Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Allan Pinkerton and His Detective Agency: We Never Sleep

Roots of a Detective

"Human thought is the process by which human ends are ultimately answered."

Daniel Webster

Allan Pinkerton, Scots born, is nevertheless a man of America, one of the USA's greatest historical assets. Of his contributions, biographer Sigmund A. Lavine writes, "A man of great power of observation and courage, (Pinkerton) prevented an assassination attempt on Abraham Lincoln; organized the first official Secret Service for duty behind Confederate lines during the War Between the States; and rode with lawmen along the Old Frontier, hunting down members of Jesse James' gang, the Reno brothers and other desperadoes."

Studying Allan Pinkerton's achievements and those of the organization he shaped from its birth, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, is actually studying the history of the growth of America during its last century and a half. The man himself crossed paths with many of the greatest figures this nation has known; he made an impression on each of their lives and, without a doubt, changed the course of American History as we know it.

At a time when the nation's towns and cities even the largest ones possessed unqualified law enforcement bureaus, Pinkerton's agents took on the most difficult assignments; cases ranged from financial and property thefts to government overthrows to murder. And the agents always got their man (and woman).

Of the subject, James Horan in Desperate Men records, "Allan Pinkerton was well known to the members of the 19th Century underworld. They knew he was incorruptible and so was his agency. They were also well acquainted with Pinkerton's tenacity; if necessary he would chase you to the end of the earth."

Adds Time-Life Books' anthological The Wild West, "So effective were agents' methods that when the government formed the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1908, it used Pinkerton's agency as its model."

This year, 2000, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, still thriving, celebrates its 150 years of service. In May, to commemorate the occasion, it donated a vast archive of material to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.

"Among the archive's contents," reads a press release, "are rare and once-secret files, photographs, drawings and documents on Jesse James, the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, the Missouri Kid and Butch Cassidy. The archives document the history of the nation's early law enforcement. They also document the history of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, founded in 1850."


It isn't surprising that the man who was to become America's greatest detective and one of the world's most notable sleuths was born to a family whose patriarch was a policeman. William Pinkerton, a police sergeant in Glasgow, Scotland, first heard the squeals on his newborn son on August 25, 1819.

At an early age, the boy Allan Pinkerton showed a thirst for adventure that didn't always sit well with his father or his mother, Isabell. Bright and energetic, he often avoided his schoolwork to wander off for days hunting in the forests north of Glasgow or fishing in the Clyde River. During a political riot, which broke out in a city square, the elder Pinkerton was killed, leaving the family fatherless. Young Allan left school and went to work, first as a runner for a pattern maker, then as an apprentice in the McCauley Cooperage Works, barrelmakers. He became one of their sharpest craftsmen, often making suggestions to improve both the quality and delivery of the stock.

Restless, Pinkerton joined a revolutionary group known as the Chartists, demanding bottom-up voice in the government. The United Kingdom, however, chagrined at this rabble that dared suggest changes in the Peoples Charter. The constabulary's underground sources quickly identified some of the more vocal and active participants, including one carrot-topped 22-year-old cooper named Allan Pinkerton.

Having been promoted to supervisor at the works, and now earning a salary to afford a wife, Pinkerton wed Edinburgh native Joan Carfrae on March 13, 1842. But, their plans to spend a romantic honeymoon in a country inn were dashed when a friend of the groom rushed in immediately after the religious nuptials to warn of a company of soldiers marching that way to arrest Allan. The next morning the new Mr. & Mrs. Pinkerton were on board a sailing vessel headed for the English-speaking New World.

For the most part, the voyage was pleasant that is, until the ship encountered high gales as it neared its destination, Halifax, Canada. The steersmen were unable to keep their course against the turbulence and rocked off course nearly two hundred miles, still caught in the whirlpool of a coastal storm. Lost from direction and bounced atop the waves like a feather, the ship at last floundered, rammed on a reef beyond the beaches of Nova Scotia. Pinkerton and his wife, as did most of the other seaward passengers, lost everything they had in the submerged hold. All that the newlyweds owned were the clothes on their backs and a few pieces of silver in Allan's vest pocket.

