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Allan Pinkerton

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Allan Pinkerton

Allan Pinkerton
Portrait of Allan Pinkerton.
Born (1819-08-25)25 August 1819
Glasgow, Scotland
Died 1 July 1884(1884-07-01) (aged 64)
Chicago, Illinois
Resting place
Graceland Cemetery, Chicago
Nationality Scottish American
Occupation Detective and spy
Known for Creating the Pinkerton Agency
Spouse(s) Joan Pinkerton (m. 1842–1884)
Children William Pinkerton
Robert Pinkerton
Portrait of Allan Pinkerton from Harper's Weekly, 1884.

Allan Pinkerton (25 August 1819 – 1 July 1884) was a Scottish American detective and spy, best known for creating the Pinkerton National Detective Agency.

Early life, career and immigration

Pinkerton was born in the Gorbals, Glasgow, Scotland, to William Pinkerton and his wife, Isobel McQueen, on August 25, 1819.[1] The location of the house where he was born is now occupied by the Glasgow Central Mosque. A cooper by trade, he was active in the British Chartist movement as a young man. Pinkerton married Joan Carfrae (a singer) in Glasgow on 13 March 1842 [2] secretly before moving to America. Disillusioned by the failure to win suffrage, Pinkerton emigrated to the United States in 1842. In 1843, Pinkerton heard of Dundee, Illinois, fifty miles northwest of Chicago on the Fox River.[3] He built a cabin and started a cooperage there, sending for his wife in Chicago after the cabin was complete.[3] As early as 1844, Pinkerton worked for Chicago Abolitionist leaders, and his Dundee home was a stop on the Underground Railroad.[4]

In 1849 Pinkerton was appointed as the first detective in Illinois Central Railroad, and Abraham Lincoln, the company's lawyer.

American Civil War

Prior to his service with the Union Army, he developed several investigative techniques that are still used today. Among them are "shadowing" (surveillance of a suspect) and "assuming a role" (undercover work). Following the outbreak of the Civil War, Pinkerton served as head of the Union Intelligence Service in 1861–1862 and foiled an alleged assassination plot in Baltimore, Maryland, while guarding Abraham Lincoln on his way to his inauguration. His agents often worked undercover as Confederate soldiers and sympathizers, in an effort to gather military intelligence. Pinkerton served in several undercover missions under the alias of Major E.J. Allen. Pinkerton was succeeded as Intelligence Service chief by Lafayette Baker. The Intelligence Service was the precursor to the U.S. Secret Service.

After the war

Following Pinkerton's service with the Union Army, he continued his pursuit of train robbers, such as the Reno Gang and outlaw Jesse James. He was originally hired by the railroad express companies to track down James, but after Pinkerton failed to capture him, the railroad withdrew their financial support and Pinkerton continued to track James at his own expense. After James allegedly captured and killed one of Pinkerton's undercover agents who was foolish enough to gain employment at the farm neighboring the James farmstead, he finally gave up the chase. Some consider this failure Pinkerton's biggest defeat.[5] He also sought to oppose labor unions. In 1872, the Spanish Government hired Pinkerton to help suppress a revolution in Cuba which intended to end slavery and give citizens the right to vote.[6] If Pinkerton knew this, then it directly contradicts statements in his 1883 book The Spy of the Rebellion, where he professes to be an ardent Abolitionist and hater of slavery.

Pinkerton on horseback on the Antietam Battlefield in 1862.

Allan Pinkerton died in Chicago on July 1, 1884. It is claimed that the reason was an accident in which Pinkerton slipped on the pavement and bit his tongue, resulting in deadly gangrene. However, reports of the time give different conflicting causes such as Pinkerton succumbing to a stroke (he had survived another one a year earlier) or to malaria he had contracted during a trip to the Southern United States.[7] At the time of his death, he was working on a system that would centralize all criminal identification records, a database now maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Pinkerton's Tomb, Graceland Cemetery, Chicago.

Pinkerton is buried in Graceland Cemetery, Chicago.[8] He is a member of the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame.


