The Pinkerton Detective Agency: Between the Law and Hooliganism


On one side it is admired for bringing to law many a notorious criminal. On the other, it is detested for its vicious behavior and it intense support of anti labor measures.

Birth of the Agency

Allan Pinkerton, a Scottish immigrant, founded the agency in 1850. He had fallen into police work by accident.

A barrel maker by trade, he had settle first in Chicago and then in the small community of Dundee, some 40 miles to the northwest. While looking for poles to make barrel hoops in a small island on the Fox River, he discovered it was the hiding place of a gang of money forgers. Pinkerton reported his suspicions to the authorities. That led to the arrest of the band and to Pinkerton tracking the leaders, which had escape. Soon enough, he caught the criminal and was named deputy sheriff of Kane County.

Allan wasn’t the only Pinkerton involved in police work, though. His brother, Robert, founded Pinkerton and Company, a railroad contracting enterprise in 1843. Eventually, Pinkerton and Co got the contract to serve as railroad detectives.

In 1850 Allan Pinkerton became the first detective ever in the Chicago police Department and established the North-Western Police Agency with partner Edward Rucker, a lawyer.

The venture, however, lasted only about a year and Allan and his brother became partners in the newly renamed Pinkerton National Detective Agency.

Their logo, one eye with the notice “We Never Sleep” gave rise to the expression “private eye.”

The Pinkertons Gain Fame

While the agency’s reputation and business grew during the ten years, it didn’t appear in the national stage until 1861, when in the course of probing a railroad case its agents discovered a plot to kill president elect Abraham Lincoln before he took office.

Thus, the Pinkerton’s gained Lincoln’s trust as well as contracts to spy on the Confederates during the Civil War and to protect the president.

During this period, the agency began to collect what would become the world’s greatest information file of criminals. It was lost in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

Once the war was over, the government began to hire the agency to do intelligence gathering, criminal investigation and personnel protection services.

Tarnishing the Company’s Good Name

The Pinkerton Agency, however, also got private contracts with the railroads to go after train robbers such as the James-Younger Gang, headed by Jesse James, and the Wild Bunch of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Because of their strong arms tactics to obtain right of way land, the railroad companies were not well liked while the robbers where considered by many as heroes. The Pinkerton’s image took a hit when they went after the famous outlaws. Furthermore, during a raid on the James’ home a bomb thrown into the building killed the younger brother, Archie, and blew one arm of the James’ mother, Zerelda.

Sympathy for the James and disgust with the Pinkerton Detective Agency grew nationwide.

In 1860, Robert Pinkerton died and the following yea, Allan suffered a stroke. Their sons took over the company. The cousins’ bickered among themselves and the agency’s fortunes were further eroded.

What’s more, Pinkerton’s agents were hired as strike breakers and union busters. In many cases they were accused of enforcing their own kind of law.

The Homestead Strike of 1892

The Pinkerton Detective Agency’s worse defeat took place during the strike of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers at Andrew Carnegie’s steel plant in Homestead, a town near Pittsburg.

On July 6 the strike, which had begun a week earlier, turned into a gun battle between the workers and the agents. Eventually, the Pinkertons surrendered. But the rough treatment the agents received at the hands of the strikers produced a certain amount of sympathy for the agents.

But the Pinkerton agency participation in anti labor actions during the last century ruined its reputation for years. To this day, Pinkerton agents are often portrayed as humorless, violent, pompous individuals in movies and other mass media.

The agency though, has recovered and today is part of the Securitas Groups, a Swedish company. These days, it earns about $1.5 billion from its security enterprises.