Introducing The Infernal Machine
A new book about dynamite, anarchism, and the birth of the surveillance state.
Just a few days ago, I sent my editor the second draft of my next book, The Infernal Machine, coming out sometime in the spring of 2024. We don’t have a subtitle or a design yet, but we do have a first version of what will probably become the jacket copy, and so I figured you all should be among the very first to read it.
The Infernal Machine is a project that I’ve been working on for about four years now, dating back to when I was putting the finishing touches on Enemy Of All Mankind, my account of the pirate Henry Every and the clash between the nascent East India Company and the Grand Mughal Aurangzeb, a conflict triggered by Every’s brutal crimes in the Indian Ocean. I’d loved writing Enemy, loved being able to weave back and forth between a proper heist narrative and a broader story about the emergence of historical entities like multinational corporations and international law—as well as exploring the ways in which “illegitimate” groups like the pirates helped shape the institutions that arose to combat them. And so I started digging around looking for a story—or an interconnected hub of stories really—that explored similar terrain. Early on, I stumbled across a fascinating figure from the early 20th century: an NYPD detective named Joseph Faurot, who briefly became a national celebrity in the 1910s for solving a particularly grotesque homicide committed by the psychotic priest Hans Schmidt.
The Faurot/Schmidt story turned out to be a little too small in its implications for my tastes, but it got me interested in that period of American policing—and particular, the NYPD—where the institution was undergoing a kind of phase transition from Tammany-Hall-corruption to a more modern, “scientific” approach to crime-fighting, largely imported from Europe. (I also loved the idea of writing a book about New York for the first time, the city where I have lived for most of my adult life.) Reading through old newspaper archives, I was struck by the extraordinary number of dynamite bombs that were being detonated in the city during that period—some of them deployed by mobster extortionists, but many of them acts of political terrorism. (The newspapers referred the bombs as “infernal machines,” hence the title.) It’s a part of urban history that has almost been entirely forgotten; over a period of about thirty years around the turn of the century, there were seven thousand bombings in New York City alone.
I was particularly intrigued by two elements of the bombing campaigns. First there was the connection to the anarchist movement, which was for a stretch of time at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth a major force in radical politics. I’d long been fascinated with the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin, whose wonderful book Mutual Aid discussed a number of themes about self-organization that I had written about in my book Emergence in 2001. (Though I didn’t get to Kropotkin’s work until many years later.) And of course the anarchist Emma Goldman had always seemed to be a singular figure in American politics from that period. But I was also interested in the technological innovation of dynamite itself, how Alfred Nobel’s chemistry breakthrough had become so closely intertwined with radical political movements, and with the birth of what we now call terrorism—one of the most startling examples of unintended consequences in the history of innovation.
And so slowly, over the months, I assembled a story that wove all those threads together, drawing in some other intriguing figures from that era as well: the Czar Alexander II, the first national leader killed by a suicide bomber; the young J. Edgar Hoover, whose mastery of library science ultimately helps deport Goldman and her longtime collaborator Alexander Berkman; Arthur Hale Woods, the Teddy Roosevelt protégé who spearheads the reform of the NYPD with Faurot and forms the first bomb squad to combat the anarchist threat. In the end, I came to think of the book as the story of two ideas, ideas that first took root in Europe before arriving on American soil at the end of the nineteenth century, where they locked into an existential struggle that lasted three decades. One idea was the radical vision of a society with no top-down, hierarchical institutions—and a new tactic of dynamite-driven terrorism deployed to advance that vision. The other idea—crimefighting as an information science, and the larger practice of state surveillance—took longer to take shape, and for a good stretch of the early twentieth century, it seemed like it was losing its struggle against the anarchists. But it won out in the end. How did that come to happen? And could the story have played out differently?
I’ll have much more to share about the book over the next year, but suffice to say I have thoroughly enjoyed unearthing all this material. (The book is significantly longer than anything I’ve ever written before, and also features some amazing archival photography that will be included in the final version.) You can pre-order it now at most major online booksellers, which are linked to here on the main Penguin Random House page. And here’s our early draft of the jacket copy just to whet your appetite:
A riveting account of the anarchists who terrorized early-twentieth-century New York City, and the pioneering, data-driven surveillance policing that rose to meet the threat, from the bestselling author of The Ghost Map.
When Arthur Woods took command of the NYPD in April of 1914, the institution was still largely the corrupt, low-tech organization of the Tammany Hall era. To the extent the police were stopping crime—as opposed to committing it—their role had been almost entirely defined by physical force: the brawn of the cop on the beat keeping criminals at bay with nightsticks and fists. The solving of crimes was largely outside their purview.
Woods was determined to change that, but he couldn’t have anticipated the maelstrom of violence that would test his science-based approach to policing. Within weeks of his tenure, New York City was engulfed in the most concentrated terrorism campaign in the nation’s history: a five-year period of relentless bombings, many of them perpetrated by the anarchist movement led by the legendary radicals Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman.
Steven Johnson’s engrossing account of the struggle between the anarchist movement and the emerging surveillance state stretches around the world and back to the nineteenth century—to Alfred Nobel’s invention of dynamite, to the development of forensic science in France, and to the assassination of Czar Alexander II, an event that propelled Berkman and Goldman’s emigration from Russia to America and inspired their conviction that the nation state must be destroyed. As the forces of anarchy and policing clash in New York City, we meet Inspector Joseph Faurot, a science-first detective who works closely with Woods in reforming the police force; Hans Schmidt, the psychotic killer priest whose capture turns Faurot into a household name; and Amadeo Polignani, the young Italian undercover detective who infiltrates the notorious Bresci Circle.
Johnson reveals a mostly forgotten period of political conviction, scientific discovery, assassination plots, bombings, undercover operations, and innovative sleuthing. The Infernal Machine is the complex pre-history of our current moment, when decentralized anarchist networks have once again taken to the streets to protest law enforcement abuses, right-wing militia groups have attacked government buildings, and surveillance is almost ubiquitous.