After his death, the agency continued to operate and soon became a major force against the labor movement developing in the US and Canada. This effort changed the image of the Pinkertons for years. They were involved in numerous activities against labor during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including:

Many labor sympathizers accused the Pinkertons of inciting riots in order to discredit unions and justify police crackdowns. The Pinkertons' reputation was harmed by their protection of replacement workers (so-called "scabs") and the business property of the major industrialists, including Andrew Carnegie.

Despite his agency's later reputation for anti-labor activities, Pinkerton himself was heavily involved in pro-labor politics as a young man.[9] Though Pinkerton considered himself pro-labor, he opposed strikes[10] and distrusted labor unions.[11]

Allan Pinkerton was so famous that for decades after his death, his surname was a slang term for a private eye. The "Mr. Pinkerton" novels, by American mystery writer Leslie Ford (under the pseudonym David Frome), were about Welsh-born amateur detective Evan Pinkerton and may have been inspired by the slang term. Due to the Pinkerton Agency's conflicts with labor unions, the word Pinkerton remains in the vocabulary of labor organizers and union members as a derogatory reference to authority figures who side with management.

In the 1951 feature film "The Tall Target," a historical drama loosely based upon "The Baltimore Plot," Allan Pinkerton is portrayed by Robert Malcolm. The M-G-M production starred Dick Powell and was directed by Anthony Mann.

In the 1956 episode "The Pinkertons" of the ABC/Desilu western television series, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, the actor Douglas Evans plays Allan Pinkerton, who is seeking to recover $40,000 in stolen money but interferes with the attempt of Marshal Wyatt Earp (Hugh O'Brian) to catch the entire gang of Crummy Newton (Richard Alexander). The episode is set in Wichita, Kansas.[12]

Pinkerton's exploits are in part the inspiration of the 1961 NBC western series, Whispering Smith, starring Audie Murphy and Guy Mitchell.

In 1990, Turner Network Television aired the 1990 speculative historical drama The Rose and the Jackal, with Christopher Reeve as Pinkerton, recounting his romance with female spy Rose O'Neal Greenhow.

In the HBO series Deadwood, several references are made to the "Pinkertons" and fear that agents might be called in to investigate illegal activities in the lawless Deadwood mining camp in the Dakota territory prior to its being annexed by the US.

Pinkerton is a major character in the 2001 film American Outlaws, where he is portrayed by Timothy Dalton.

Pinkerton's role in foiling the assassination plot against Abraham Lincoln was dramatized in the 2012 film Saving Lincoln, which tells President Lincoln's story through the eyes of Ward Hill Lamon, a former law partner of Lincoln who also served as his primary bodyguard during the Civil War. Pinkerton is played by Marcus J. Freed.


Pinkerton produced numerous popular detective books, ostensibly based on his own exploits and those of his agents. Some were published after his death, and they are considered to have been more motivated by a desire to promote his detective agency than a literary endeavour. Most historians believe that Allan Pinkerton hired ghostwriters, but the books nonetheless bear his name and no doubt reflect his views.

