Allan Pinkerton: America's first private eye (1819-1884).
Article Type: Biography
Subject: Detectives (Biography)
Author: Hunt, Russell A.
Pub Date: 12/22/2009
Publication: Name: The Forensic Examiner Publisher: American College of Forensic Examiners Audience: Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health; Law; Science and technology Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 American College of Forensic Examiners ISSN: 1084-5569
Issue: Date: Winter, 2009 Source Volume: 18 Source Issue: 4
Persons: Biographee: Pinkerton, Allan
Geographic: Geographic Scope: Scotland Geographic Code: 4EUUS Scotland
Accession Number: 215306197

Hollywood often depicts Allan Pinkerton and the Pinkerton Detective Agency negatively in its movies. However, Pinkerton was actually an innovative pioneer and leader in the filed of criminal investigation. Today, he continues to be credited for his many valuable contributions to law enforcement and private security practices.

Allan Pinkerton was born in the Gorbals area of Glasgow, Scotland--one of the most crime- and vice-ridden, polluted, and poorest areas in Europe (Jones, 2005). This area was so notorious that Sir John Fielding, leader of the famed Bow Street Runners--the first detectives in England, once said that his detectives could track a thief anywhere in the United Kingdom unless they made it to the Gorbals (Mackay, 1996).

The Pinkerton family was one of the oldest families in the Gorbals (Mackay, 1996). In the 1790's, a minister from the Gorbals remarked sadly that many children born to depraved parents were abandoned in the community, where they became involved in crime and deviant behavior with no fear of God or respect for other people. In this community, there was a great deal of alcohol consumption, with approximately one drinking establishment for every 12 families, not including the unlicensed ones (Mackay, 1996). The community had many brothels and many of the prostitutes hung out in the pubs. This was the part of Scotland where honest law abiding citizens went for fun.

Pinkerton was born to William and Isabell Pinkerton on August 25, 1819, during the worst of times in the Gorbals' community (Mackay 1996). The wars with France caused widespread unemployment in the area. Also, there were many crop failures as well as changing technology, both of which contributed to high unemployment. There were a number of strikes and violent confrontations in this period of time between the workers and the manufacturers. There was a huge influx of immigrants. The immigrants were from Ireland, but over time many people emigrated to the Gorbals from Eastern Europe. Today the community is largely Pakistani (Mackay, 1996).

Pinkerton's father worked as a handloom weaver, making him more skilled and educated than most in the community, though still poor. Later he worked as a jailer and was injured on the job. He eventually died from the injuries. Many sources report that Pinkerton's father was a police sergeant who was injured during the Chartist riots. However, this widely reported rumor is untrue, after an examination of the Glasgow police force records revealed the truth. It was Pinkerton's older half-brother, also named William, who served as a police sergeant with the Glasgow force (Mackay, 1996).

Not much is known about Pinkerton's early childhood. He left school at the age of 10 after his father's death. His mother taught him right from wrong and insisted he read anytime he could. Pinkerton read voraciously and was largely self-educated. Like his father, Allan Pinkerton learned a trade through apprenticeship. He became a cooper and made barrels for a living (Jones, 2005). During this time, Pinkerton became active in a radical political group called the Chartists. This group believed in temperance, women's rights, abolishing slavery, and workers' rights to organize and negotiate for better wages and working conditions. He also met a 14-year-old girl, Joan, who was singing at one of the political rallies he attended. Pinkerton and Joan married when she was 15. They had four daughters and three sons (Jones, 2005).

There are many stories about why Pinkerton moved to America. One is that some of his close friends moved to America and told him there were many business opportunities for him. Some say his speeches and activities in the Chartist movement made him a threat to the government, and he feared arrest. This is possible because some of his associates in the Chartist movement were arrested and convicted of treason. Another story suggests that he and his wife were smuggled into Canada on a ship, while another version claims that he bought his wife a ticket and he was hired as a cooper on the ship--which paid for their transportation. While in Canada, Pinkerton learned that America indeed had more career opportunities, so he and his wife moved to a small town near Chicago named Dundee (Jones. 2005).

