2 minute read

Allan Pinkerton

Private Eye

Pinkerton was assigned by Lincoln to spy on Confederate (Southern) troops during the war, and in 1865, Pinkerton returned from his service and resumed leadership of his agency. The agency profited from the war but saw opportunities multiply in peacetime. He opened branches in New York City and Philadelphia while expanding the agency's role internationally. Under extradition treaties (international agreements to return wanted criminals) he returned criminals who fled their countries to avoid prosecution. The Pinkerton agency was well known for its pursuit of the Jessie James gang (notorious bank and train robbers) and other infamous criminals from 1867 through 1875.

The agency was also assuming another new role, policing labor disputes between management and the new unions forming in America. As a new company Pinkerton began by policing railroads, but over the next two decades he became involved in policing labor union strikes for industry. The Pinks intervened in some seventy strikes, often with violent consequences and bad publicity. Pinkerton was accused of being antiunion. The agency had a leading role in breaking up the Molly Maguires, an often violent laborers group (see sidebar).

Pinkerton worked hard to promote the role of the detective as a high and honorable calling. He wrote numerous books on detection that gave accounts of skilled investigators who were pure and above reproach. His company's advertising stated that he would only take on such business as was strictly legitimate and that would bring criminals to justice. A fee structure was established and work for posted rewards was forbidden. Employees followed a code of conduct for habits and dress that were meant to mirror the respectable businesses they served.

On the facade (outside front wall) of his three-story Chicago headquarters was the company slogan, "We Never Sleep." Above the words was a wide-awake human eye in black and white. The trademark became known as "The Eye." Over time the general public called private detectives "private eyes." Allan Pinkerton hired the first female detective in America. He also called his employees "operatives" as an early means of separating them from corrupt practices associated with other detectives.

Pinkerton pioneered the use of wanted posters of the criminals his agency was seeking. The posters included names, aliases, physical features, and reward information along with photographs. Pinkerton worked in the field himself throughout his career, often in disguise. He maintained a large collection of costumes and wigs in his office to assume the appearance of any occupation that might be needed in a case.

Pinkerton suffered a paralyzing stroke in 1868 and withdrew from daily operations at the agency. He continued to write his memoirs, although a major fire in Chicago in 1871 destroyed much of the city's business district and burned most of his records. Pinkerton died in 1884 and was buried in the family plot at Graceland Cemetery, Chicago. His sons, William and Robert, took over and expanded the agency after his death. The trademark name Pinkerton was still in use in the early twenty-first century as a brand name for security services.

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