Allan Pinkerton is without a doubt one of the most famous figures in the Detective history. 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 tramper of rights, an immigrant and a drunkard, a rogue, an adventurer and a barrel maker.
Nevertheless, 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 police officer who could no longer work, due to injuries sustained on the job. To support his family, the young Allan worked as an apprentice barrel maker, 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. (biography. com) 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 unsure of entering into such business but few subsequent successes led to his becoming a part-time deputy for the county. In 1850, Pinkerton resigned from Chicago’s new police force in order to organize a private detective agency that specialized in railway theft cases. The Pinkerton National Detective Agency became one of the most famous organizations of its kind.
Its successes included capture of the principals in a $700,000 Adams Express Company theft in 1866. 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 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. In 1861, working for the Union during the Civil War, Pinkerton, under the name E. J. Allen, headed an organization whose purpose was to obtain military information in the Southern states. 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. Perhaps it is fortunate Pinkerton was long gone by that time.However, 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. Maybe he did not 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. 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. Nevertheless, 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.REFERENCEShttp://www.
biography. com/alanpinkerton retrieved May 15th 2010 Morn, Frank, The Eye That Never Sleeps: A History of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1982. http://www. encyklomedia. com/alanpinkerton retrieved May 15th 2010