Pinkerton, Allan

views updated May 29 2018

Allan Pinkerton

Born August 25, 1819 (Glasgow, Scotland)

Died July 1, 1884 (Chicago, Illinois)

Private investigator

Allan Pinkerton provided America with a national policing system at a time when there was little federal or state law enforcement. Credited as a reformer for popularizing private security, he focused primarily on crime prevention and investigation. During the American Civil War (1861–65; war in the United States between the Union [North], who was opposed to slavery, and the Confederacy [South], who was in favor of slavery), Pinkerton organized the first government-authorized secret service agency in American history.

"The role of detective is a high and honorable calling."

From the Pinkerton National Detective Agency's code of conduct

The Pinkerton National Detective Agency was among the first private detective agencies in the world. (A detective is a police officer or investigator who investigates crimes and obtains evidence or information.) Allan Pinkerton introduced a number of innovative tools and methods to investigating criminal activity. Dubbed "The Pinks" (short for Pinkerton), his agency handled much of America's criminal investigation before the creation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other modern police organizations.

A new life

Allan Pinkerton was born in Glasgow, Scotland, to Isabella McQueen and William Pinkerton, a police sergeant killed in the line of duty when Allan was a child. He apprenticed to a cooper, or barrel maker, in 1831 at the age of twelve and became active in a workers' protest movement as a young man. The "People's Charter," dubbed the "Chartists," was a revolt by the workingmen of the British Isles against the political power of their wealthy landlords. Most used peaceful methods of protest but there was a faction of the Chartist movement that used physical rebellion and rioting for political reform. After a Chartist physical altercation with the authorities in 1842, Allan Pinkerton's name appeared in the royal warrants for arrest. He fled the country with his new bride, Joan Carfrae.

The couple arrived in the United States and made their home in Dundee, Illinois, a small town settled by Scots just forty miles north of Chicago. Pinkerton advertised himself as the "Only and Original Cooper of Dundee" and soon had a prosperous business. He and Joan started a family in 1846, with three of their children surviving to adulthood.

Creates detective business

While searching for wood to make his barrels, Pinkerton accidentally discovered a counterfeit camp headquarters on an island in the middle of a lake, and quickly arranged for the arrest of the criminals. (Counterfeiting is making a copy of something in order to deceive, and around this time it was so widespread that it was affecting both the local and national economy.) He became a local hero and was sworn in as a deputy sheriff of Kane County, Illinois, in 1846. By 1850 the family moved to Chicago where Pinkerton worked for the local and federal government. The city was booming, with both business and crime flourishing.

When the Cook County police force was reorganized, Pinkerton was appointed their first, and only, detective. He became known to respectable citizens and criminals alike because of the number of arrests he made.

Pinkerton's reputation led to an appointment as special agent for the U.S. Post Office Department investigating fraud, extortion, and blackmail. With his detective work increasing and his own family growing, Pinkerton left the force to organize his own agency, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. His methods focused more on preventing crime rather than responding to it. Within a few years he had eight additional employees.

In the early nineteenth century policing was organized on a county basis. Jurisdictions (areas over which law agencies had authority) did not extend beyond the frontiers of each individual state. At the same time, railroads were rapidly developing and criminals were able to roam vast areas of the country evading law enforcement. The railroads were increasingly vulnerable to the threat of violence towards trains and passengers, as well as their bridges, tracks, and terminals.

Unlike regular law enforcement, private detectives were able to cross state lines to pursue offenders. By organizing an agency whose operatives could work around boundaries, Pinkerton filled a large gap in law enforcement. Railroads hired Pinkerton to protect their companies from train robbers as well as from dishonest employees who collected fares and freight for their own purposes.

Setting up a spy system (or "testing program" as Pinkerton called it), allowed Pinkerton or one of his agents to board a train posing as a passenger and spy on its workers. For rail companies, such practices gave them control and accountability; for workers, the spying represented deception and mistrust. As Pinkerton's testing program expanded so did the anger of railway workers who organized labor unions to protect themselves.

America's Scotland Yard

While working for the Illinois Central Railroad, Pinkerton became acquainted with the firm's young attorney, Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65). When Lincoln became president-elect in 1861, Pinkerton uncovered a plot to assassinate him when his train stopped at Baltimore on its way to Washington, D.C., for the inauguration. Pinkerton approached Lincoln's aides and personally arranged to bring the presidential party secretly to the capital by way of Maryland.

