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Allan Pinkerton's Detective Agency

Updated on January 22, 2014

Allan Pinkerton 1819 – 1884

Scottish Barrel Maker

When Allan Pinkerton, a simple Scottish barrel maker, immigrated to America in 1850 he had no inkling he would soon be thrust into national limelight. He was destined to become the head of one of the most important, largest crime detection and law enforcement groups in the United States.

Pinkerton settled near Chicago, Illinois and found employment in his chosen profession at Lill’s Brewery. However, he soon found he could make more money working independently. So, he moved his family to the small town of Dundee about forty miles from Chicago and set up a small barrel making business. It wasn’t long before he took the lions’ share of business with his products’ superior quality and low prices.

Pinkerton was not only a shrewd businessman, but also knew he could obtain construction materials on his own without paying someone else for poles to make barrel hoops.

He located a small deserted island in the middle of the Fox River and decided to cut down his own supply. When he rowed out to the island it was obvious someone had been there. At the time, counterfeiters had been operating in the area and Pinkerton suspected the island might be their hideout.

Allan Pinkerton, President Lincoln and Major General John A. McClernand 1862
Allan Pinkerton, President Lincoln and Major General John A. McClernand 1862

Pinkerton Logo

The Counterfeiters

He immediately notified the local sheriff of his suspicions and the two staked out the island. Pinkerton’s intuition had been correct and they soon arrested the gang, minus their ringleader. Pinkerton quickly tracked him down, as well. It was apparent, Pinkerton was a natural.

Pinkerton’s little excursion into the world of crime fighting eventually led to an appointment as a deputy sheriff for Kane County. And in 1850 he became Chicago’s first police detective. Later that year, he, branched out with Chicago attorney, Edward Rucker and established the North-Western Police Agency.

When their business failed a year after it was formed, Pinkerton joined his brother Robert in his already established business "Pinkerton & Co." The name was changed to the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Their company offered a variety of detective services, from private military contractors to security guards. However, their specialty was capturing counterfeiters and train robbers.

Although there were other detective agencies at the time, most had questionable reputations. The Pinkerton Agency made the business respectable. They were the first to set uniform fees and policies which quickly set them a notch above their competition.

Lincoln Assassination Plot

Robert Pinkerton had earlier acquired several contracts with Wells Fargo providing guards on their stage lines. The business thrived and the two entrepreneurs began hiring detectives and guards to fill the demand for railroad and stage positions.

In 1861, the company gained national recognition when the agency uncovered an assassination plot against Abraham Lincoln. The conspirators intended to kill Lincoln in Baltimore during a stopover on his way to be inaugurated. However, with this new information the itinerary was changed.

Lincoln was duly impressed with the Pinkerton’s efficiency and later during the Civil War hired the Agency as a "secret service” to spy on the Confederates. They sometimes also served as his bodyguard. Due to the clandestine nature of the position Pinkerton assumed the alias "Major E.J. Allen."

Following the war, Pinkerton resumed his duties at the detective agency. However, the scope of their enterprise had changed somewhat. They were now often hired by the government to perform many duties now regularly assigned to the Secret Service, FBI and CIA.

The agency, still playing an active role with train and stage lines, were instrumental in tracking down many notorious outlaws. To name a few: Jesse James, the Reno Brothers and Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch. Pinkerton agents were sometimes called "Pinks" by outlaws.

Not so well known is their logo, a black and white eye, claiming "We Never Sleep,” was where the term "private eye” came from.

However, fate was soon to visit their flourishing business. Robert Pinkerton died in 1868 and Allan took over the agency.

And just a year later, in the autumn of 1869, Allan suffered a paralyzing stroke. Both Robert and Allan’s sons assumed responsibilities of the business. However, the two didn’t get along very well. Without proper leadership the agency began to suffer financially.

Regardless, by the early 1870s, Pinkerton had the world's largest collection of mug shots and criminal records. Pinkerton was the largest private law enforcement organization in the world during its heyday. The detective agency had more agents than the United States Army. Fearing the possibility of its’ being hired out as a "private army" or militia, the state of Ohio outlawed the agency.

In 1871, the Great Fire of Chicago destroyed the entire business district including the Pinkerton office buildings along with many of their records.

Allan passed away in 1884 and the agency was inherited by his sons, Robert and William. They soon became involved in the labor unrest of the late 19th century being employed as guards in coal, iron, and lumber disputes in Illinois, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania. They also participated in the Great Railroad Strike in 1877.

However, without Allan’s guiding hand at the helm, the agencies excellent reputation became tarnished. The detectives were often accused of becoming the law by using heavy handed tactics. It was said they were responsible for firebombing Jesse James mother’s home and intimidating union activists.

Labor sympathizers also charged the Pinkerton’s with starting riots to boost business. Perhaps the best example was the Homestead Strike of 1892. Pinkerton agents killed 11 people while enforcing strikebreaking measures. It took two brigades of state militia to restore order.

In 1907, the agency was inherited by the founder’s grandson, Allan Pinkerton II. And his great-grandson, Robert II took the reins in 1930. When Robert Pinkerton II died in 1967 without a male heir, family control of the agency ended.

Today, Pinkerton’s Inc. has grown to a $1.5 billion organization providing a wide range of security services and operates as Pinkerton Consulting and Investigations. The company has its U.S. headquarters in Parsippany, New Jersey, and is a subsidiary of the Securitas Group of Stockholm, Sweden.

For further information on the Pinkerton Agency go to:


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    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Thanks for reading and support!

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image

      Jill Spencer 6 years ago from United States

      Enjoyed learning about the agency's humble beginnings. Although I knew about its Civil War work and unsavory (to my mind) involvement in the coal mining wars, I had know idea how it came to be. Another great informative read! Thanks.

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      You are quite welcome.

    • Phillbert profile image

      Phillip Drayer Duncan 6 years ago from The Ozarks

      A very interesting and well written history lesson! I enjoyed reading this ! Thank you!