- For 150
Allan Pinkerton, a Scottish
immigrant in 1850, the Pinkerton Agency quickly became one of the most
important crime detection and law enforcement groups in the United States. Born in Scotland on August 25, 1819,
worked as a barrel maker before immigrating to the United States
in 1842. Settling near
he went to work at Lill’s Brewery as a barrel maker. However,
Pinkerton soon determined that working for himself would be more
profitable for his family and they moved to a small town called Dundee,
some forty miles from Chicago.
Making barrels once again, he quickly gained
control of the market due to the superior quality and low prices of his
Always thrifty, Pinkerton thought that he
could save some money by not paying someone else for poles to make barrel
hoops. Before long, he found a small deserted island in the middle of the
Fox River and rowed out to cut down a supply of his own.
image available for photographic prints
However, when he got
to the island he found signs that someone had been there and knowing
that counterfeiters had been working in the area, he wondered if the
island might be their hideout.
When he returned, he
notified the local sheriff of his suspicions and the two teamed up to
stake out the island which soon led to the arrest of the counterfeit
band. However, they failed to catch the ringleader. Pinkerton found himself involved in the search for the leader and soon
tracked him down, as well.
involvement in justice led to Pinkerton’s appointment as a deputy
sheriff for Kane County and in 1850 he became Chicago's
first police detective. That same year, he, along with Chicago
attorney, Edward Rucker, founded, the North-Western Police Agency.
In the meantime,
brother, Robert, had his formed his own business called "Pinkerton & Co" as early as 1843. Robert's
organization was originally established as a railroad contractor, but
somewhere along the line, he began to work as a railroad detective. Through his contacts in the railroad business,
Robert had also secured a number of contracts with
Wells Fargo to
provide guards on stage coaches. Robert's business grew so rapidly
that he hired several men as railroad and stage coach detectives and
and Rucker's business dissolved a year after it was formed,
joined his brother Robert in his already established company and
the name was changed to the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. The
"new" company provided a variety of detective services, from private
military contractors to security guards, but specialized in the
capture of counterfeiters and train robbers. Though there were a few other detective agencies at the
time, most had unsavory reputations and the Pinkerton Agency was the first to set
uniform fees and establish practices which quickly earned respect for
In 1861, while
investigating a railway case, the agency uncovered an assassination
plot against Abraham Lincoln, where conspirators intended to kill
Lincoln in Baltimore during a stop on his way to his inauguration.
However, with Pinkerton’s warning, Lincoln's itinerary was changed.
President Lincoln hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to organize a
"secret service” to obtain military information on the Confederates
and sometimes act as Lincoln's bodyguard. Working diligently, Allan
traveled under the pseudonym of "Major E.J. Allen."
After the war, Allan Pinkerton
returned to his
duties at the detective agency, which was often hired by the
government to perform many of the same duties that are now regularly
assigned to the Secret Service, the FBI, and the CIA. The agency
also worked for the railroads and overland stage companies, playing an
active role in chasing down a number of
Jesse James, the
Butch Cassidy and his
President Lincoln, and Major General
John A. McClernand, 1862, photo by
This image available for
photographic prints and downloads
On their three story Chicago
building, their logo, a black and white eye, claimed "We Never Sleep.”
This was the origin of the term "private eye.”
When Robert Pinkerton died in 1868, Allan
full control of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. However, just a year
later, in the autumn of 1869, Allan
suffered a paralyzing stroke which
nearly killed him. Both Robert and Allan's
sons then took on most of the
responsibilities of running the business. However, there was rivalry
between them, and the agency struggled without leadership. At the same
time, the agency began to suffer financially.
the challenges, by the early 1870s, the agency
had the world's largest collection of mug shots and a "criminal database.” During the height of its existence, the
Pinkertons had more agents than
the standing army of the United States of America, causing the state of
Ohio to outlaw the agency, due to the possibility of its being hired out
as a "private army" or militia.
Fortunes were to decrease
once again for the agency when, in 1871, Chicago suffered the Great Fire
which began on the evening of October 7th. Before it burned itself out
three days later, the entire business district was destroyed, including
the Pinkerton buildings and many of their records. When the fire was
finally extinguished, martial law was declared in Chicago and guards from
the Pinkerton Detective Agency were hired to prevent looting. Robert's
widow, Alice Isabella Pinkerton,
and his dependents were also left homeless. When she approached Allan
for assistance, he encouraged them to return
to Great Britain. Offering to pay for the journey, Alice and her sons
accepted his offer and sailed for Liverpool, leaving the agency entirely
in the hands of Allan and his sons.
passed away in 1884, the agency was taken over by his sons, Robert and
William. They soon became involved in the labor unrest of the late 19th
century when they were hired by a number of businesses to keep strikers
and suspected unionists out of their factories.
However, the rapidly
expanding agency became known for less admirable activities as they
often became the "law” in of themselves. Accused of using heavy handed
tactics, such as firebombing
Jesse James’ mother’s home and using
intimidation against union sympathizers, the public support began to turn
away from the agency.
Many labor sympathizers
accused the Pinkertons of inciting riots and their reputation continued to
suffer. The most notorious example of this was the Homestead Strike of
1892, when Pinkerton agents killed 11 people while enforcing
strikebreaking measures. In order to restore order, two brigades of state
militia had to be called out.
involvement against the labor movement into the 20th century, their
reputation was harmed for years in the public consciousness.
However, the agency
endured. In 1907, the agency was inherited by the founder’s grandson,
Allan Pinkerton II and his great-grandson, Robert II, in 1930. When Robert Pinkerton II died in 1967, without a male heir, family
direction of the corporation came to an end.
Pinkerton's Inc. has since grown to a $1.5 billion organization that
provides a wide range of security services. The company has its U.S.
headquarters in Westlake Village,
California, and is a subsidiary of the Securitas Group of Stockholm, Sweden, a world leader in the security
updated August, 2015.
During the Homestead Strike of 1892, the Pinkertons killed 11 people while
strikebreaking measures. Illustration in Harper's Weekly.
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