  • —; William Henry Herndon; jesse William Weik (1866). Allan Pinkerton's Unpublished Story of the First Attempt on the Life Of Abraham Lincoln. Phillips Publishing Co. 
  • —; William Henry Herndon; jesse William Weik (1868). History and Evidence of the Passage of Abraham Lincoln from Harrisburg, Pa., to Washington, D.C. on the 22d and 23d of February, 1861. Phillips Publishing Co. 
  • — (1874). The Expressman and the Detective. 
  • — (1875). Claude Melnotte As A Detective, And Other Stories. Chicago: W. B. Keen, Cooke & Co. Retrieved 2009-07-08.  Also available here [13]
  • — (1875). The Somnambulist and the Detective, The Murderer and the Fortune Teller. New York: G. W. Dillingham Co. Retrieved 2009-07-08.  Also available here [14]
  • — (1876). The Spiritualists and the Detectives. New York: G. W. Dillingham Co. Retrieved 2009-07-08. 
  • — (1877). The Molly Maguires and the Detectives, 1905 ed.. New York: G. W. Dillingham Co. Retrieved 2009-07-08. 
  • — (1878). Strikers, Communists, Tramps and Detectives. New York: G. W. Dillingham Co. Retrieved 2009-07-08. 
  • — (1878). Criminal Reminiscences and Detective Sketches. New York: G. W. Dillingham Co. Retrieved 2009-07-08. 
  • — (1879). Mississippi Outlaws and the Detectives, Don Pedro and the Detectives, Poisoner and the Detectives. New York: G. W. Dillingham Co. Retrieved 2009-07-08. 
  • — (1879). The Gypsies and the Detectives. New York: G. W. Dillingham Co. Retrieved 2009-07-08. 
  • — (1880). Bucholz and the Detectives. New York: G. W. Dillingham Co. Retrieved 2009-07-08.  Also available via Project Gutenberg
  • — (1881). The Rail-Road Forger and the Detectives. New York: G. W. Dillingham Co. Retrieved 2009-07-08. 
  • — (1883). The Spy of the Rebellion: Being a True History of the Spy System of the United States Army During the Late Rebellion. Hartford, Conn.: M. A. Winter & Hatch. Retrieved 2009-07-08. 
  • — (1884). A Double Life and the Detectives. New York: G. W. Dillingham Co. Retrieved 2009-07-08. 
  • — (1886). Professional Thieves and the Detective: Containing Numerous Detective Sketches Collected From Private Records. New York: G. W. Dillingham Co. Retrieved 2009-07-08. 
  • — (1886). A Life for a Life: Or, The Detective's Triumph.  
  • — (1892). Cornered at Last: A Detective Story. 
  • — (1900). Thirty Years a Detective: A Thorough and Comprehensive Expose of Criminal Practices of all Grades and Classes. New York: G. W. Dillingham Co. Retrieved 2009-07-08. 
  • — (1900). The Model Town and the Detectives, Byron as a Detective. New York: G. W. Dillingham Co. Retrieved 2009-07-08. 

See also


  1. ^ Encyclopedia Britannica
  2. ^ ScotlandsPeople OPR Banns & Marriages Record 644/001 0420 0539
  3. ^ a b Horan, James D. (1969) [First published 1967]. "Chapter 1: Glasgow 1819-1842". The Pinkertons: The Detective Dynasty That Made History. New York, USA: Crown Publishers. p. 13. 
  4. ^ Horan, James D. (1969) [First published 1967]. "Chapter 3: The Frontier Abolitionist and the Move to Chicago". The Pinkertons: The Detective Dynasty That Made History. New York, USA: Crown Publishers. p. 19. 
  5. ^ Stiles, T. J. Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War. 
  6. ^ Allan Pinkerton: The First Private Eye. James Mackay Review author[s]: Stephen H. Norwood, The Journal of American History, Vol. 85, No. 3. (December, 1998), pp. 1106-1107.
  7. ^ Lanis, Edward Stanley. Allan Pinkerton and the private detective institution (M.S. Thesis 1949). p.170, University of Wisconsin, Madison.
  8. ^ Allan Pinkerton at Find a Grave
  9. ^ "Allan J. Pinkerton". Retrieved 2011-12-28. 
  10. ^ Criminal justice - Joel Samaha - Google Books. 2005-06-17. Retrieved 2011-12-28. 
  11. ^ "Detective Allan Pinkerton Was Born in Glasgow, Scotland". Retrieved 2011-12-28. 
  12. ^ "The Pinkertons, March 20, 1956".  
  13. ^ "Wright American Fiction, 1851-1875". Retrieved 2011-12-28. 
  14. ^ "Wright American Fiction, 1851-1875". Retrieved 2011-12-28. 

External links

  • University of Chicago's library database
  • University of Toronto's library database
  • Detailed profile of Pinkerton
  • Allan Pinkerton, in The Scotsman's Great Scots series
  • A Brief History of the Pinkertons
  • Allan Pinkerton Books at Project Gutenberg
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