Pinkerton started his own barrel-making business. He worked incredibly hard; waking at half past four every morning and working until six in the evening, seven days a week. He enjoyed taking long walks in the country and reading for a couple hours each night before going to bed. Pinkerton's cooper business expanded to the point that he hired eight more men to help him. He hired German men from the other side of the river. Many people in the community resented these new immigrants. However, Pinkerton had a strong belief that all men were equal--a novel idea for the times, when many others held more racist views (Mackay, 1996).

Pinkerton's life and career drastically changed one day as he was looking for wood to use at his shop. He found some trees on a small island and discovered that a group of people had been there. Although he wasn't sure what they were doing, he was sure it was illegal! He returned at night and watched the men but still was not certain what they were doing. The next day he contacted the sheriff, who put together a posse. They arrested the men, who turned out to be counterfeiters. This arrest brought Pinkerton a great deal of publicity. Everyone who came to the store wanted to hear Pinkerton tell the story--until he got tired of telling it (Mackay, 1996). Later a group of local businessmen wanted Pinkerton to investigate a man in town whom they believed was a counterfeiter. At first Pinkerton refused, saying he was a cooper, not a detective, but later agreed to help them (Mackay, 1996).

Pinkerton arranged to meet the man, and agreed to buy counterfeit money from him. He knew he could get a conviction only if the man had the counterfeit money on him at the time of his arrest. They met in the lobby of a hotel, and Pinkerton bought $4,000 in counterfeit money from the man. He made a prearranged signal, and a deputy sheriff moved in for the arrest. Pinkerton testified before the grand jury and the man was indicted. However, he later escaped from jail. Allegedly a deputy sheriff had been bribed and allowed the man to escape. Pinkerton said it was his first encounter with police corruption, but it would not be his last (Mackay, 1996). Soon after he was offered a part-time position as a deputy sheriff, but he still did his job as a cooper full-time. As a deputy sheriff he earned a reputation as being tough, smart, and honest.


Pinkerton had been opposed to slavery since his days in the Chartist movement. He felt compelled to take a more active role in fighting slavery after he read speeches by Frederick Douglass. He helped runaway slaves get to Canada. He also taught some of the runaway slaves carpentry and barrel-making so they would know a trade when they were free (Mackay, 1996). Pinkerton ran for sheriff on the Abolitionist ticket, but was portrayed in an unflattering light in newspaper articles and letters by people who felt he was unfit for office. He was accused of being an atheist. He lost many friends, and his business suffered as a result of the election. After the election he moved to Chicago to become a deputy sheriff in Cook County (Mackay, 1996).

In 1849, the newly elected mayor of Chicago reorganized the police department, and Pinkerton became the first detective in the Chicago Police Department. He quit the job only one year later because of political interference (Mackay, 1996). Pinkerton later stated that the reason he left the Chicago police was because he was offended by the corruption and didn't like taking orders. Mackay (1996) suggested the real reason was because the mayor was opposed to Abolitionism and had learned of Pinkerton's beliefs. Pinkerton then became a special mail agent for the U.S. Postal Service. His first assignment was to investigate a theft of checks and money orders. The Postmaster General believed it was occurring in the sorting room in Chicago. Pinkerton went to work as a mail sorter and later arrested the postmaster of Chicago and two of his nephews. In 1849, Pinkerton's fame grew when he rescued two kidnapped girls and shot one of the kidnappers (Josephson, 1996).

In 1850, Pinkerton created his own detective agency--The Northwest Police Agency--with attorney Edward Rucker. One year later Rucker left to be a judge, so Pinkerton created his own agency-The Pinkerton National Detective Agency. The agency used a large unblinking eye as its trademark, and its motto became, "We Never Sleep." The term "private eye" came from the slogan. Pinkerton's agency filled a very large void in law enforcement during this period (Mackay, 1996).

