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Pinkerton Agency


PINKERTON AGENCY. Founded in Chicago in 1850 by Scottish-born Allan Pinkerton, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency was America's first professional private investigation company. When in 1861 the Pinkertons foiled a plot to assassinate president-elect Abraham Lincoln, a grateful Lincoln charged Pinkerton with establishing a secret service, thus catapulting the agency into the national spotlight.

Among its many notable assignments, the Pinkerton Agency, under the stewardship of Pinkerton, his sons, or his grandsons, was called upon to secure the return of Thomas Gainsborough's Duchess of Devonshire to its rightful owners, to protect the Hope diamond, and to ensure the safe delivery of the manuscript of the Gettysburg Address. By the 1870s, Pinkerton branches were established in several major U.S. cities, and all were equipped with Allan Pinkerton's innovative methods for criminal detection, some of them useful (such as rogues galleries of known malfeasants complete with photographs and personal histories, a rarity at the time) and some of them peculiarities of their age (such as phrenology). Although many of his agencies vehemently disagreed, Pinkerton also insisted on violating social tradition by hiring female operatives.

Avowedly antilabor in his later years, Allan Pinkerton was not averse to playing the role of strikebreaker. In 1877, the Pinkertons were hired by the president of the Pennsylvania and Reading Coal and Iron Company to infiltrate and destroy the radical, violent labor group called the Molly Maguires. The resulting trial led to the hanging executions of some nineteen so-called Mollies, most of them young men, a few of them probably innocent. When Pinkerton guards took part in a steelworkers strike in Homestead, Pennsylvania, in 1892, several participants on both sides were killed. While many working people were appalled by the murder of foremen and mine bosses and the dynamiting of private property, many also learned to hate and resent the Pinkertons as a dangerous enemy to the goals of organized labor.

The Pinkerton Agency was the forerunner of the modern Federal Bureau of Investigation and Interpol. At the height of its power, it was connected not only to every major law enforcement agency in the United States but had cultivated contacts with those in England and Europe as well. The agency is still in operation today, with branch offices in some thirty-two countries.


Barber, James, and Frederick Voss. We Never Sleep: The First Fifty Years of the Pinkertons. Washington: Smithsonian Institute Press, 1981.

Horan, James D. The Pinkertons, The Detective Dynasty That Made History. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1968.

Horan, James, and Howard Swiggett. The Pinkerton Story. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1951.

Morn, Frank. "The Eye That Never Sleeps": A History of The Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.

Wormser, Richard. Pinkerton: America's First Private Eye. New York: Walker and Company, 1990.

Jason PhilipMiller

See alsoCrime ; Molly Maguires .

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