The Pinkerton National Detective Agency's capture record of criminals filled the newspapers and made Allan Pinkerton an internationally famous private detective. English journalists referred to the agency as "America's Scotland Yard" named after their own famous public detective agency. Pinkerton's protective methods were so successful that many criminals hesitated to rob a company that had been placed in the care of The Pinks. This reputation led to increased business for the agency and its chief, known as "the Principal."

When the American Civil War broke out Pinkerton was appointed head of the first secret service in America. He used his spy system to gather intelligence from his base in Virginia under the pseudonym (a made-up name) Major E. J. Allen. His operatives provided information to Washington from behind enemy lines in the South and also detected counterespionage activities treasonable to the Union in the North.

The Molly Maguires

The year Allan Pinkerton left Scotland was the same year a secret society called the Molly Maguires was being organized in Ireland. Composed of laborers, it was formed to protect the peasantry from abuse by agents of wealthy landlords. They were known to use violence and sabotage. The name Molly Maguires came from their use of women's clothing as a disguise when hiding from law enforcement.

When a similar group of Irishmen organized into a union in the coal-mining districts of Pennsylvania in 1854, the press and police applied the name Molly Maguires to the American miners. Although no connection existed between the two societies, calling anyone who was for unions a "Molly" labeled them as a lawless element. As a result, uprisings were briefly subdued in the workplace. By 1875, however, the society had become a fraternity used to dominate miners' organizations and intimidate owners.

Ultimately, their activity led to a forced general strike. Contracted killings regularly occurred in order to rid the region of any mine superintendents, bosses, and police who opposed members of the order. Assasassins were always brought in from another district, so they would not be recognized. This pattern made it difficult to produce a case against the Molly Maguires. Originally intended to improve working conditions and secure fair wages, the union was soon responsible for blowing up mines, wrecking trains, setting fires, and looting company stores, in addition to murder.

After repeated attempts to bring the offenders to justice failed, the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company brought in Pinkerton. The agency decided to use an undercover agent, and in the fall of 1873 operative James McParland was assigned to infiltrate the Mollys. Posing as James McKenna, a fugitive from a murder charge in Buffalo, McParland soon made his mark in the Irish community of the coalfields.

By the spring of 1874 McParland was inducted into the secret society and continued sending reports to the Pinkerton office about labor conditions in the field for another year. McParland needed to gather enough evidence of crimes committed to stand up in a court of law. His work ultimately resulted in the conviction and execution of several union leaders, although his report charged that the company was largely responsible for the explosive situation in the coal-mining districts.

Pinkerton was a committed abolitionist (one who opposes slavery) who considered slavery to be a terrible crime that had to be eliminated, though he stopped short of an armed rebellion that was advocated and later carried out by abolitionist and friend John Brown (1800–1859). Because of the Fugitive Slave Law that required runaway slaves be returned to their masters, Pinkerton operated on two sides of the law in what he considered a clear-cut issue.

When Pinkerton first settled in the United States his cooperage in Dundee became a station on the Underground Railroad. It provided aid to slaves escaping from the South to Canada. Besides food, shelter, and clothing, Pinkerton taught them barrel making and carpentry skills whenever possible so they could earn a living as free men. Pinkerton's participation increased in Chicago where his friend, John Brown, and others would protect liberated slaves before they boarded lake steamers for Canada.

Private eye

Pinkerton was assigned by Lincoln to spy on Confederate (Southern) troops during the war, and in 1865, Pinkerton returned from his service and resumed leadership of his agency. The agency profited from the war but saw opportunities multiply in peacetime. He opened branches in New York City and Philadelphia while expanding the agency's role internationally. Under extradition treaties (international agreements to return wanted criminals) he returned criminals who fled their countries to avoid prosecution. The Pinkerton agency was well known for its pursuit of the Jessie James gang (notorious bank and train robbers) and other infamous criminals from 1867 through 1875.

The agency was also assuming another new role, policing labor disputes between management and the new unions forming in America. As a new company Pinkerton began by policing railroads, but over the next two decades he became involved in policing labor union strikes for industry. The Pinks intervened in some seventy strikes, often with violent consequences and bad publicity. Pinkerton was accused of being antiunion. The agency had a leading role in breaking up the Molly Maguires, an often violent laborers group (see sidebar).

