Critical Intel

Critical Intel
A BioShock Infinite Primer

Robert Rath | 20 Mar 2013 12:00
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Pinkerton's National Detective Agency

After DeWitt's stint in the 7th Cavalry, we know he spent some time as a Pinkerton Agent, but was dismissed for his brutal tactics. That's a troubling thought - you'd have to display an extraordinary tendency toward violence to risk expulsion from the Pinkertons.

Allan Pinkerton was a Scottish immigrant who fell into police work after a stint in barrel-making. Appointed as Chicago's first full-time detective, Pinkerton soon left to form the private detective agency that bears his name. Originally the agency specialized in tracking counterfeiters and train robbers, but after allegedly foiling a plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln, Pinkerton won a lucrative contract to provide spies to the U.S. Army during the Civil War. Pinkerton, a committed abolitionist, ran a corps of Union spies that included African American agents who could pass unnoticed in the South while posing as laborers or go into deep cover as domestic servants to Confederate leaders. Unusually for the time, the "Pinkertons," as they came to be called, also employed women.

After their success during the war, Pinkertons went to work as protection details and hired guns across the West. They pursued outlaws like Jesse James and rode shotgun on mail coaches. In 1871, the agency won a $50,000 contract from the U.S. government to serve as the federal law enforcement wing for the Department of Justice. But their specialty really lay in labor disputes. By 1880, factory owners increasingly hired Pinkertons to infiltrate union meetings and in the case of a strike, enforce their will with batons and rifles. It made the "Pinks" infamous, especially after the Homestead Strike.

The Homestead Strike began in the summer of 1892, after negotiations broke down between the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers and the Carnegie Steel Company, managed in Carnegie's absence by Henry Clay Frick. To retaliate for the ongoing dispute, Frick staged a lockout a day before the contract expired - shutting the doors of the plant to union workers and fortifying it with sniper towers and pressurized cannons that shot boiling water. The unions responded by striking and organizing patrols to expel any the replacement workers Frick brought into town. That's when Frick hired three hundred Pinkertons and outfitted them with Winchester rifles. The plan was to tow barges full of Pinkertons up the river, land them at the plant, and secure it for replacement workers. The plan went smooth until the landing - and then the shooting started. The Agents retreated to their barges and endured a twelve hour siege as tens of thousands of workers on the banks sniped at them, threw dynamite, and fired on them with a 20 pound cannon. At one point, workers even tried to set the barges alight by ramming them with a flaming railcar. Nine workers and seven Pinkertons were killed, with a dozen wounded on each side. When the Pinks surrendered, strikers beat them in front of newspapermen and escorted them out of town. The display turned public opinion against the strikers and soured the public's enthusiasm for the Pinkerton Agency, which had already developed a reputation of using unnecessary levels of violence.

Anarchist Terror

Two weeks after the fiasco at Homestead, an anarchist named Alexander Berkman walked into Henry Clay Frick's office. He shot Frick three times and stabbed him in the leg before Frick's colleagues tackled him. Berkman, who had no connection to the strike and was not a union man, hoped that Frick's murder would spur oppressed workers to rise up. That didn't happen. Frick survived, the strike collapsed due to negative publicity from the assassination attempt, and Berkman went to prison for fourteen years. It was only one incident in several decades of bombings, murders and riots carried out by the radical fringe of the populist movement.

Left-wing thought underwent a major expansion and evolution at the turn of the century, as workers and immigrants grew tired of abuses by employers and political corruption. The most mainstream response was the formation of unions and labor organizations to protect workers from exploitation, but other thinkers looked to socialism for answers, or even anarchism - a belief that governments and capitalist systems were inherently corrupt and oppressive. Anarchists varied widely in their belief systems, from those we might consider libertarian today to those that leaned more toward communism or socialism. Most anarchists were peaceful and opposed to violence, but a radical fringe believed that bombings and assassinations could either help destabilize the state or else serve as a form of political discourse, known as the propaganda of the deed.

Anarchist terrorists were the Al-Qaeda of their day, feared by governments for both their subversive philosophy and propensity toward violent action. The decades straddling the turn of the century saw a rash of foiled plots and bloody acts. In 1893 an anarchist threw a bomb into the orchestra pit of a Barcelona theater, killing twenty. The next year, the President of France fell to an assassin's knife. 1897 through 1901 was a particularly bad period - anarchist assassins shot the Prime Minister of Spain as he reclined in a spa, stabbed Empress Elizabeth of Austria-Hungary to death, and killed Italian King Umberto I for supporting the Italian Army after it fired on strikers. 1901 also saw the assassination of U.S. President William McKinley by anarchist Leon Czolgosz, who shot the president twice at point-blank range during the Pan-American Exposition. Anarchist, pro-union and anti-capitalist bombings continued into the 1930s, mostly targeting financial institutions and captains of industry. Most notable were a 1910 bombing at the Los Angeles Times building killed 21 and injured more than 100, and a still-unsolved 1920 bombing on Wall Street, where a carriage stuffed with dynamite and iron weights detonated in the middle of the lunch crowd, killing 38 and wounding 143.

BioShock Infinite's Daisy Fitzroy, leader of the populist movement Vox Populi seems to fit this mold. An intelligent firebrand who hates injustice and dreams of bringing the city crashing down, Daisy's first act of rebellion is not to stage a strike or protest, but to murder a prominent member of the Comstock family. Only time will tell whether players will come to see her as a freedom fighter or a terrorist.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Austin, Texas. You can follow his exploits at or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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