Up until then, law enforcement in the United States was carried out largely at the local and county levels. Police officers and sheriffs were often untrained and limited by their jurisdiction. There were outlaws who traveled long distances after their crimes. America was unable to deal with these of_ fenders at a national level. Pinkerton recognized the problem and stepped in to help (Mackay, 1996). He worked alone at first, but three years later he had eight employees (five detectives, a secretary, and two clerks). He hired many more detectives over the next three years, including America's first female detective--Kate Warne, an attractive 23-year-old widow. Warne proved to be an exceptional detective. She was resourceful, daring, steadfast, and intelligent. By 1860, Pinkerton had hired several women to work for him, and Warne became the leader of the "Female Detective Bureau" (Mackay, 1996).

Many of Pinkerton's original agents (he called them operatives) had no previous police experience or training. He believed that honesty, common sense, and instinct were more important than training and experience. Pinkerton wrote a code of conduct for his employees (Josephson, 1996). His operatives communicated with him through reports, letters, and telegrams. He used this information to create his Rogues Gallery of wanted men (Josephson, 1996). Some believe this is where the FBI got the idea years later for their Ten Most Wanted list. Pinkerton had some sympathy for the men he arrested. He believed that once a criminal was released from prison they deserved a second chance, and he helped many get jobs upon their release (Josephson, 1996).


Pinkerton was always willing to diversify when the need arose. In 1860, he created a uniformed guard service to protect meat-packing plants and other companies in Chicago. These uniformed guards were a much different group than his agents who wore disguises and rode trains (McKay, 1996). As the railroads traveled further west, they were attacked more frequently and viciously (McKay, 1996). Pinkerton obtained contracts with most of the railroad companies. Through the railroads, he met two people who had a significant impact on his career--George McClellan and Abraham Lincoln (Jones, 2005).

Pinkerton learned of a plot to kill Lincoln on his trip to Washington prior to his inauguration. Pinkerton worked with the railroad to improve security and re-routed the inauguration train. Jones (2005) stated that if it had not been for Pinkerton, it is unlikely that Lincoln would have become President. After the Civil War started, Lincoln convinced McClellan to leave the railroad (he was Vice President of the Illinois Central) and serve as a Major General in the Union Army. Both McClellan and Lincoln realized the need for spies and intelligence gathering during the war, and they contacted Pinkerton. He and his agents were called "the Secret Service." In the North, Pinkerton agents searched for and arrested Confederate spies. In the South, his operatives watched troop movements. Pinkerton's 15-year-old son went up in a balloon to see troop movements. This was the first time balloons were used by the military.

Pinkerton's greatest success during the Civil War was the arrest of Rose Greenhow, the leader of an extensive Confederate spy network. Greenhow lived in Washington, D.C., and was famous for throwing parties attended by many powerful men-and where she gathered information for the South. She warned the South about the North's plan to attack at Bull Run. The South was prepared for the attack and won the first major battle in the Civil War. Pinkerton kept her under 24-hour watch and recorded her location and contacts. When she was arrested, so were a number of military officers, doctors, lawyers, senators, and military aides. While she was in prison, Pinkerton continued to arrest traitors. President Lincoln released Rose from prison after two years, but she drowned in 1864 while smuggling supplies from Europe to the South (Josephson, 1996).

This period was very difficult for Pinkerton. He lost some of his best operatives during the war (Tim Webster, his best agent, was hanged for spying) and Pinkerton took the deaths very hard. Pinkerton begged President Lincoln to stop the execution of Webster, so Lincoln sent Jefferson Davis a letter stating, "if you don't hang our spies, we won't hang yours." Webster was hanged anyway.

When General Burnside took over the Army of the Potomac, Pinkerton and his agents left government service. One of Pinkerton's biggest regrets was not providing security for Lincoln, who relied on the Washington D.C. police to protect him. Pinkerton and his sons were working in New Orleans when Lincoln was assassinated. Pinkerton always insisted that if he had provided security for President Lincoln at Ford's Theater, the assassination wouldn't have been successful (Jones, 2005). The Civil War allowed Pinkerton to meet a number of powerful, successful people, and his agency expanded. The agency took pictures of those arrested, and it is believed this led to the creation of the first "mug books" in American law enforcement.

