Allan Pinkerton, the Scots-born founder of the famous detective agency, died on the 1st of July, 1884.
Allan J. Pinkerton was born in 19th Century Scotland, but became famous in the Wild West of America as the founder of the detective agency that bore his name. He also became famous worldwide as his name is synonymous with the term 'private eye' and he was, arguably, the world's first private detective. Interestingly enough, Pinkerton was also one of the first writers of stories in the genre; that of the private eye. A prolific author in his later years, Pinkerton's books as well as his exploits, undoubtedly influenced and inspired a host of famous exponents of the genre; the likes of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. And, of course, it was
the famous Pinkerton logo, a large unblinking eye with the slogan 'We Never Sleep', that gave rise to the phrase 'private eye'.
Pinkerton appears to have led a colourful life. Indeed, as the Thrilling Detective website suggests, that might be a bit of an understatement. The website goes on to state that, in his long and varied career, Pinkerton was called, variously, “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 trampler of rights, an immigrant and a drunkard, a rogue, an adventurer and a barrel maker.” However, it concludes with, “most of all, he was a detective,” which is only fair.
Pinkerton's Agency got a 'bad press' in the decades after his death; in the latter part of the 19th Century and the first twenty or thirty years or so of the next. Alan Pinkerton, since he was then dead, wasn't responsible for the activities that led to his agency becoming vilified and there is no real evidence that the direction it took was one that he would have wished. On his death, the reins were taken up by his sons, William and Robert, and what they saw fit to do was what they saw fit. Expediency, a sign of the times, it was good for business; all of these things probably had something to do with the evolution of Pinkerton's. In his own day, Pinkerton's agency was by no means 'squeaky clean', but in the lawless days of the 'Wild Frontier' in which it began, it was a bastion for what was good and right. In fact, in that violent era, Pinkerton's operatives were regarded as heroes and, if admissible evidence, there were loads of 'dime novels' that sang their praises.
It's often been written that Pinkerton's earned a reputation for toughness and efficiency and, in a summary of its activities, the Agency foiled assassination attempts on presidents; chased outlaws and desperadoes back and forth across the American West; was responsible for the apprehension of counterfeiters, kidnappers and embezzlers; solved a series of train robberies during the 1850s; had as its major, lucrative clients, the nations railroads and post offices, two businesses that were particularly at risk in the lawless West; and created the world’s first 'rogue's gallery'.
Joseph Geringer, in 'Roots of a Detective' noted that Pinkerton's biographer, Sigmund A. Lavine, wrote thus of Pinkerton's contribution: “[Pinkerton was] a man of great power of observation and courage, [who] organized the first official Secret Service for duty behind Confederate lines during the War Between the States, and rode with lawmen along the Old Frontier, hunting down members of Jesse James' gang, the Reno brothers and other desperadoes.”
It's also said of Pinkerton's that it “always got its man,” however, in the case of Jesse James, it didn't get its man. Poor Mr. Howard was laid in his grave by the cowardly act of the opportunist, Robert Ford. Some consider that failure to have been Pinkerton's biggest defeat. Nevertheless, as reported by Time-Life Books in its 'The Wild West' anthology, Pinkerton's methods were so effective “that when the government formed the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1908, it used Pinkerton's agency as its model.” You'd want to believe that the FBI didn't take on board the methods used to apprehend Jesse James.
Hired by the Adams Express Company to bring the James' Gang to justice after the Gads Hill train robbery in Missouri, Pinkertons' tactics ultimately became less scrupulous and more reckless. After one of Pinkerton's detectives, Joseph Whicher, was murdered by the Jameses or their associates, the Express Co. withdrew its funding. However, Pinkerton continued to pursue Frank and Jesse and, in January, 1875, a group, led by his detectives, raided the James' farm. Pinkerton's men fire-bombed the house and the resulting explosion injured Jesse's mother and killed his eight years old half-brother, Archie. The Pinkerton Agency was condemned for the raid and effectively gave up the chase.
Alan James Pinkerton was born in the Gorbals on the 25th of August, 1819. When his father died in a political riot in Glasgow, Alan left school to find work to support the family. He became a runner for a pattern maker and then an apprentice cooper in the McCauley Cooperage Works. In due course, Pinkerton became active in the Chartist Movement, which was the first mass working class labour movement in the world, following the tradition of earlier Radical movements, such as the Friends of the People. The story goes that Pinkerton was warned of his impending arrest on the day of his wedding, the 13th of March, 1842, and that he and his bride promptly boarded a boat for the New World to escape. You'd have to say the trip had been planned beforehand; no?
In any case, the ship was shipwrecked off the coast of Nova Scotia and, eventually, the Pinkertons made it across the border to the United States, where Pinkerton got work as a cooper in Chicago. They then moved to the nearby town of Dundee, in 1843, where Pinkerton set up his own cooperage business. In 1844, Pinkerton worked for Chicago Abolitionist leaders and his house became a stop on the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses used by black slaves to escape to free states and Canada.
In 1849, Pinkerton was appointed as a detective in Chicago and in 1850, he partnered with attorney Edward Rucker to form the North-Western Police Agency, America's first legitimate private investigation agency. The partnership was dissolved within a year and Pinkerton operated the agency himself, which became The Pinkerton Agency in 1852. Pinkerton was next hired as bodyguard to the President-elect, Abraham Lincoln, during which service he famously uncovered and foiled a plot to assassinate Lincoln. Following the outbreak of the Civil War in 1860, Pinkerton became head of the Union Intelligence Service reporting to General George McClellan.
Alan J. Pinkerton died on the 1st of July, 1884, and he was buried in Graceland Cemetery, in Cook County, Illinois, alongside Joseph Whicher and Kate Warn, the first woman detective.