The Pinkerton National Detective Agency is a private security guard and detective agency established in 1850 by Scottish immigrant Allan Pinkerton. The organization became famous when Allan Pinkerton claimed to have foiled a plot to assassinate president-elect Abraham Lincoln, who later hired Pinkerton agents for his personal security during the Civil War.
Born in Scotland on August 25, 1819, Allan Pinkerton worked as a barrel maker before immigrating to the United States in 1842. Settling near Chicago, Illinois, 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 40 miles northwest of Chicago.
Making barrels once again, he quickly gained control of the market due to the superior quality and low prices of his product. Always thrifty, Pinkerton thought 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 his own supply.
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.
This accidental 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 and Chicago attorney Edward Rucker founded the North-Western Police Agency.
In the meantime, Allan’s brother, Robert, had formed his own business called “Pinkerton & Co” as early as 1843. Robert’s organization was initially 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 several contracts with Wells Fargo to provide guards on stagecoaches. Robert’s business grew so rapidly that he hired several men as railroad and stagecoach detectives and guards.
When Allan and Rucker’s business dissolved a year after it was formed, Allan joined his brother Robert in his already established company, and the name was changed to the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. The “new” company provided various detective services, from private military contractors to security guards, but specialized in capturing counterfeiters and train robbers. Though there were a few other detective agencies at the time, most had unsavory reputations. The Pinkerton Agency was the first to set uniform fees and establish practices that quickly earned respect for the organization.
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. During the Civil War, 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 Pinkerton traveled under the pseudonym of “Major E.J. Allen.”
After the war, Allan Pinkerton returned to his duties at the detective agency, which the government often hired 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 several outlaws, including Jesse James, the Reno Brothers, and Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch.
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 assumed full control of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. However, just a year later, in the autumn of 1869, Allan suffered a paralyzing stroke that 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.
Despite 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 7. 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.
When Allan Pinkerton 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 several 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 and 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. To restore order, two brigades of state militia had to be called out.
Continuing their involvement in 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, the 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 industry.
© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated November 2022.
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Another fun video from our friends at Arizona Ghost Riders – Pinkertons on the Frontier