Following the war, Pinkerton faced some setbacks. In 1866, other security agencies began forming and they competed with his agency. By 1868, Pinkerton was the most famous detective in America and Europe. However, that same year, he suffered a stroke that left the right side of his body partially paralyzed for the rest of his life. After two years of painful physical therapy, he was able to walk again. In 1871, he faced another problem. The Chicago fire destroyed his office, which was formerly his main headquarters. The office was rebuilt in a year. After the fire, the Pinkertons were hired to guard buildings that had burned or were being rebuilt. The Chicago police at the time had only 310 police officers and could not handle the additional work (Josephson, 1996).

Pinkerton's agency would go on to be involved in two very significant investigations in the years following the Civil War--investigating and apprehending the James Gang, as well as breaking the Molly Maguire strikes against the mines. After the war, new crimes and criminals emerged. In 1866, the first train robbery occurred in America. Bank and train robberies became a major concern for the Pinkertons, and they pursued the most famous outlaws of that time--Jesse James, Cole Younger, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, "Black Jack" Tom Ketcham, and the Reno brothers. By the turn of the century, the Pinkertons had either arrested or assisted in the arrests of them all (Geringer, n.d.).

The detective agency was very popular until 1871. Outlaws such as the James gang became folk heroes in the press, and Pinkerton's detectives became villains. In 1871, a Pinkerton agent infiltrated the James gang, but was discovered to be a private detective. The operative was murdered and his body mutilated. In a later incident, a Pinkerton detective died in a shootout with the Younger brothers (members of the James gang). The deaths of these men outraged Pinkerton, and he vowed he would bring the James gang to justice (Jones, 2005). In 1875, the Pinkertons surrounded Jesse James' mother's house, where the gang was believed to be hiding. However, the outlaws had learned of the raid and were already gone. The detectives shouted for Jesse and Frank to come out. When they didn't, an incendiary device was thrown into the house. It rolled into the fireplace and exploded, killing James' half brother and crippling his mother. The raid made the Pinkerton Detective agency very unpopular in the press. The sheriff of Clay County tried to indict them for murder. Pinkerton denied that his son William led the raid, but refused to name the detectives who were responsible (Mackay, 1996).

When the James gang attempted to rob a bank in Northfield, Minnesota, they found the town had prepared for them. The Pinkertons warned towns in the area of the gang's presence. Dozens of citizens shot the gang to pieces. The Younger brothers were wounded and arrested, but Jesse and Frank escaped--they were now the most hunted men alive! (Nash, J. 1994). Jesse James was later killed by Bob Ford, a member of the gang who wanted the reward money. Frank, after his prison sentence was over, retired to his farm in Missouri.

From 1874-75, the Molly Maguires performed a series of devastating strikes against the mines (Sifikis, 1982). The Mollies were a secret society of Irish coal miners founded in Pennsylvania in 1845. Their mission was to intimidate English, German, and Welsh miners, and to rid the area of police and mine supervisors. Mackay (1996) described the group as "gangsters and hoodlums, without any redeeming features" (p. 9). The group was condemned by both the labor unions and the Catholic Church. The Molly Maguire case was one of the Pinkerton Agency's most historically significant investigations.

In 1875, the Maguires controlled the mines and started a strike. When they started sabotaging and derailing trains, they became a concern for Pinkerton (MacKay, 1996). The general manager of the Chicago and Alton railroads, who served in the Civil War, was well-acquainted with Pinkerton, and hired his agency to deal with these domestic terrorists. They were thugs and killers who had terrorized the mining industry for many years. Pinkerton believed that infiltrating the group was the best approach, even though that approach had not worked with the James gang.

