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Issue 39 - The first private eye

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 39
June 2008


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The first private eye

We look at the exciting life of America's James Bond – Allan Pinkerton

Talk about right place at the right time. This Glasgow-born immigrant to the United States in the mid-1800s not only laid the foundations for the modern secret service but also foiled an attempted assassination on one of the country’s most famous presidents.

Allan Pinkerton was born in the centre of Glasgow, probably near the site of the present day central mosque. After the death of his father, a police sergeant, Pinkerton left school to support the family. He trained as a cooper but became a member of the Chartist Movement which defended workers’ rights and was involved in a strike by spinners in Glasgow.

He then tried to help a leader of the movement to break out of prison in 1839 and it is understood he had to leave Scotland to avoid being arrested in 1842.

Reports of his life after this period get a little muddied, but Pinkerton resurfaced in Chicago in 1849 where he was appointed the city’s first detective. He then moved up the tree of law enforcement being appointed deputy-sheriff and then sheriff in Chicago.

In the 1850s, he partnered with local attorney Edward Rucker to form the North- Western Police Agency, later known as the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, which is still running (but has been renamed) as a subsidiary of Securitas.

The Pinkerton Detective Agency was a great success. On the outside of his threestory Chicago headquarters was the company slogan, ‘We Never Sleep.’ Above this was a huge, black and white eye. The Pinkerton logo was believed to have been the origin of the term private eye.

As the United States expanded in territory, rail transportation increased and also gangs targeting trains. Pinkerton’s agency solved a series of train robberies during the 1850s, bringing him first into contact with Major General George McClellan and president Abraham Lincoln.

Following the outbreak of the Civil War, Pinkerton served as head of the Union Intelligence Service, forerunner of the US Secret Service, in 1861-62 and foiled an alleged assassination plot in Baltimore, Maryland, while guarding Abraham Lincoln on his way to his inauguration.

His agents often worked undercover as Confederate soldiers and sympathisers, in an effort to gather military intelligence.

Pinkerton served several undercover missions under the alias of Major E.J. Allen.

He is credited with developing several investigative techniques that are still used today. Among them are ‘shadowing’ (surveillance of a suspect) and ‘assuming a role’ (undercover work).

Following Pinkerton’s service with the Union Army, he continued his pursuit of train robbers, such as the Reno Gang and the James Brothers, and also sought to oppose labour unions, with his biggest success coming when he broke the working class movement the Molly Maguires who had been operating in the coalfields of Pennsylvania for more than 20 years.

He used an agent James McParland to infiltrate the secret organisation, and his evidence in court resulted in the execution of 20 of its members.

In 1872, the Spanish Government hired Pinkerton to help suppress a revolution in Cuba which intended to end slavery and give citizens the right to vote.

In late June 1884 he slipped on a pavement in Chicago, biting his tongue as he did so. He didn’t seek treatment and the tongue became infected, leading to his death on 1st July 1884. At the time of his death, he was working on a system that would centralise all criminal identification records, a database now maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Pinkerton is buried in Graceland Cemetery, Chicago.

After his death, the agency continued to operate and became a major force against the young labour movement developing in the USAand Canada.