One Of The Most Famous Private Investigators: Allan J. Pinkerton

Allan J. Pinkerton (25 August 1819 – 1 July 1884) was a Scottish-American detective and spy, best known for creating the Pinkerton National Detective Agency.

Early life, career and immigration

Allan Pinkerton was born in Gorbals, Glasgow, Scotland, to William Pinkerton and his wife, Isobel McQueen, on August 25, 1819.He left school at the age of 10 after his father’s death. Pinkerton read voraciously and was largely self-educated. A cooper by trade, Pinkerton was active in the Scottish Chartist movement as a young man. He secretly married Joan Carfrae (1822-1887) from Duddingston, then a singer, in Glasgow on 13 March 1842. Pinkerton emigrated to the United States in 1842.

Pinkerton was not raised in a religious upbringing, and was a lifelong atheist.

In 1843 Pinkerton heard of Dundee Township, Illinois, fifty miles northwest of Chicago on the Fox River. He built a cabin and started a cooperage, sending for his wife in Chicago when their cabin was complete. As early as 1844, Pinkerton worked for the Chicago abolitionist leaders, and his Dundee home was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Pinkerton first got interested in criminal detective work while wandering through the wooded groves around Dundee, looking for trees to make barrel staves, when he came across a band of counterfeiters — who may have been affiliated with the notorious Banditti of the Prairie. After observing their movements for some time he informed the local sheriff, who arrested them. This later led to Pinkerton being appointed, in 1849, as the first police detective in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois. In 1850, he partnered with Chicago attorney Edward Rucker in forming the North-Western Police Agency, which later became Pinkerton & Co, and finally Pinkerton National Detective Agency, still in existence today as Pinkerton Consulting and Investigations, a subsidiary of Securitas AB.

Pinkerton’s business insignia was a wide open eye with the caption “We never sleep.” As the US expanded in territory, rail transport increased. Pinkerton’s agency solved a series of train robberies during the 1850s, first bringing Pinkerton into contact with George McClellan, then Chief Engineer and Vice President of the Illinois Central Railroad, and Abraham Lincoln, the company’s lawyer.

In 1859, he attended the secret meetings held by John Brown and Frederick Douglass in Chicago along with abolitionists John Jones and Henry O. Wagoner. At those meetings, Jones, Wagoner, and Pinkerton helped purchase clothes and supplies for Brown. Jones’ wife, Mary, guessed that the supplies included the suit Brown was hanged in after the failure of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in November 1859.

American Civil War

When the Civil War began, Pinkerton served as head of the Union Intelligence Service during the first two years, heading off an alleged assassination plot in Baltimore, Maryland while guarding Abraham Lincoln on his way to Washington, D.C. as well as identifying troop numbers in military campaigns. His agents often worked undercover as Confederate soldiers and sympathizers to gather military intelligence. Pinkerton himself served on several undercover missions as a confederate soldier using the alias Major E.J. Allen. He worked across the Deep South in the summer of 1861, focusing on fortifications and Confederate plans. He was found out in Memphis and barely escaped with his life.

This counterintelligence work done by Pinkerton and his agents is comparable to the work done by today’s U.S. Army Counterintelligence Special Agents in which Pinkerton’s agency is considered an early predecessor. He was succeeded as Intelligence Service chief by Lafayette Baker; the Intelligence Service was the predecessor of the U.S. Secret Service. His work led to the establishment of the Federal secret service.

After the war

Following Pinkerton’s service with the Union Army, he continued his pursuit of train robbers, including the Reno Gang. He was hired by the railroad express companies to track outlaw Jesse James, but after Pinkerton failed to capture him, the railroad withdrew their financial support and Pinkerton continued to track James at his own expense. After James allegedly captured and killed one of Pinkerton’s undercover agents (who was working undercover at the farm neighboring the James family’s farmstead), he abandoned the chase. Some consider this failure Pinkerton’s biggest defeat. He also opposed labor unions. 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. If Pinkerton knew this, then it directly contradicts statements in his 1883 book The Spy of the Rebellion, where he professes to be an ardent abolitionist and hater of slavery. The Spanish government abolished slavery in 1880 and a Royal Decree abolished the last vestiges of it in 1886.

Allan Pinkerton died in Chicago on July 1, 1884. It is usually said that Pinkerton slipped on the pavement and bit his tongue, resulting in gangrene. Contemporary reports give conflicting causes, such as that he succumbed to a stroke (he had one year earlier) or to malaria, which he had contracted during a trip to the Southern United States. At the time of his death, he was working on a system to centralize all criminal identification records, a database now maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Pinkerton was a lifelong atheist.

Pinkerton is buried in Graceland Cemetery, Chicago. He is a member of the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame.

Legacy

After his death, the agency continued to operate and soon became a major force against the labor movement developing in the US and Canada. This effort changed the image of the Pinkertons for years. They were involved in numerous activities against labor during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including:

• The Homestead Strike (1892), the direct impetus for the federal Anti-Pinkerton Act of 1893, prohibiting the federal government from hiring its detectives
• The Pullman Strike (1894)
• The Wild Bunch Gang (1896)
• The Ludlow Massacre (1914)
• The La Follette Committee (1933–1937)

Despite his agency’s later reputation for anti-labor activities, Pinkerton himself was heavily involved in pro-labor politics as a young man. Though Pinkerton considered himself pro-labor, he opposed strikes and distrusted labor unions.

Allan Pinkerton was so famous that for decades after his death, his surname was a slang term for a private eye. The “Mr. Pinkerton” novels, by American mystery writer Zenith Jones Brown (under the pseudonym David Frome), were about Welsh-born amateur detective Evan Pinkerton and may have been inspired by the slang term.