Monday, May 30, 2011

WE NEVER SLEEP...Allan Pinkerton and the Pinkerton National Detective Agency

By: Ashley Kath-Bilsky

Long before Sherlock Holmes became a glimmer in the imagination of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, another Scotsman had achieved fame and fortune as a legendary detective and the founder of a national detective agency that became as famous for their skill as their slogan, “We Never Sleep”…not to mention the nickname that emerged based on their logo…the Private Eye.

Born in Glasgow, Scotland on 25 August 1819, Allan J. Pinkerton was the son of William Pinkerton and Isobel McQueen. William Pinkerton died when his son was eight years old—an event that resulted in grave poverty for the family and caused Allan to quit school and help support the family by working in a pattern-making shop. Eventually, as he grew older, Pinkerton found work as a cooper, but the plight of his widowed mother and the working class in general greatly influenced the mindset of Allan Pinkerton.

He became involved with the British Chartist Movement—a group of political and social reformists who believed the working class should have the same rights as everyone else, especially concerning the right to vote. Often considered radicals, Pinkerton’s involvement led to a warrant for his arrest. In 1842, after secretly marrying Joan Carfrae, Allan and his bride set sail for America. Then only 23 years old, he settled in Chicago, Illinois. He relocated to nearby Kane County and the town of Dundee in 1843, where he opened shop as a cooper.

Here is where what I like to consider one’s path of destiny appears. While minding his own business, cutting wood for his cooper business—on a deserted nearby island no less—Allan Pinkerton happened to come upon a gang of counterfeiters. The key information he provided the law helped lead to the gang’s capture. Before long, the young Pinkerton had played a key role in bringing other criminals to justice. It came as no surprise to locals when Allan J. Pinkerton was named Deputy Sheriff of Kane County in 1846. Having heard of his intellect, skill, and bravery, Cook County solicited his services. Pinkerton was appointed Deputy Sheriff of Cook County based in Chicago, and in 1849, he became the first detective in the city of Chicago.

Realizing the great need for other trained detectives, Pinkerton resigned from the police in 1850 and started his own detective agency with Edward Rucker, a Chicago attorney. Originally called the North-Western Police Agency, Pinkerton’s partnership with Rucker would end in 1851. He then joined forces with his brother, Robert, who had also formed a detective agency called Pinkerton & Co. With Allan on board, the company became known as the Pinkerton National Detective Agency and specialized in railroad theft cases.

Among the techniques invented by Pinkerton (and still used today) were secret surveillance, known as shadowing, and assuming a fictitious identity, better known as undercover work. In addition to running the business and training agents, Pinkerton always seemed to have an uncanny knack for being at the right place at the right time. In fact, his intelligence and skill for gleaning secret information became world-renowned when he thwarted an attempt to assassinate president-elect, Abraham Lincoln. Impressed by Pinkerton, President Lincoln hired the master detective and several of his agents as personal security during the Civil War. Agents also worked as Confederate sympathizes…and even soldiers. Pinkerton himself often went on many undercover spy missions.

[Pictured left: Allan Pinkerton, President Abraham Lincoln, and Maj. Gen. George McClellan]

After the Civil War ended, Pinkerton returned to Chicago and detective work at the agency he co-owned with his brother. When Robert died in 1868, Allan ran the company alone, although his sons, William and Robert, started working with him. A year later, in 1869, Allan Pinkerton suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. As he struggled to regain his health, his sons and the sons of his deceased brother worked together to run the agency. Unfortunately, in-fighting and rivalry caused problems and the agency suffered, internally and financially. As best he could, Allan Pinkerton tried to bring order back to the business.

Throughout his life, Pinkerton admitted he was difficult to work for…and live with...but he strived to be just and honest. Without question, he was also a shrewd businessman. I think a perfect example of this is when disaster struck Chicago on 07October 1871, otherwise remembered the Great Fire.

For three days the fire raged. In the aftermath, among the businesses destroyed was the Pinkerton building and most of the agency’s records. Financial ruin and the fate of the agency threatened. On the work front, agents were being hired to prevent looting in a city under martial law. On the home front, the widow and children of his brother (and former partner) were homeless. When his sister-in-law asked Pinkerton for financial assistance, he encouraged her to return to Great Britain, offering to pay for the journey. Mrs. Alice Pinkerton and her sons accepted the offer. A benevolent gesture or shrewd business decision? One thing is certain. Allan Pinkerton was well aware he needed to focus on re-establishing his business and wanted no more in-fighting with relatives. The departure of Alice and her sons left Pinkerton and his sons with complete control of the agency.

