hello world!
hello world!

Fun Fact Friday: From the Streets of Chicago-First American Detective Agency

February 24, 2022

The Pinkerton National Detective Agency (formally known as the North-Western Police Agency) was the first detective agency in the United States. If the name seems familiar, we have discussed some of the work of the agency through Kate Warne's life, but for today's fun fact, let's explore further the life of her employer and head of the Pinkerton Agency, Allan Pinkerton.

Allan Pinkerton was born in Glasgow, Scotland on August 25, 1819. Even though he left school at the young age of 10 after his father's death, he was an avid reader and became a barrel maker apprentice. He was a political activist and member of the Chartist movement, which made him a target from law enforcement as a traitor of Great Britian's Crown for speaking for the rights of the working class. Pinkerton escaped by emigrating to the US in 1842 at approximately 23 years old.

He settled with his wife in a small cabin the woods of Dundee, Illinois as a cooper. Continuing his predisposition for political activism, Allan was a slavery abolitionist, using his home as a stop in the Underground Railroad. One day while searching through the woods for materials for his trade, he stumbled upon a suspicious campsite. He returned later that night to find a suspicious group. Sensing these individuals were up to something, Pinkerton began to track their movements from afar over a period of time. Through his observation skills and keen eye for detail, he discovered the group was a ring of counterfeiters. He reported his findings to the police and the group was sequentially arrested. As a result, he was appointed as the deputy sheriff of Kane County and in 1849 the Chicago police hired him as the first police detective. After a year with the police force, he resigned to become the founder of the North-Western Police Agency, which would eventually become the Pinkerton Agency. The agency specialized in train robberies, counterfeiters, and security services for the government, businesses, and the community, during a time when police forces were unwilling to go outside their jurisdiction or corrupt.

Pinkerton Agency worked several notable cases. In 1861, during the investigation of a railway case, Allan discovered a plot to assassinate president-elect Abraham Lincoln at a railstop on his way to the inauguration in DC. He sent Warne to gather intelligence in the Southern sympathizer's ring, and he notified Lincoln of the plot. After Pinkerton and Warne successfully escaped Lincoln from the assassination attempt, the President hired Pinkerton during the Civil War, to take on the pseudonym of Major E. J. Allen and gather intelligence from the South. The agency captured many notable criminals, including the Reno brothers gang, known as the first organized train robbers in the U.S. They also broke up the Molly McGuire gang, who were Irish terrorists, and pursued Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to South America, where the assailants were eventually killed by local officers. After the Civil War, Pinkerton expanded his agency more nationwide, opening offices in New York City and Philadelphia, rebranding his firm as the National Pinkerton Agency.

Pinkerton continued his work until he died on July 1, 1884, and is buried at Graceland Cementary in Chicago. He was described in his obituary as "a bitter foe to the rogues" for his lifetime of work squashing the most notorious of criminals. After his death, his sons took over the agency. Pinkerton Agency grew as they transitioned to security services, accumulating 2,000 active agents and 30,000 reserves. This caused the state of Ohio to ban the agency in fears of becoming a private army or militia. The Agency's guards and agents were hired by prominent industrialists during the 1892 Homestead Strike to break the riots. Their use of violence to contain the riots was controversial, causing congress to ban their agency from being hired by the government, known as the Anti-Pinkerton act. This early use of security services from the Pinkerton Agency was the predecessor for organizing the United States Secret Service.

Allan Pinkerton's legacy and contributions to the field are still prevalent in modern private investigation. His stories still live on in notoriety, providing inspiration for several private detective and mystery novel series. In response to the Chicago fire that destroyed Pinkerton's documentation in 1871, up until his death he began working on a central system of criminal records. This system is still used as the basis of the database for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Pinkerton National Agency still exists today, now named Pinkerton, located in Ann Arbor, Michigan, under the Securitas AB parent company. They provide security consulting and services for governments and businesses. Pinkerton is proud of their history, donating over 100 boxes of historical archives to the Library of Congress to preserve Allan Pinkerton's work in private investigation.


Sources: Smithsonian: Outlaw Hunters

Library of Congress

Pinkerton: History



Powered by Top Rated Local®