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Issue 63 - Allan Pinkerton (1819-1884)

Scotland Magazine Issue 63
June 2012


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Allan Pinkerton (1819-1884)

Watching the detective

America’s most famous private detective was born in Glasgow on 25th August, 1819. He came from a working class background, earning his living as a cooper while a young man in Scotland.

Pinkerton was actively involved in the Chartist movement but became disillusioned, and emigrated to the United States in 1842, aged only 23.

Shortly before he left Scotland he secretly married a singer, Joan Carfrae. Together they made that terrifying journey into the unknown, settling in Dundee, Illinois. Pinkerton built a cabin and started again as a cooper.

He had not lost his affinity with political activism and within a couple of years of arriving in the United States he was working for the Chicago Abolitionists.

In that time of semilawlessness and frontier -living, Pinkerton saw his chance and made a niche for himself in the land of opportunity. He became a deputy sheriff and the first detective in Chicago in 1849.

Three years later, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency was formed, the first of its kind in the United States. The company was an immediate success, solving a series of train robberies during the 1850s. The impressive Chicago headquarters sported the slogan ‘we never sleep’ and an intimidating wide open eye.

This logo is the origin of the term ‘private eye’.

His new profession put Pinkerton in the perfect position for government work during the Civil War. He was an expert in covert operations such as surveillance and undercover work. While head of the Union Intelligence Service (1861-1862) Pinkerton thwarted a plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln on his way to his inauguration. This was the beginning of the American secret service.

Pinkerton employed several agents who worked on dangerous assignments in the field. For instance in the 1870s he sent James McParland to Schuykill County to infiltrate the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association. McParland found a lot more than a few disgruntled trade unionists, and later acted as a star witness in the trial of 20 members of the criminal organisation, the Molly Maguires.

Pinkerton also got involved in several undercover missions under the alias Major E. J.

Allen. He and his agents spent a lot of time investigating the military plans of the Confederates, posing as soldiers or sympathisers for the southern cause.

He also continued tracking train robbers such as the Reno Gang and the infamous Jesse James, but he never succeeded in capturing Jesse James.

This is sometimes considered Pinkerton’s greatest defeat.

With hindsight, Pinkerton’s path in life seems rather at odds with his political origins. His detective agency was employed by the military, the government and rich industrialists seeking to topple trade unions. In 1872 he was hired by the Spanish government to quell a Cuban revolution that sought the right to vote and an end to slavery.

We cannot be sure how much Pinkerton knew about the revolution when he accepted the job, but it doesn’t sit well with his assertion in his 1883 book The Spy of the Rebellion that he opposed slavery.

He certainly did not make himself popular with the labour movement. His company acted to protect the businesses of its clients, which included hiring replacement workers during strikes. It’s claimed that Pinkerton, while he considered himself pro-labour, was not a supporter of trade unions and was against labour strikes.

Perhaps as a way of promoting his company, Pinkerton produced a great number of popular detective novels. These were often based on real life jobs he had taken on, bearing titles like The Molly Maguires and the Detectives (1877) and The Rail-Road Forger and the Detectives (1881).

Pinkerton died on 1st July 1884, aged 64. There were claims of an unusual death caused by a fall in which he bit his tongue and later contracted gangrene. It is more likely that he died either from a stroke, having suffered one the year before, or malaria caught during a trip to the Southern United States.

Following his death, Pinkerton’s two sons ran the detective agency, which still exists today as Pinkerton Consulting and Investigations.