There was one possession, however, that Joan cherished most of all, her wedding ring. But, that too was quickly removed from her person when the survivors of the shipwreck finally made their way to shore. Wet, tired, black-and-blue from the pounding they took on the surf, they collapsed on the beachhead only to be immediately surrounded by Indians who demanded their trinkets. One savage spotted the gleaming silver band on Mrs. Pinkerton's finger and insisted that she hand it over. Even though outflanked, her husband wanted to fight until a more practical-minded sea captain convinced him that it was better to lose the ring than his life.

It was aboard a rescue ship that retrieved the stranded passengers that Pinkerton resolved to settle in the United States, instead of where he originally intended, Quebec. Passing down the St. Lawrence Seaway, which separated the Dominion of Canada from the U.S., he heard marvels of a town called Chicago that sat on the western edge of Lake Michigan and on the eastern fringe of the frontier. Spreading out by leaps and bounds, the settlement there was quickly becoming a city that, in its sudden growth, yearned for craftsmen of all kinds; Pinkerton believed that a barrelmaker might do just fine in a city at a time when most [everything] from tools to clothing to food to medicinals was transported by barrels.

Allan & Joan Pinkerton later in life (Pinkertons Inc.)
Allan & Joan Pinkerton later in
life (Pinkertons Inc.)

The couple disembarked above Detroit, Michigan. There, they bought a wagon and horse, some cooking utensils, dried meats and headed west in an arc above Lake Michigan to Chicago. For shelter, they stayed in kind farmers' barns they had no money for lodging and, when their food had dissipated, lived off the fat of the land. Reaching Chicago, Pinkerton sold the horse and wagon for lodging in a hotel near the lakefront, not far from the walls of the stockade of Fort Dearborn, where Chicago had begun.

Chicago proved to be exactly what rumors had claimed not a pretty place of rutted streets and many quickly-jacked storefronts of unmatching lumber, but bustling nonetheless. From the lake, the town was reaching west into the prairie where, less than a decade ago, only wild-grass grew and skunks roamed. Falling in with a group of fellow Scotsmen, Pinkerton learned that Lill's Brewery in the downtown area was hiring barrelmakers. Pinkerton went to work and soon received his first American paycheck.

Lill's provided the Pinkertons with a stability that they hoped for, enough money to live decently and have a little left over for recreation on the side. The winters were harsh, what with snowfalls unlike anything they had ever encountered in Scotland, but life overall was fine. However, Allan Pinkerton, with a mind that worked like a machine driven by an endless generator, once again grew restless. He wanted to own his own shop.

He had heard that a small Scots-heavy town called Dundee, forty miles from Chicago, served the mercantile needs of the vast farming community there but it lacked a cooperage. And the local growers were complaining of paying high shipping prices for barrels out of Chicago. Envisioning the possibilities of monopolizing barrel manufacturing for the entire region while giving the people what they required, he once again packed part and parcel and opened a small shop on the banks of the Fox River, one of the portage waterways that led to Chicago. His shingle boasted, but honestly, the name: Pinkerton's One and Original Cooperage of Dundee.

Little did he know he was about to change careers and set the pace for the remainder of his life.

Business prospered. From a one-man workroom it enlarged to a large spacious plant in no time; within short term, he had ten craftsmen working for him twelve hours six days a week. Demand for barrels was more than even Pinkerton had anticipated, but he kept pace. In their new neighborhood the county farmers found an honest man who delivered what he promised on time, produced top-rate products and charged them much lower per-barrel than the Chicago firms. As well, he would never press them for payment at low-crop seasons. Often, he would accept produce in exchange, figuring that it saved him and his wife a trip to the general markets for sustenance.

Pinkerton soon found himself a father. A son, William, named after his father, was born in 1846. Two others followed soon after, twins, Robert and Joan.

Wanting to keep costs at minimum, Pinkerton devised cheaper ways to move the assembly line without cutting quality. "Thrifty by nature, (Pinkerton) saw no reason to buy poles to make barrel hoops when they could be had for nothing," explains Sigmund A. Lavine's Allan Pinkerton America's First Private Eye. "So one day he left the shop in charge of his foreman and rowed out to an island in the middle of the river to cut down a supply of his own. It was commonly supposed in Dundee that the island was uninhabited, but Pinkerton, a most observant individual, noticed that the grass and bushes were bent back, making a path from the shore. Curious, he followed it, and in a thick stand of trees found a campsite that appeared to be used quite frequently."

