival in the United States in the work of detective Joseph Faurot and commissioner Arthur Woods in the New York Police Department, where interrogation-by-intimidation, staffing-by-Tammany, and collusion with crime syndicates had long prevailed. Johnson chronicles both their egregious early failures (nearly on par with Bertillon’s gross misconduct in the Alfred Dreyfus case) and eventual successes. The Infernal Machine crackles with the excitement of the best detective fiction and nonfiction as he tells the story of the “magic trick” that enabled fingerprint-based evidence to triumph in a New York City courtroom during Faurot’s prosecution of burglar Charles Crispi in 1911.

Similarly gripping is Johnson’s retelling of the use of an undercover agent to infiltrate New York’s notorious Black Hand and foil a plot to bomb New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Ultimately, the story never strays far from the converging paths of anarchist political violence and the ascendant techniques of modern policing. As Johnson writes, “The legacy of the anarchist movement ultimately possessed a kind of tragic irony: the dream of smashing the state helping to give birth to a regime of state surveillance that would become nearly ubiquitous by the middle of the twentieth century.”

Irony aside, the way The Infernal Machine ultimately brings together Hoover-style surveillance and Goldman-style anarchism with the force of inevitability reflects both top-notch detective work and consummate crime writing.