Historians & their books podcast

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

William Faulkner

Inventing the Pinkertons: In-depth interview with S.Paul O’Hara

Interviewing S. Paul O’Hara was an absolute pleasure. His book – published in 2016 – is masterful cultural history of an incredibly interesting and important organization: The Pinkerton National Detective Agency and its impact on US history – particularly during the Gilded Age (1870 – 1900) and beyond. One of the key takeaways for me was Paul’s notion of history as an exercise in “radical empathy“. Each podcast at historians and their books starts with the life and background of the historian then moves into broader questions of historiography and historical influences before diving headlong and in-depth into the featured book which – in this case – starts at about 29 minutes into the podcast. Each podcast will be between one to two hours in duration and is made for history lovers, students of history and history professionals. You can listen to the podcast here or on your phone, or download it on to your computer as an mp.3 file.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

This fine study not only tells the convoluted tale of the notorious Pinkerton Agency but also seats it in the context of a rapidly-changing American culture.  As a read it rivals the best detective novel.”
(Maury Klein, Professor Emeritus, University of Rhode Island)

Inventing the Pinkertons is a welcome addition to the history of the long Gilded Age. It will appeal to scholars and students interested in American popular culture, business-government relations, the ongoing struggle between labor and capital, and the formation of the modern surveillance-police state.”
(Jocelyn Wills, Brooklyn College, City University of New York American Historical Review)

S. Paul O’Hara highly recommends ‘The Strange Career of William Ellis’ (2016) by Karl Jacoby as a fine example of American cultural history which intertwines borderlands history and the riddle of race (passing) and was his answer to the question: “What was the last history book you read and really enjoyed?”

A prize-winning historian tells a new story of the black experience in America through the life of a mysterious entrepreneur. To his contemporaries in Gilded Age Manhattan, Guillermo Eliseo was a fantastically wealthy Mexican, the proud owner of a luxury apartment overlooking Central Park, a busy Wall Street office, and scores of mines and haciendas in Mexico. But for all his obvious riches and his elegant appearance, Eliseo was also the possessor of a devastating secret: he was not, in fact, from Mexico at all. Rather, he had begun life as a slave named William Ellis, born on a cotton plantation in southern Texas during the waning years of King Cotton. After emancipation, Ellis, capitalizing on the Spanish he learned during his childhood along the Mexican border and his ambivalent appearance, engaged in a virtuoso act of reinvention. He crafted an alter ego, the Mexican Guillermo Eliseo, who was able to access many of the privileges denied to African Americans at the time: traveling in first-class train berths, staying in upscale hotels, and eating in the finest restaurants.

Eliseo’s success in crossing the color line, however, brought heightened scrutiny in its wake as he became the intimate of political and business leaders on both sides of the US-Mexico border. Ellis, unlike many passers, maintained a connection to his family and to black politics that also raised awkward questions about his racial status. Yet such was Ellis’s skill in manipulating his era’s racial codes, most of the whites he encountered continued to insist that he must be Hispanic even as Ellis became embroiled in scandals that hinted the man known as Guillermo Eliseo was not quite who he claimed to be.

The Strange Career of William Ellis reads like a novel but offers fresh insights on the history of the Reconstruction era, the US-Mexico border, and the abiding riddle of race. At a moment when the United States is deepening its connections with Latin America and recognizing that race is more than simply black or white, Ellis’s story could not be more timely or important.  Published by W.W. Norton on June 19 (“Juneteenth”) 2016, The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave who Became a Mexican Millionaire won the Ray Allen Billington Award from the Organization of American Historians, the Phillis Wheatley Prize from the Harlem Book Fair, and was a finalist for the Weber-Clements Prize for Borderlands History from the Western History Association.