James McParland was chosen as the best man for the assignment. He was born in Ireland and had worked as a coal company wagon driver before becoming a private detective for the Pinkertons. He had distinguished himself in many cases before being selected for the Molly Maguire case (Sifikis, 1982). In October 1873, McParland got a job as a miner and worked there for two and a half years. Only six men in the Pinkerton Agency knew his true identity. Over time, McParland became friends with two of the men in the Molly Maguires. The gang tested him many times. In one case McParland was asked to kill a man who had shot and wounded a Molly. McParland was able to talk his way out of it (Mackay, 1996). James McParland's work on the Molly Maguire case caused him to be more hated by radical labor unions than any other private detective of his time (Sifikis, 1982).

During McParland's undercover assignment, wages for the miners were cut, and non-union workers were brought in from Wyoming who were willing to work for less money. A strike dragged on for months and tensions mounted. The Mollys planned to destroy a bridge to prevent the "scab coal" from being shipped. McParland convinced them it was too dangerous--the bridge was under constant watch by railroad police-and that they would quicky be arrested. McParland set up a "flying squad" of six Pinkerton detectives and six hand-picked railroad police, all under the command of a Pinkerton lieutenant, who would have sole contact with McParland. Now McParland had help and an ally--Lt. Robert Linden--but this also increased the chances of blowing his cover (Mackay, 1996).

When the strike collapsed in May, the violence increased. The Mollys shot and wounded one of the Wyoming miners, and McParland was later blamed for not warning the agency that this was about to occur. McParland began to suffer from serious illnesses. He was very frustrated and angry about his inability to gather enough evidence for arrests. When masked gunmen had broken into one of the Molly Maguire's houses and shot one of the terrorists (and his mother), McParland tried to resign. He said shooting a woman was something he could not condone. Pinkerton was able to convince McParland that the agency was not involved in the murder. In September 1875, the Mollys were arrested for the murder of the mine superintendant (MacKay, 1995).

At the trial, the prosecuting attorney begged Pinkerton to let McParland testify, even though this was not the deal they had made. McParland became the chief witness at the trial (Mackay, 1996). The series of trials lasted from 1875-1877. His testimony convicted more than 60 members of the group, and 19 were hanged for murder (Sifikis, 1982). McParland was criticized by defense attorneys for his knowledge of murders before they were committed and doing nothing to prevent them. He explained that he believed he would be killed if he tried to warn police of the plans to commit murder. These allegations would haunt the rest of his career. A number of books and articles were written about McParland, the most significant being Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's book "The Valley of Fear," which was based loosely on the Molly Maguires and McParland's work (Sifikis, 1982). Throughout the 20th century, there were many attempts to prove the Molly Maguires were innocent. In 1979, a century after his execution, Jack Kehoe, the leader of the group, was granted a full pardon by the Governor of the state (Sifikis, 1982).

Pinkerton continued to work despite his handicap. He wrote 18 books throughout his life. On July 1, 1884, he died. Three weeks prior to his death he fell and bit his tongue, which became gangrenous. After his death, the company continued to thrive under his sons. Robert headed the New York office, and William became an expert on organized crime (Josephson, 1996). However, over time, much of the work done by the Pinkerton Detective agency was now handled by the FBI, Secret Service, and other police agencies (Roth, 2001). His sons wanted to take the agency in a new direction, and became involved in strike breaking and fighting labor unions. Many felt the agency's image was tarnished by his sons' leadership.

In 2003, the Pinkerton Detective Agency and the William J. Burns Detective Agency were purchased by Securitas AB, and created the new company Securitas Security Services USA---one of the world's largest security companies. Although Pinkerton's was purchased by Securitas, a Swedish company, it still retains the name Pinkerton Government Services (PGS) which provides security, fire, and emergency services for government agencies and contractor companies that are obligated to meet federal government security, fire, and emergency services requirements.

