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Allan Pinkerton

America's Scotland Yard

While working for the Illinois Central Railroad, Pinkerton became acquainted with the firm's young attorney, Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65). When Lincoln became president-elect in 1861, Pinkerton uncovered a plot to assassinate him when his train stopped at Baltimore on its way to Washington, D.C., for the inauguration. Pinkerton approached Lincoln's aides and personally arranged to bring the presidential party secretly to the capital by way of Maryland.

The Pinkerton National Detective Agency's capture record of criminals filled the newspapers and made Allan Pinkerton an internationally famous private detective. English journalists referred to the agency as "America's Scotland Yard" named after their own famous public detective agency. Pinkerton's protective methods were so successful that many criminals hesitated to rob a company that had been placed in the care of The Pinks. This reputation led to increased business for the agency and its chief, known as "the Principal."

When the American Civil War broke out Pinkerton was appointed head of the first secret service in America. He used his spy system to gather intelligence from his base in Virginia under the pseudonym (a made-up name) Major E. J. Allen. His operatives provided information to Washington from behind enemy lines in the South and also detected counterespionage activities treasonable to the Union in the North.

The Molly Maguires

The year Allan Pinkerton left Scotland was the same year a secret society called the Molly Maguires was being organized in Ireland. Composed of laborers, it was formed to protect the peasantry from abuse by agents of wealthy landlords. They were known to use violence and sabotage. The name Molly Maguires came from their use of women's clothing as a disguise when hiding from law enforcement.

When a similar group of Irishmen organized into a union in the coal-mining districts of Pennsylvania in 1854, the press and police applied the name Molly Maguires to the American miners. Although no connection existed between the two societies, calling anyone who was for unions a "Molly" labeled them as a lawless element. As a result, uprisings were briefly subdued in the workplace. By 1875, however, the society had become a fraternity used to dominate miners' organizations and intimidate owners.

Ultimately, their activity led to a forced general strike. Contracted killings regularly occurred in order to rid the region of any mine superintendents, bosses, and police who opposed members of the order. Assasassins were always brought in from another district, so they would not be recognized. This pattern made it difficult to produce a case against the Molly Maguires. Originally intended to improve working conditions and secure fair wages, the union was soon responsible for blowing up mines, wrecking trains, setting fires, and looting company stores, in addition to murder.

After repeated attempts to bring the offenders to justice failed, the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company brought in Pinkerton. The agency decided to use an undercover agent, and in the fall of 1873 operative James McParland was assigned to infiltrate the Mollys. Posing as James McKenna, a fugitive from a murder charge in Buffalo, McParland soon made his mark in the Irish community of the coalfields.

By the spring of 1874 McParland was inducted into the secret society and continued sending reports to the Pinkerton office about labor conditions in the field for another year. McParland needed to gather enough evidence of crimes committed to stand up in a court of law. His work ultimately resulted in the conviction and execution of several union leaders, although his report charged that the company was largely responsible for the explosive situation in the coal-mining districts.

Pinkerton was a committed abolitionist (one who opposes slavery) who considered slavery to be a terrible crime that had to be eliminated, though he stopped short of an armed rebellion that was advocated and later carried out by abolitionist and friend John Brown (1800–1859). Because of the Fugitive Slave Law that required runaway slaves be returned to their masters, Pinkerton operated on two sides of the law in what he considered a clear-cut issue.

When Pinkerton first settled in the United States his cooperage in Dundee became a station on the Underground Railroad. It provided aid to slaves escaping from the South to Canada. Besides food, shelter, and clothing, Pinkerton taught them barrel making and carpentry skills whenever possible so they could earn a living as free men. Pinkerton's participation increased in Chicago where his friend, John Brown, and others would protect liberated slaves before they boarded lake steamers for Canada.

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