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Pinkerton National Detective Agency


In 1842 Allan Pinkerton (18191884), a political activist wanted for arrest, fled from Scotland with his bride and set course for the United States. Settling in Chicago, Pinkerton eventually established his own cooperage (the manufacture of barrels and kegs for the storage of beer and wine) in the town of Dundee. In 1847 an event occurred which would change the course of his life. Noticing some suspicious activity on a nearby island, Pinkerton investigated and exposed a gang of counterfeiters. Word spread quickly, and soon Pinkerton found himself employed by local bankers and shopkeepers to help track thieves. This led to his appointment by Kane County as deputy sheriff. In addition, his concern for social justice led him to become involved in the abolitionist movement, helping escaped slaves cross the U.S. border into Canada.

Pinkerton was soon appointed as the first detective in Chicago. A crucial step in the evolution of what became known as Pinkerton Security occurred in the late 1840s. After a rash of thefts in Chicago Post Offices, Pinkerton found himself appointed Special United States Mail Agent. He went undercover and eventually captured one man stealing envelopes. This case made Pinkerton a household name.

Corruption, lack of organization, and the common use of bounty hunters led Pinkerton to realize that existing police forces needed to be augmented. In 1850 he opened Pinkerton's National Detective Agency, described by biographer Frank Horan as "a private police force that could move across local, county, and even state boundaries in the pursuit of criminals." Pinkerton instigated a strict set of rules for his company, stating that it would in no way accept cases involving divorce, public officials, jurors, political parties, or scandal. A code of ethics for Pinkerton employees was also established, forbidding them from accepting rewards or other gratuities. At its inception the company employed five agents and various support personnel. Each agent was trained in crime-solving techniques, undercover operations, and other areas according to standards set by Pinkerton himself. (Pinkerton's National Detective Agency was the first in the country to hire a female detectiveKate Warne.)

Throughout the 1850s, Pinkerton's prospered and adopted the slogan "The Eye That Never Sleeps." The company soon contained a national database of criminal activity, and by the 1870s Pinkerton's had gathered the largest compilation of mug shots in the world. Branch offices sprung up in every state as Pinkerton expanded the agency's territorial coverage.

During the American Civil War (18611865) Pinkerton and his agents infiltrated the Confederate Army in search of conspiracy and espionage plots against the Union. The Pinkerton Agency was even credited with saving President Abraham Lincoln (18611865) from assassination prior to his 1865 death though there remains some question as to whether an assassination plot ever existed in the first place.

The postwar period saw no decrease in crime. In fact, technology inadvertently led to new types of crime as inventions opened new avenues for criminal behavior. With the creation of the telegraph, wiretapping became a serious issue. Bank and train robberies were still committed, but had become much more daring. Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch, Frank and Jesse James, and the Younger brothers were among the many notorious outlaws captured by the Pinkerton Agency during this time. It was also during this period that the famous Molly Maguires staged violent demonstrations in an attempt to acquire safer working conditions. The Pinkerton Agency was hired to infiltrate this group. After three years of investigation under extremely dangerous circumstances, enough information had been gathered to convict the group's leaders of arson and murder.

William and Robert Pinkerton took over the agency after the death of Allan Pinkerton in 1884. The agency focused increasingly on property protection and labor disputes. Improved police departments and other private agencies had begun to encroach on Pinkerton's business. William and Robert Pinkerton continued the company's expansion, investigating Mafia activity, unions, robberies, and insurance claims as well as providing protection to various public events. Allan Pinkerton II gained control of the company in 1923. He continued the expansion, with business growing due to the number of bank robberies increasingly facilitated by the automobile. In 1930 Allan Pinkerton II died and Robert Pinkerton II took control of the agency. The passing of the Wagner Act by Congress in 1937 made the investigation of labor activities illegal. To offset this loss of business the Pinkerton Agency focused more on the investigation of gambling, particularly the horse racing circuit.

The 1940s through the 1960s saw a change in focus for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. The guarding of property became the agency's primary service. This was due in part to the services provided by the agency during World War II (19391945): the guarding of war supply plants. In 1965 the company was renamed Pinkerton's Incorporated to reflect this shift away from investigative services. In 1967 Edward J. Bednarz became the first non-family member to become president of the agency.

Pinkerton's was purchased by American Brands in 1983 for $162 million. Although it was chairperson and CEO Robert McGuire's objective to improve the agency's service and increase revenues, his efforts resulted in a loss of $11 million in sales by 1987. Part of this loss could be blamed on the competition provided by over 10,000 other security agencies that had sprung up over the years.

Thomas Wathen purchased Pinkerton's from American Brands for $95 million in 1988. Having had great success with revitalizing an ailing security guard firm, California Plant Protection, his goal was to revitalize Pinkerton's back to its former position as a multipurpose investigation firm. Wathen actively sought growth for the company through acquisitions. Within two years Pinkerton's Inc. had a combined revenue of $605 million. Wathen also expanded the agency's reach to other countries, including Canada, Mexico, and Portugal. In 1991, Pinkerton acquired Business Risk International (BRI), a respected investigation, consulting, and business agency. This move brought Pinkerton back into business as a full service security provider. Pinkerton continued to expand throughout the late 1990s, and solidified its position as the world's largest security solutions firm.

See also: Molly Maguires


Brooks, Cleath, and Harriet H. Wood, eds. The Correspondence of Thomas Percy and John Pinkerton. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985.

Josephson, Judith Pinkerton. Allan Pinkerton: The Original Private Eye. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications Co., 1996.

"Pinkertons, Inc. Enterprise Security Solutions for the 21st Century," [cited March 30, 1999] available on the World Wide Web @

"The Evolution of Pinkerton," [cited April 4, 1999] available on the World Wide Web @

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

the eye that never sleeps

slogan of the pinkerton national detective agency

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