Crime: Allan Pinkerton

Bill Ratliff discussed crime statistics, and I added a note on Interpol and terrorists. Following the same theme, John Gehl sends this bio of  the private detective Allan Pinkerton (1819-1884), who founded the fabled detective agency bearing his name.  The Pinkerton National Detective Agency and its operatives, commonly called "Pinkertons," almost single-handedly defined the role of the private investigator, a new figure in 19th century society. Pinkerton led his agency to national prominence by a steady stream of successful investigations. These began with the capture of the principals in a $700,000 Adams Express Company theft in 1866 and the thwarting of an assassination plot against President-elect Lincoln in February 1861 in Baltimore. During the Civil War, under the name E.J. Allen, Pinkerton headed an organized effort to gather military information in the Southern states. After the war Pinkerton returned to providing detective services, mostly investigations of railroad thievery.

The Pinkerton Agency also became embroiled in controversial strikebreaking actions, most notably its investigation of the Molly Maguires, a coal miners organization accused of terrorism. Today, the Pinkerton Detective Agency is commonly viewed as having anticipated many of the investigative activities that are now institutionalized in the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Interpol. To promote a positive image of his agency, Pinkerton told the story of its accomplishments in a series of  autobiographical books:The Molly Maguires and the Detectives; Criminal Reminiscences and Detective Sketches; The Spy of the Rebellion; and Thirty Years a Detective.

Pinkerton was born the son of a police sergeant in Glasgow, Scotland. After completing an apprenticeship as a cooper, he emigrated to the United States in 1842 and settled in Chicago, the next year setting up a cooper's
shop in nearby Kane County. While cutting wood on a deserted island one day, he discovered and later captured a gang of counterfeiters. This led to his being appointed deputy sheriff, first of Kane County and then of Cook
County, with headquarters in Chicago. Soon Pinkerton became a detective on the newly formed Chicago police force, but in 1852 he resigned to start a private detective agency, specializing in railway theft cases. His success
in solving train robbery cases brought him his first fame, which was greatly increased in 1861 when he became Abraham Lincoln's personal bodyguard following the discovery of the pre-inauguration assassination plot.

After Pinkerton's death his agency continued to be active in taking the side of management in combating the then-fledgling American labor movement. Pinkerton agents were widely criticized for their part in such labor disturbances as the 1894 Pullman Strike and the 1914 Colorado Ludlow Massacre. These actions somewhat overshadowed the Pinkerton Agency's long record of suppressing criminal activity, such as the 1868 capture of the Reno brothers gang of train robbers.

Ronald Hilton 2004


last updated: February 27, 2005