Pinkerton worked hard to promote the role of the detective as a high and honorable calling. He wrote numerous books on detection that gave accounts of skilled investigators who were pure and above reproach. His company's advertising stated that he would only take on such business as was strictly legitimate and that would bring criminals to justice. A fee structure was established and work for posted rewards was forbidden. Employees followed a code of conduct for habits and dress that were meant to mirror the respectable businesses they served.

On the facade (outside front wall) of his three-story Chicago headquarters was the company slogan, "We Never Sleep." Above the words was a wide-awake human eye in black and white. The trademark became known as "The Eye." Over time the general public called private detectives "private eyes." Allan Pinkerton hired the first female detective in America. He also called his employees "operatives" as an early means of separating them from corrupt practices associated with other detectives.

Pinkerton pioneered the use of wanted posters of the criminals his agency was seeking. The posters included names, aliases, physical features, and reward information along with photographs. Pinkerton worked in the field himself throughout his career, often in disguise. He maintained a large collection of costumes and wigs in his office to assume the appearance of any occupation that might be needed in a case.

Pinkerton suffered a paralyzing stroke in 1868 and withdrew from daily operations at the agency. He continued to write his memoirs, although a major fire in Chicago in 1871 destroyed much of the city's business district and burned most of his records. Pinkerton died in 1884 and was buried in the family plot at Graceland Cemetery, Chicago. His sons, William and Robert, took over and expanded the agency after his death. The trademark name Pinkerton was still in use in the early twenty-first century as a brand name for security services.

For More Information


Lavine, Sigmund A. Allan Pinkerton: America's First Private Eye. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1963.

Levinson, David, ed. Encyclopedia of Crime and Punishment. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2002.

Mackay, James. Allan Pinkerton: The First Private Eye. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1996.

Web Sites

"The Molly Maguires." Providence College. (accessed on August 15, 2004).

"Pinkerton Detective Agency." The National Archives Learning Curve. (accessed on August 15, 2004).

Pinkerton, Allan

views updated Jun 11 2018


Allan Pinkerton was a famous nineteenth-century detective and founder of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Pinkerton served as a spy during the u.s. civil war and was renowned for preventing the assassination of President-Elect abraham lincoln in 1861. He became a controversial figure when large companies hired his "Pinkerton men" to break labor union strikes through the use of intimidation and violence.

Pinkerton was born on August 25, 1819, in Glasgow, Scotland. His father was a police sergeant, but as a young man Pinkerton did not seek a police job. Instead he apprenticed as a cooper and learned to make barrels. In 1842, after he completed his apprenticeship, Pinkerton emigrated to the United States. He settled in Chicago and set up a cooper's shop.

In 1843 Pinkerton moved his business to Dundee, in Kane County, Illinois. In that year he discovered and captured a gang of counterfeiters. The event changed Pinkerton's life. He became involved with police work and was appointed deputy sheriff of Kane County in 1846. He soon shifted to a similar position in Cook County, with headquarters in Chicago.

In 1850 he resigned as a deputy and started the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. This private detective agency, which specialized in railroad theft cases, became the most famous organization of its kind. Pinkerton soon opened branches in several cities. In 1866 his agents recovered $700,000 stolen from the Adams Express Company and captured the thieves.

Pinkerton's public image was enhanced by his discovery in 1861 of a plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln as the president-elect traveled by train from Springfield, Illinois, to Washington, D.C. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Pinkerton entered the Union army as a major.

He was commissioned by General George B. McClellan to create a secret service of the U.S. Army to investigate criminal activity, such as payroll thefts and murder. Pinkerton also headed an organization, under the name E. J. Allan, that worked to obtain military information in the Southern states.

Following the Civil War, Pinkerton returned to his detective agency. His agency soon became an integral part in the wars between labor and management that became common in the 1870s. States enacted laws that gave corporations the authority to create their own private police

forces or to contract with established police agencies. Pinkerton created groups of armed men known as Pinkerton men, who were contracted out for a daily fee to corporations with labor problems. Their menacing attitudes and use of violence were despised by labor unions and their supporters.

