New York Police Commissioner Arthur Woods, “Progressive Policing,” and the Wiretapping Scandal of 1916

New York City’s mayoral election of 1913 swept a young reformer, John Purroy Mitchel, into office as the candidate of the Fusion Party. His police commissioner, Arthur H. Woods, pledged to solve the crime problem and quell public disturbances by instituting a series of police reforms based on the progressive principles of “scientific management.” However, one of these initiatives—use of a police wiretapping unit for the clandestine gathering of information—led to a public scandal and contributed to the downfall of the reform movement in New York City.

Listening to the Progressive Era Domestic Soundscape

In my doctoral dissertation “Vox Machinae: Phonographs and the Birth of Sonic Modernity, 1877-1930,” I presented a cultural history of the early recording industry in close conversation with the so-called “New Materialisms.” Drawing on Science and Technology Studies (STS), phenomenological philosophy, and other strains of materialist literature, I sought to make sense of the ways in which machines and other material entities exercise agency over cultural processes. How, in other words, did the early phonograph itself—with its motor and governor and nuts and bolts and belts—shape how people responded to recorded sound?

On Nippers, Nipper-Napping, and the New York Public Library

In the weeks that followed, Nipper and I worked together—I poring over phonograph industry periodicals and he at projecting his trademark canine bemusement. I occasionally glanced up from my copies of Phonoscope or Voice of the Victor to meditate on my colleague’s recent brush with disaster. How had the statue come to be in the lobby of the Library? And how had it accrued value (or agency?) such that someone would risk their safety and good name to steal it? This business of Nipper-napping, I determined, was a strange enterprise indeed, and one worth trying to understand.