To say that Allan J. Pinkerton lead a colorful life is a little bit of an understatement. In his long and varied career he was called a traitor and a patriot, an outlaw and a police officer, a thug and an idealist, a left-leaning political activist fighting for the plight of the workers and a hired goon for bosses, a defender of liberty and a trampler of rights, an immigrant and a drunkard, a rogue, an adventurer and a barrel maker. But most of all, he was a detective.
He founded the detective agency that still bears his name, arguably the most famous private detective agency in the world. He and his operatives foiled assassination attempts on presidents and chased outlaws and desperadoes back and forth across the American West. He was responsible for the apprehension of counterfeiters and kidnappers, train robbers and embezzlers and radicals. He was also a prolific author, one of the first private eye writers of them all. Even the phrase "private eye" can find its roots in the agency's trademark: a large, unblinking eye with the slogan "We Never Sleep."
Pinkerton was born into poverty in Glasgow in 1819, the son of a policeman who could no longer work, due to injuries sustained on the job. To support his family, the young Allan worked as an apprentice barrelmaker, but eventually ran afoul of local authorities over his membership in the Chartist movement, a political organization dedicated to universal suffrage and better working conditions for the poor. One step ahead of the law, a price on his head, Pinkerton and his young bride Joan fled to Canada in 1842. A shipwreck off the coast of Nova Scotia left them virtually penniless, and so Pinkerton eagerly accepted the invitation of a Scottish friend to work as a cooper for Lill's Brewery in Chicago. He slipped across the border and worked there for a few years, before relocating to the small, rural settlement of Scottish immigrants in nearby Dundee, with hopes of establishing his own business.
It was there, the story goes, that while wandering the forests near Dundee looking for wood for barrel staves, he stumbled across a band of rural counterfeiters hard at work. Pinkerton notified the local sheriff and returned with him to make the arrest. Impressed with his honesty and courage, two local merchants hired the Scot to watch for more counterfeiters. At first Pinkerton was leery of entering such a "wil-o'-the-wisp" business," but a few subsequent successes led to his becoming a part-time deputy for the county.
But politics would rear their ugly head once again. The town of Dundee was deeply divided over the abolition issue, and Pinkerton, a staunch and vocal supporter, was known to frequently help fugitive slaves on the Underground Railway to Canada (a few years later, he would assist John Brown in doing the same). Running for local office, Pinkerton came in dead last in a field of nine when his own minister branded him a drunkard.
Discouraged, and tired of the pettiness of small town politics, Pinkerton moved back to Chicago, where his politics and his growing reputation as a "terror to evil-doers" were more appreciated. He was hired on two different occasions by the local branch of the Treasury Department to pursue counterfeiters and once by the Cook County Sheriff's department to help rescue two Michigan girls who had been abducted. Pinkerton tracked them down and shot one of the kidnappers. This dramatic incident lead to a more-or-less full-time gig as a Cook County Deputy Sheriff in 1853. I say more or less, because the ever-ambitious Pinkerton continued to take numerous outside freelance detective work, and in 1855, realizing the potential, formed his own private agency, the North-Western Police Agency, soon to become The Pinkerton National Detective Agency.
In the mid-nineteenth century, much of the United States was still the "Wild West." What few official police forces existed at the time were for the most part confined to the larger cities, and they were often less than organized and often embarrassingly incompetent, leaving large sections of the still mostly rural country with virtually no law enforcement at all. The railroads and the post office, two businesses that were forced to operate in this lawless wilderness, quickly became two of the agency's most lucrative clients. In contrast to the public police of the time, Pinkerton and his private operatives quickly gained a reputation for toughness, thoroughness and relentless professionalism. They compiled huge files on suspects, and were credited with creating the first rogue's gallery and being the first to use photographs to identify criminals. Operatives had to keep case journals and documentation. They cracked cases and prevented crime through meticulous and painstaking research, often perilous undercover work and exhaustive surveillance.
