Steady hammer: origins of American counterterrorism in the dime novel world of William J. Flynn

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Letters & Science


This dissertation traces the life and times of William J. Flynn (1867-1928) as a means of understanding popular attitudes toward anarchism and terrorism, as well as expectations for protection from these forces, at the dawn of the twentieth century. Flynn was constantly at the nexus of law enforcement, serving as jailkeeper in the New York County correctional system; as agent, regional director, and national director of the U.S. Secret Service; and as director of the Bureau of Investigation. He also led a creative literary life, penning memoirs of his cases as novels and newspaper serials, and writing stories and editing a detective fiction magazine after his retirement from government service. Drawing on theories of popular culture of Russel Nye, as well as concepts of power and discourse of Michel Foucault, this study examined Flynn's literary works, historical documents from the Secret Service, Bureau of Investigation, and U.S. Railroad Administration, and popular dime novels to capture public perception of anarchists and expectations for protection from the terrorist threat. Anarchists were portrayed generally as unclean and often of foreign origin, while counter-anarchists appeared as capable, sharp-witted, affluent men and women. Temporality forms an important aspect of the study, demonstrating that Flynn's counterterrorist approach, as well as expectations for protection from terrorist violence, were rooted in elements of time. In a period when most detective work was financed by private individuals, Flynn built an identity for himself as a competent public official, and more importantly through his work and writings established the federal government as the primary entity capable of meeting the demands of protecting American citizens in the early twentieth century. Following retirement, Flynn continued his literary endeavors, always blurring the line between fact and fiction, generally cloaking his own adventures, all worthy of dime novels themselves, with a veneer of fiction.




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