Allan Pinkerton disliked failure of any kind, so much so that when a railroad contract ended because his agents had failed to capture outlaw Jesse James, Pinkerton continued to track Jesse at his own expense. One might say he became obsessed with capturing Jesse James. The animosity between Pinkerton and James escalated, especially on 05 Jan 1875. Though it is believed the tactic was authorized by his sons, Pinkerton agents tossed an iron torch inside a house where they believed Jesse was living. The act caused an explosion resulting in the arm of Jesse’s mother to be blown off. For the first time it was difficult for the public to tell the good guy from the bad guy. Needless to say, Jesse James wanted revenge and went to Chicago to kill Allan Pinkerton. According to history, Jesse (and his loaded gun) looked for Allan Pinkerton for four months. Jesse obviously didn’t take into account he was dealing with a former Union spy and perhaps the most skilled detective in the world at that time. Finally, Jesse gave up and left town.

Even without getting Jesse James, under the leadership of Allan Pinkerton, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency grew in stature and became not only the most famous detective agency in the United States, but world renowned. It was not unusual for other countries to seek the services of Allan Pinkerton and his agents. The agency was often hired by the US government to handle cases that are now assigned to the CIA, FBI and Secret Service. In fact, Pinkerton’s impressive techniques and efforts at uncovering military intelligence during the Civil War became a major contributing factor to the establishment of the United States Intelligence Service, today known as the Secret Service.

Pinkerton agents increased not only by reputation but in number, and were often considered an army unto themselves. Their services were so highly sought after throughout the United States, they were authorized to carry firearms wherever they went. At the height of the agency’s notoriety, it was well-known that Pinkerton employed more detectives than the standing army of the United States. To say the State of Ohio found this fact rather intimidating is an understatement; they actually outlawed the agency, fearing a company of that size and skill could be hired as a private army.

In the late 1870s, Allan Pinkerton’s health continued to deteriorate. Under the leadership of his two sons, the agency continued to experience criticism, primarily because agents had been retained to investigate and stop militant labor unions. When you remember that as a young man back in Scotland, Allan Pinkerton worked for the rights of workers and had himself been a Chartist, something doesn’t sound right about his agents fighting labor unions that were supposed to help mine workers. Yet, when criticized—particularly during the famous Molly Maguires movement in Pennsylvania—Pinkerton maintained his company was trying to help the workers fight oppressive, violent labor unions that used terrorism to get their demands met.

By the end of his life, Pinkerton’s attention was focused on creating a procedure that consolidated criminal information and photographs called the Rogues Gallery that would, in turn, be shared with other law enforcement agencies. In fact, when the FBI was established they used many of Allan Pinkerton’s procedures, including his ID database. Pinkerton also wrote 18 books, including The Spy of the Rebellion (1883), which detailed Lincoln’s 1861 journey to Washington.

Allan Pinkerton died in 1884; he was 64 years old. It was not until three years later in 1887 when the fictitious Sherlock Holmes made his brilliant debut in A Study in Scarlet, written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

In May 2000, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency donated an archive of “rare and once-secret files, photographs, drawings and documents on Jesse James, the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, the Missouri Kid and Butch Cassidy” to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. In 2001, Pinkerton and Burns International merged, becoming part of the Securitas Security Services USA, Inc., “the largest security services provider in the world”.

On a personal note, I have always held a great fascination and appreciation for Pinkerton detectives. You see, my great-grandfather was a Pinkerton agent who worked for the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, also known as the KATY. He was one of many undercover detectives who worked to prevent and/or stop train robberies. In fact, the handsome hero in my western historical romance, Whisper in the Wind, is a Pinkerton detective inspired by my ancestor. Featured left is a photograph taken in the late 1870s of my handsome great-grandfather (seated) and his partner. [Note: This image is copyrighted by me, and cannot be reproduced or used without written authorization.] Years later, after leaving the Pinkertons, he would work as a detective for the Dallas Police Department.