Pinkerton's politics and abolitionist sympathies drew the attention of supporters of fiery Illinois lawyer and presidential incumbent Abraham Lincoln, and Pinkerton was hired to act as Lincoln's bodyguard. Pinkerton and his men discovered and disrupted a scheme to kill the president on the way to his inauguration, and were subsequently rewarded when Lincoln hired Pinkerton to organize the Secret Service. By the end of the Civil War, the agency's reputation was well-established, and it was often hired by the government to perform many of the same duties that are now regularly assigned to the Secret Service, the FBI, the CIA and most recently, the Department of Homeland Security.
A handful of high-profile cases helped further lodge the agency in the public's consciousness. In an often raw and violent era, where preoccupation with crime was rampant, they were soon regarded as heroes, and dime novels sang the agency's praises. They had gained such a reputation for deadpan professionalism and rather dour doggedness that even Mark Twain couldn't resist taking a couple of potshots at them in his last, never-finished novel Simon Wheeler, Detective.
But the rapidly expanding agency soon became known for other, less admirable activities, not quite so easily made jest of. Free of any real legal restraints, they often became a law unto themselves, and soon became notorious for some rather shady tactics, from entrapment and intimidation up to kidnapping and murder. Their heavy-handed, ruthless and often reckless pursuit of criminals such as the James brothers (they firebombed their mother's farmhouse, killing a child) and their growing notoriety as strikebreakers, selling dirty tricks and muscle to rich capitalists, soon began to turn public sympathy away from the agency. To this day, in fact, there are many who suspect the agency of conspiracy in the 1917 murder of labor organizer Frank Little in the mining town of Butte, Montana. It's these type of dark exploits that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would eventually hint at in his final Sherlock Holmes novel, The Valley of Fear.
Perhaps it's fortunate Pinkerton was long gone by that time. But you still have to wonder what Pinkerton, who as a young man was heavily involved in pro-labor politics himself, thought of the agency he had founded becoming a sort of special interest army for the rich and powerful, intent on crushing the burgeoning American labor movement.
But maybe he didn't have the time – by then, Pinkerton was too busy running a huge and rapidly expanding business empire to philosophize on the irony of it all. Indeed, a good deal of his latter years was spent in public relations. Originally intending to merely counter much of the negative press the agency had received and to dispel a few of the more spurious claims made by jealous rivals and dime novels, Pinkerton became a zealous and blatant self-promoter (long before anyone had ever heard of the internet or DorothyL), pumping out a long string of books dramatizing his and the agency's exploits. Of course, many of the stories were exaggerated or otherwise creatively "colored," much in the tradition of the great Vidocq a few decades earlier, but even Pinkerton alluded to that possibility in the preface of his first book:
"The Expressman and the Detective, and other works announced by my publishers, are all true stories, transcribed from the records in my offices. If there be any incidental imbellishment, it is so slight that the actors in these scenes would never detect it; and if the incidents seem to the reader at all marvelous or improbable, I can but remind him, in the words of the old adage, that 'Truth is stranger than fiction.'"
But "imbellished" or not, the numerous books and stories left a tremendous impact on the public at large, and to literature, influencing and inspiring not just Doyle and Twain, but a host of others, including former Pinkerton operatives Charlie Siringo, the "Cowboy Detective," and Dashiell Hammett, both of whom would pick up the pen and contribute so greatly to what would become the private eye genre.
Pinkerton even offered up this rough, early version of Raymond Chandler's famous "down these mean streets" rant, in the introduction to another of his books, The Molly Maguires (1877):
"(The detective) should be hardy, tough, and capable of laboring, in season and out of season, to accomplish, unknown to those about him, a single absorbing object.... able to distinguish the real from the ideal moral obligation, and pierce the vail (sic) separating a supposed from an actual state of affairs."
Pinkerton passed away in 1884, and his agency was taken over by his sons, Robert and William, who continued the agency's movement from detective work to security and protection. But Pinkerton's legacy as a detective and as one of the first writers of private detective stories remains, and it casts a giant shadow over all of us who toil in the genre.