In 1877 the United States was beset by a number of railroad strikes. Pinkerton's agents were used as strikebreakers, and their harsh actions toward the labor unions were criticized. James McParlan, a Pinkerton agent, infiltrated the Molly Maguires, a secret organization of Pennsylvania and West Virginia coal miners. From 1872 to 1876, McParlan became part of the Molly Maguires, who were responsible for terrorism in the coal fields. He later testified in a series of trials that led to the conviction and hanging of ten men for murder.

Pinkerton, an unabashed self-promoter, wrote an account called The Molly Maguires and the Detectives (1877). In 1878 he wrote Strikers, Communists and Tramps in which he defended the use of his agents as strikebreakers, arguing that he was protecting workers by opposing unionism. He wrote about his role in foiling the Lincoln assassination in The Spy of the Rebellion (1883) and his autobiography Thirty Years as a Detective (1884).

Pinkerton died on July 1, 1884, in Chicago.

further readings

Mackay, James. 1997. Allan Pinkerton: The First Private Eye. New York: J. Wiley & Sons.

Allan Pinkerton

views updated May 23 2018

Allan Pinkerton

Allan Pinkerton (1819-1884) was the father of many American police detection techniques and founder of America's most famous detective agency.

Allan Pinkerton was born in Glasgow on Aug. 25, 1819, the son of a police sergeant who was later wounded during the Chartist riots. Pinkerton himself became a Chartist and, fearing for his safety after participating in the turmoil, emigrated to the United States in 1842. He settled in a Scottish community at Dundee, III. He became an outspoken abolitionist, allegedly serving as the local conductor on the Underground Railroad.

While working as a cooper in Dundee, Pinkerton was instrumental in capturing a group of counterfeiters. After several private commissions in detective work, he was named deputy sheriff of Kane County in 1846. In 1850 he became the first detective on the reorganized police department of Chicago. He simultaneously organized a private agency, leaving public service soon afterward.

Pinkerton's agency, unlike the typical agency of the day, was run with strict propriety. He would not, for example, undertake investigations of the morals of a woman, the stock-in-trade of most private detectives, except in connection with some other crime. Nor did he set his fees according to how much money he regained in a theft case, a practice which frequently tied detectives to the underworld. Pinkerton's operatives received uniform fees, set in advance, plus expenses. Pinkerton quickly developed a national reputation as a result of work for the U.S. Post Office, the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, and the Illinois Central Railroad (through which he developed a valuable friendship with its president, George McClellan).

In 1861 Pinkerton was investigating alleged Confederate sabotage of a railroad in Maryland when he claimed to have unearthed a scheme to assassinate the president-elect, Abraham Lincoln, then on his way to his inauguration. Pinkerton convinced Lincoln to revise his plans for entering Washington, D.C., and he supervised Lincoln's secret journey. Pinkerton later discussed the organization of a national secret service with the President but, when nothing developed, joined his old client, now Gen. McClellan, as head of intelligence in the Army's Ohio Department. When McClellan left the Army in 1862, Pinkerton resigned his post and spent the rest of the war investigating cotton speculation frauds in the Mississippi Valley.

Following the war, Pinkerton turned active direction of his flourishing agency over to his two sons, although he continued to take an interest in agency affairs and kept control of central policy. He supervised the agency's growth in its chief fields of endeavor: the pursuit and capture of train robbers like the James gang; the supplying of a private corps of armed guards to industries and special events such as county fairs; and the breaking of labor unions. He became a vociferous enemy of labor unions.

Pinkerton had a penchant for self-celebration, writing some 20 books about his and his detectives' exploits. He died on July 1, 1884.

Further Reading

Pinkerton's own books tell little about him or about his detective agency. Scarcely more credible is James D. Horan and Howard Swiggett, The Pinkerton Story (1951), an idolatrous study approved by the Pinkerton agency. Morris Friedman, The Pinkerton Labor Spy (1907), hostile toward the Pinkertons, is dated.

Additional Sources

Pinkerton, Allan, The expressman and the detective, New York: Arno Press, 1976 c1874. □

Pinkerton, Allan

views updated May 23 2018

Pinkerton, Allan (1819–84) US detective, b. Scotland. He moved to the USA in 1842, and became a detective on the Chicago Police force, resigning in 1850 to establish his own agency, Pinkerton's National Detective Agency. He organized and headed a federal intelligence service (1861).

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