Thanks for stopping by. I hope you found my post of interest. ~ AKB

Thirty Years A Detective by Allan Pinkerton
Allan Pinkerton: The First Private Eye by James Mackay
Pinkerton Consulting and Investigations


  1. Ashley--wow, I don't know where to begin.
    Your great-grandfather was a Pinkerton Detective for the Railroad? That is fantastic, and you really had good material for your novel Whisper in the Wind (I have an unpubbed ms titled Whisper on the Wind. Hmmm.) Anyway, that's impressive information to use.
    I did not know that Pinkerton was a security agen to Abraham Lincoln during the CW. Very interesting.
    You mentioned the Pinkerton's involvement with the investigation of the fire that killed all the garment workers. That fire always bothered me so much--I've seen documentaries and one made-for-tv movie based on the fire. Very disturbing.
    Also the Agency was involved, I believe in Union fights in and around Chicago in the early 20th Century.
    I did research the agency some, trying to make one of my heroes an agent, but he didn't want to be one. (haha).
    The photos are great--one of my favorite things--vintage photos. Thanks, and good job! Celia

  2. Thanks, Celia! I didn't get into the 20th century (or after Allan Plinkerton died in 1884). His sons continued to run the company but became more focused on security than investigative work. I am always interested in early Pinkerton history and have several original printings of Allan Pinkerton's detective novels (that I love). Glad you enjoyed the post! I think you are the second author I know with an almost identical title to my western. Haha

  3. Fantastic, Ashley. You have quite a family history to be proud of. I had known about some of the facts, but now understand better how it all came to be.

    Great post!

  4. Thanks, Paisley! :) On an interesting sidenote, there is talk of a motion picture about Allan Pinkerton in the works with another Glasgowegian portraying him...Gerard Butler. I hope it comes about, and they stay true to his story. I think Mr. Butler would do a great job in the role.

  5. Just thought of a question--are the Pinkerton's still in business? If not...when did they disband? Celia

  6. Celia: Toward the end of my post, I mention that in 2001, Pinkerton and Burns International merged, becoming part of the Securitas Security Services USA, Inc., “the largest security services provider in the world”.A year earlier, Pinkerton donated an archive of data to the Smithsonian including all their records on Jesse James, the Wild Bunch Gang, etc.

  7. Ashley, I am so thrilled with your post. I admire Allan Pinkerton, in spite of a few details. He was human, after all, and a very well organized and intelligent man. I used his agency in one of my books and enjoyed learning more about him. Lovely to see a photo of your handsome ancestor, too.

  8. How fascinating, Ashley, thank you for sharing all of that info. And then ending with such a bang on the info of your ancestor. How absolutely cool!
    The picture of Pinkerton with Lincoln and McClellan gave me goosebumps, too. Great detective work

  9. Ashley,
    What an informative piece! I love reading about real western heros. And the Pinkerton's were a diverse group.

    Loved it.


  10. Good post Ashley. I've always been fascinated by the Pinkertons and have a book I wrote about a female Pinkerton.

    And the hero and heroine in my second Halsey book become Pinkertons.

    That's exciting about your relative.

    Thanks for sharing.

  11. Caroline, Allan Pinkerton was certainly a remarkable man with a keen intellect. When you think he started working at 8 years old to help his family, and had no formal education after that age, it is daunting to think what he might have learned with more education. I love that he played a critical role in the story of the hero in my western. Thanks for commenting. :)

  12. Thanks, Jen. I'm glad you stopped by and found the post interesting. I know what you mean about the photo. It is a great photo with Lincoln and McClellan. I have another photo during the war with just Pinkerton on horseback, too. Thanks for commenting. :)

  13. Paty, The Pinkertons were an amazing, important part of American history and really did contribute a great deal to the nation's security, especially during and after the Civil War. I think when Allan Pinkerton's sons took over, and with his health poor, the company lost its focus. To me, without Allan at the helm it lost something.

  14. Geri, thanks for commenting; I'm glad you enjoyed the post. There is a fascination about the Pinkerton organization. I've always loved hearing stories about them and even giving the hero in my book an injury my great-gransfather had from his work.

  15. Fantastic interview Ashley! I learned so much and loved the pics.

    Thanks for sharing!


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