Pinkerton hired a number of detectives who were later famous, including Dashiell Hammett. Hammett was a detective for Pinkerton from 1915 to 1921, and he wrote a number of crime novels and short stories using the character Sam Spade. A number of Hammett's books were made into movies, such as The Maltese Falcon. He also wrote The Thin Man and a comic strip.

Allan Pinkerton's legacy is a memorable one. He was "one of the most effective and innovative detectives of his day" (p. 17). He was the classic type A personality--it was not uncommon for him to work 1820 hours per day. He quickly adopted new technology, such as photography. He created wanted posters for all the offenders he sought. This was long before the FBI thought of creating a Ten Most Wanted list. Pinkerton was successful because he was not limited by jurisdiction. He recognized how important the railroad industry was to America, and the threat posed by outlaws. He recognized that there was no federal agency equipped to effectively deal with them. Although he was an excellent businessman, he had a tendency to be a micro-manager (Jones, 2005). It should also be remembered that his agency and his employees were so successful, that when the FBI was created in 1908, it used Pinkerton's agency as a model (Geringer, n.d.)

Pinkerton had a Machiavellian attitude about fighting crime, "The ends justify the means if the ends are for the accomplishment of Justice" (Mackay, 1996, p. 76). However, he did caution his employees not to obtain confessions using means that would hurt the case in court. For example, he warned them not to take statements from witnesses or suspects that were under the influence of alcohol. It is interesting that he caught criminals, while at the same time breaking the law--by helping escaped slaves (MacKay, 1996).

The Pinkerton Agency slogan, "We never sleep," is the title of Geringer's article 'Alan Pinkerton and his Detective Agency: We Never Sleep,' which can be found at


Flanagan, M. (1999). The complete idiot's guide to the Old West. Indianapolis, IN. Alpha Books, a Pearson Publishing Company.

Jones, M. (2005). Criminal Justice Pioneers in U.S. History. New York: Pearson Publishing Company.

Josephson, J. (1996). Allan Pinkerton: The Original Private Eye. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications Company.

Mackay, J. (1996). Allan Pinkerton: The First Private Eye. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Nash, J. (1994). Encyclopedia of Western Lawmen and Outlaws. New York: Da Capo Press.

Sifikis, C. (1982). The Encyclopedia of American Crime. New York: Smithmark Publishing Company.

Geringer, J. (n.d.). Alan Pinkerton and his detective agency: we never sleep, http://www.crimelibrary. com (retrieved July 30, 2009).

Roth, M. (2001). Historical dictionary of law enforcement. Westport, CT. Greenwood Press

RUSSELL A. HUNT, MA, CHS-III, has a bachelor's degree in psychology from Wichita State University and an MA in criminal justice from Wichita State University. He also has practical experience in the field, having served as an EMT; a corrections officer for the Sedgwick County Sheriff's Department in Wichita, KS; a law enforcement specialist in the United States Air Force; and as an intelligence specialist in Force Protection/Anti-Terrorism with the United States Air Force Reserves. He also served briefly in the Army Reserves as a platoon leader for a medical unit. Professor Hunt taught at Central Texas College while he was stationed in England and has been teaching criminal justice classes at Dodge City Community College for more than 10 years. He teaches Introduction to Criminal Justice, Introduction to Corrections, Introduction to Law Enforcement, Juvenile Delinquency, Juvenile Corrections Parole/Probation/Community Corrections, Criminology, Terrorism/Extremist Groups, Organized Crime, White Collar Crime, Street Gangs, Serial Killers, Criminal Procedure, Sociology, Psychology, and Leadership in Criminal Justice. Professor Hunt also teaches online criminal justice classes though Edukan, a consortium of community colleges in western Kansas. Russ is a member of Alpha Phi Sigma Honor Society and has been featured in both Who's Who of Professional Educators, 2001-2002 and Montclaire Who's Who Among Executives and Professionals, 2009.

Note--Thanks to Kevin Stueven, professor of history at Dodge City Community College, for editing this article for me. I could not have done this without his help. Thanks also to my fiance Lynn Foster for helping me edit this article.
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