2 minute read

Allan Pinkerton

Creates Detective Business

While searching for wood to make his barrels, Pinkerton accidentally discovered a counterfeit camp headquarters on an island in the middle of a lake, and quickly arranged for the arrest of the criminals. (Counterfeiting is making a copy of something in order to deceive, and around this time it was so widespread that it was affecting both the local and national economy.) He became a local hero and was sworn in as a deputy sheriff of Kane County, Illinois, in 1846. By 1850 the family moved to Chicago where Pinkerton worked for the local and federal government. The city was booming, with both business and crime flourishing.

When the Cook County police force was reorganized, Pinkerton was appointed their first, and only, detective. He became known to respectable citizens and criminals alike because of the number of arrests he made.

Pinkerton's reputation led to an appointment as special agent for the U.S. Post Office Department investigating fraud, extortion, and blackmail. With his detective work increasing and his own family growing, Pinkerton left the force to organize his own agency, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. His methods focused more on preventing crime rather than responding to it. Within a few years he had eight additional employees.

In the early nineteenth century policing was organized on a county basis. Jurisdictions (areas over which law agencies had authority) did not extend beyond the frontiers of each individual state. At the same time, railroads were rapidly developing and criminals were able to roam vast areas of the country evading law enforcement. The railroads were increasingly vulnerable to the threat of violence towards trains and passengers, as well as their bridges, tracks, and terminals.

Allan Pinkerton, left, standing with President Abraham Lincoln, center. Lincoln became a supporter of Pinkerton and his detective agency after Pinkerton uncovered and thus prevented an assassination plot against the president. (The Library of Congress)

Unlike regular law enforcement, private detectives were able to cross state lines to pursue offenders. By organizing an agency whose operatives could work around boundaries, Pinkerton filled a large gap in law enforcement. Railroads hired Pinkerton to protect their companies from train robbers as well as from dishonest employees who collected fares and freight for their own purposes.

Setting up a spy system (or "testing program" as Pinkerton called it), allowed Pinkerton or one of his agents to board a train posing as a passenger and spy on its workers. For rail companies, such practices gave them control and accountability; for workers, the spying represented deception and mistrust. As Pinkerton's testing program expanded so did the anger of railway workers who organized labor unions to protect themselves.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawAllan Pinkerton - A New Life, Creates Detective Business, America's Scotland Yard, The Molly Maguires