ⓘ Allan Pinkerton


ⓘ Allan Pinkerton

Allan J. Pinkerton was a Scottish-American detective and spy, best known for creating the Pinkerton National Detective Agency.


1. 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 fathers 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 became 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. Pinkertons business insignia was a wide open eye with the caption "We never sleep." As the US expanded in territory, rail transport increased. Pinkertons 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 companys 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 Browns raid on Harpers Ferry in November 1859.


2. 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 todays U.S. Army Counterintelligence Special Agents in which Pinkertons 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.


3. After the war

Following Pinkertons 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 Pinkertons undercover agents who was working undercover at the farm neighboring the James familys farmstead, he abandoned the chase. Some consider this failure Pinkertons 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 a 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 is buried in Graceland Cemetery, Chicago. He is a member of the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame.


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

Despite his agencys 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.


5. Writings

Pinkerton produced numerous popular detective books, ostensibly based on his own exploits and those of his agents. Some were published after his death, and they are considered to have been more motivated by a desire to promote his detective agency than a literary endeavour. Most historians believe that Allan Pinkerton hired ghostwriters, but the books nonetheless bear his name and no doubt reflect his views.


6. In popular culture

In the 1951 feature film The Tall Target, a historical drama loosely based upon the Baltimore Plot, Allan Pinkerton is portrayed by Scottish actor Robert Malcolm. The M-G-M production starred Dick Powell and was directed by Anthony Mann.

In the 1956 episode "The Pinkertons" of the ABC/Desilu western television series, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, the actor Douglas Evans plays Allan Pinkerton, who is seeking to recover $40.000 in stolen money but interferes with the attempt of Marshal Wyatt Earp Hugh OBrian to catch the entire gang of Crummy Newton Richard Alexander. The episode is set in Wichita, Kansas.

In 1990, Turner Network Television aired the 1990 speculative historical drama The Rose and the Jackal, with Christopher Reeve as Pinkerton, recounting his completely fictional romance with the Confederate spy Rose ONeal Greenhow.

In the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, an agent of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency runs an undercover operation to coax a murder confession out of a major character.

Pinkerton is a major character in the 2001 film American Outlaws, portrayed by Timothy Dalton.

Pinkertons role in foiling the assassination plot against Abraham Lincoln was dramatized in the 2013 film Saving Lincoln, which tells President Lincolns story through the eyes of Ward Hill Lamon, a former law partner of Lincoln who served as his primary bodyguard during the Civil War. Pinkerton is played by Marcus J. Freed.

Charlie Day portrayed Pinkerton in a Season 2 episode of Drunk History.

Pinkerton is also a recurring character in the 2014 series The Pinkertons, played by Angus Macfadyen.

Pinkerton is also portrayed in an episode of The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, by Don Galloway, and in the 1994 American biographical western film Frank and Jesse by William Atherton. In but in these cases, as in the others, he seems to be portrayed with an American accent, although he was Scottish by birth, and may still have retained his Scots accent.

Hardboiled crime fiction writer Dashiell Hammett was employed by the Pinkerton agency before becoming an author, and his experiences influenced the character of the Continental Op who was a Continental Detective Agency operative, similar to the Pinkertons.

Pinkerton is an important character in the 2016 novel By Gaslight by Steven Price.

The "Pinkerton National Detective Agency" is a fictionalized version of Pinkertons security company featured prominently in the popular video games, Red Dead Redemption and Red Dead Redemption 2.

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