Critical Intel

A BioShock Infinite Primer


As we await the arrival of BioShock Infinite I began reflecting on the amazing power of the franchise. Though set in a fictional world, the game has gone the extra mile to tap into the zeitgeist of 1900s America. That it’s an obscure period of history is actually exciting, since it means players will get a grounding in an era that hasn’t captured the modern imagination. That creates a problem too – what if you pocket-texted through your U.S. history class and don’t realize what’s real and what’s invention? What if you’re not an American, and turn of the century U.S. history was absent from your education?

To help, I’ve put together a list of historical concepts and events you’ll encounter as you explore the floating city of Columbia. So get on the trolley, and let’s take a trip down Main Street USA – from technological wonders to anarchist bombings.

American Exceptionalism and the Age of Optimism

“American Exceptionalism” is a widely misunderstood term. Some people erroneously believe it means the United States is the “best” country, or is somehow above international law. Actually, it’s a concept dating back to the 1840s, when European and American writers began suggesting that America was qualitatively different than any nation that had come before. The argument ran that because of its foundation on democratic principles, emphasis on commerce, Puritan roots, possibility of social mobility and vast natural resources, the United States developed into a radical new form of nation that had a special role to play internationally. This was a narrative the young republic embraced with gusto, especially since it fed into the ongoing, but contentious, policy of Manifest Destiny, which held that America was preordained to expand and fill the continent. As the 19th century came to a close and America started collecting its first overseas territories from the Spanish-American War, many seized on the idea that the special role of the United States lay in Imperialism: to export democracy, civilize native populations and “Christianize” the globe (though a vocal minority were opposed to this idea, including Mark Twain). According to the period mindset, America was not only a bastion of freedom, but would lead the world into a new American millennium.

Indeed, with the pace of technological innovation at the time, it’s understandable why much of the U.S. population envisioned an approaching utopia. Within twenty years, American life went through the greatest transformation of living standards its citizens ever witnessed. Men and women who grew up drawing water from wells and refilling kerosene lanterns suddenly had electricity, running water and even for a lucky few, indoor plumbing. Those who were too poor to afford such innovations gloried in the knowledge that they’d receive them soon. Cities started building the first mass transportation systems, and railroad improvements meant citizens could go from New York to San Francisco in six days rather than six months. Medical science performed magic too – X-ray machines saw straight through flesh and vaccination programs eliminated the dreaded smallpox. Automobiles were beginning to replace the horse, airplanes were on the horizon and telephones could link cities. These inventions not only changed daily life, but they created a sense of limitless optimism that technology would lead to a healthier, happier nation. “Laws are becoming more just,” said one preacher from the pulpit, “rulers are more humane; music is becoming sweeter and books wiser; homes are happier, and the individual heart is becoming at once more just and more gentle.”


Hearts, however, were not becoming more just and gentle toward immigrants. At the turn of the century, nativism – the fear that outside influences in the form of immigrants or racial “others” would change the makeup of America, weigh the country down, or destroy the founding values of the nation – were in full force.

Between 1900 and the 1920s, nativism surged to become a fixture of American politics and life. While African American segregation was the rule in many parts of the South (and the de-facto norm in many parts of the North) it also applied informally to new Americans. Upon arrival, an immigrant would be greeted with signs reading, “Irish Need Not Apply,” “No Wops Allowed,” and “The Chinese Must Go.” Other popular targets included Eastern Europeans, Jews, Muslims and later the Japanese. According to nativists, people from these countries carried disease. They were drunks. “Inferior” or “mongrel” blood pumped through their veins. Criminality was in their nature. There were worries that immigrants would feel more loyalty to their old monarchs or the Pope than they did their new homeland, or that they’d crash the economy by working cheaper than native-born Americans. Political cartoons showed waves of racial caricatures pouring onto America’s shores, with labels like “Mafia,” “disease,” “socialism,” and “popery.” As proof of this mental and moral inferiority, nativists used junk science like eugenics and phrenology to back their claims that immigrants were polluting the nation’s racial purity. Later, IQ tests conducted under highly dubious conditions became the go-to tool. In an infamous study during World War I, Princeton psychologist Carl C. Brigham tested American recruits, and concluded his report with the highly doubtful statement that “The intellectual superiority of our Nordic group over the Alpine, Mediterranean, and negro groups has been demonstrated.”

You’ll be interested to note that Dr. Brigham was also the principal author of the SATs.

These faulty reports – which Brigham later disavowed as faulty and racist – fueled the calls to set quotas on the number of immigrants entering the U.S. from certain countries. The more “desirable” the country’s bloodline, the higher the quota. English, Norwegian and Scottish settlers were welcome, while the Chinese and Russians were not. Meanwhile, plans to “Americanize” new immigrants emerged in the form of books and pamphlets that encouraged recent arrivals to abandon their culture and embrace the American ideal. This frequently went hand-in-hand with pushing immigrants into jobs where they were less visible, like textile factories, coal mines and domestic servitude.
From our first glimpses of Columbia, it seems similar opinions hold sway in Comstock’s paradise. Propaganda posters show the need for defending Columbia from “lesser” races, and in the prequel short story The Mind In Revolt, Dr. Pinchot expresses surprise that Daisy Fitzroy scores a 149 on an intelligence test, not the 70- 80 range which is the “average for non-whites.”

It’s unfortunate that he, and the rest of Columbia, underestimates her.

Wounded Knee Massacre

The Wounded Knee massacre of 1890 provided the symbolic, if not actual, end to the multi-century conflict known as the Indian Wars. It was also one of the most shameful acts in U.S. history, and according to BioShock Infinite‘s fiction, was the mental undoing of Booker DeWitt.

In 1889, a new messianic belief called the Ghost Dance took hold among the Plains and Great Basin tribes, who believed a savior was coming to bring back the buffalo and ancestor spirits while making the white men disappear. The doctrine alarmed U.S. officials enough that they began arresting prominent chiefs in order to head off the uprising they believed was coming. When Indian police tried to arrest Chief Sitting Bull, gunfire broke out leaving men dead on both sides. After the shooting, refugees from Sitting Bull’s tribe fled to a nearby reservation to take shelter with the Lakota Chief Spotted Elk. Fearing government reprisal, the combined band tried to flee further, but were intercepted by the U.S. 7th Cavalry.

The Cavalry relocated the refugees to Wounded Knee Creek and camped for the night, setting up four light artillery pieces to guard the 350 refugees – 230 of whom were women and children. At daybreak on December 29th, the Army moved in to disarm the party. What happened next is still debated. A medicine man named Yellow Bird started the Ghost Dance. Soldiers struggled with a deaf warrior who hadn’t understood the order to disarm, and his rifle discharged. Lakota warriors may have drawn weapons and fired. Here’s what we do know: the Hotchkiss guns opened up, spraying refugees and cavalrymen with indiscriminate fire. At this point, the officers lost control of their men and the incident turned into a massacre. Cavalrymen mounted horses to chase the routed survivors, killing unarmed men and women with infants in their arms. Somewhere between 150 and 300 of the Native American men, women and children were killed, their bodies left to freeze in a three-day blizzard before civilians dumped them in a mass grave.

Congress awarded the medal of honor to twenty members of the 7th Cavalry.


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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