When he returned, he told Sheriff Yates of his discovery. He knew that the lawmen in the county had been unable to pinpoint a band of roving counterfeiters who had been spreading reproduced bills of note throughout northern Illinois. While the bills were most likely made elsewhere, the sheriff had believed a cache of the fakes was hidden in the vicinity of Dundee. Several men were suspected of the forgeries, but as the counterfeit money had not been found on them or in their residences, an arrest was impossible. Pinkerton deduced the island was an ideal place to hide the money so obvious that it was overlooked.

For nearly a week, Pinkerton and Yates paddled to the island to crouch in the flora, waiting to see what monkey business transpired, and with whom. The wait was not long. On the fifth evening, a splash of torchlight pricked the darkness coming from a path deep-set into the island, followed by a low murmur, then a brush of movement that rippled the bushes. A parade of men emerged, nigh a dozen, filthy as if they had been digging; some carried spades, others full, bulging flour sacks.

Thrusting their shotguns before them, Sheriff Yates and the deputized Pinkerton appeared from their concealment to arrest the stunned brigade.

The town council was so impressed with businessman Pinkerton's reasoning and with his coolness in the face of danger (as Yates had related to them) that it asked him to help them uncover the leader of the local counterfeit ring; they suspected it was shady landowner Crane. Yates told Pinkerton that a dapper, elderly man would occasionally ride into town from parts unknown and meet with certain suspects at Crane's home at the edge of town. Since that man had again come to Dundee, the council wondered: Could the discreet Pinkerton follow this man to see where he goes, to whom he talks? And possibly, if the situation presented itself, offer to buy some of his bills as proof?

Pinkerton, unsure of his own investigative ability at that point, hesitated. He eventually agreed. The council handed him $125 with which to purchase some of the bad bonds it was a huge sum for that time upon assurance that Pinkerton would notify Yates immediately.

Once he took the assignment, Pinkerton decided to carry it a step further. Striking up communication in a saloon, Pinkerton learned the visitor's name was John Craig, from Vermont. After a round of rum, he drew the man aside. "Crane's slipping up," he told Craig, watching his reaction, "He's getting too old for this job, his men having been arrested and all. I'm taking over."

"I don't know you who are you?"

"I'm good for my money," said Pinkerton, flashing a wad of money in his hand.

"You're willing to start off with a $1,000 at 25 cents on the dollar?" Craig asked.

"Actually, I want $4,000 worth," Pinkerton tempted. "Ask any one in town and they'll vouch for me. Here's $125 up front to demonstrate my sincerity. Consider it down payment."

"Why not just pay it all now, I can give you what you need right away."

"I need time to raise capital from, investors. Besides," Pinkerton quietly glanced all whichways, "could be I'm being watched. Let me come to your place to transact business."

 Craig deliberated, then announced, "All right. You bring the rest to the Sauganash Hotel in Chicago next Thursday noon, and it's a deal."

The men shook hands and parted.

Council members were furious that Pinkerton had turned over their $125 to a man he let ride out of town. But, Pinkerton hushed them explaining he had good motive: "Since we've already surfaced Crane as the local forger, I figured why not discover at the same time where his Midwest headquarters were. And when he's arrested there, you can be sure his friends will be watching. Seeing him taken, I am sure, will send his accomplices in Chicago running for the hills."

Aligned with Chicago authorities, Pinkerton set up the sting. While two plainclothesmen watched from the side, Pinkerton entered the dingily lit hotel bar, taking a seat at Craig's table. As the deal was being cut, the police swung out to grab Craig by his shoulders. "You're under arrest!" one shouted. The barroom fell silent and many patrons' faces glared guilty, Pinkerton thought. He was certain that counterfeit money would disappear in the Midwest, at least for a season. He was correct.

The Cook County Sheriff was so impressed with this quick-thinking barrelmaker (who seemed to be in the wrong business) that he offered Pinkerton a full-time job on his staff as investigator. Having felt good about what he'd done, enjoying the glow it gave him, Pinkerton accepted.

Pinkerton astride his favorite horse (National Archives)
Pinkerton astride his favorite
horse (National Archives)

With his family, he relocated back to Chicago, no longer to produce barrels but to defend the law of his new country that so far had treated the Pinkertons damned well. Before the year 1848 would end, he would accrue the highest number of arrests for burglaries and murders than any of the other more experienced police on Chicago's squad roll.


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