Police Life, Real Life Crime

The Pinkerton Detective Agency

Scottish immigrant, Allan Pinkerton was responsible for starting The Pinkerton Detective Agency in the 1850s. He unintentionally became involved in the search for a gang of counterfeiters, while running a barrel making company, and displayed leadership abilities and a high level of investigative skills. After the arrests, he was offered the position of deputy sheriff for Kane County, eventually becoming the first police detective in Chicago by 1850. That same year, he founded, along with an attorney, Edward Rucker, the North-Western Police Agency. The company proved to be a failure and Pinkerton went on to collaborate with his brother, Robert, forming The Pinkerton National Detective Agency.

The agency quickly became one of the most important law enforcement groups in the country, and operated by its own code. This stated:

  • Accept no brides
  • Never compromise with criminals
  • Partner with local law enforcement agencies
  • Refuse divorce cases or cases that initiate scandals
  • Turn down reward money
  • Never raise fees without the client’s pre-knowledge
  • Keep clients appraised on an ongoing basis

The logo, a black and white eye with the words ‘We Never Sleep,’ was also visible on the front of their Chicago building. This became the origin of the term ‘private eye,’ which many people continue to use to refer to investigators today.

The company began to provide a variety of detective services, such as private military contractors and security guards, but specialised in capturing train robbers and counterfeiters. Their respect continued to grow, as a result of their ethical practices and efficiency. In 1861, during the investigation of a train robbery, Pinkerton uncovered an assassination plot against Abraham Lincoln. The conspirators had planned to kill the president at a stop along the route to his first inauguration. The warning allowed the designated journey to be changed, saving Lincoln’s life, and beginning an important professional relationship.

During The Civil War, President Lincoln hired the agency to form a ‘secret service,’ which acted as his bodyguard and obtained information about the confederates. Allan Pinkerton, travelling under the alias ‘Major E.J. Allen,’ personally led the effort. After the war, the government continued to hire the agency to provide many of the services that are now the responsibility of the Secret Service, FBI and CIA. The company also continued to provide their services to railroads and stage companies, as well as playing an important role in the capture of several outlaws, including Jesse James, Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch.

Their investigations led to the company’s employees cutting out newspaper clippings, and gathering other information. This collection of mug shots became the first criminal database in the United States. The agency was passed down to Allan Pinkerton’s sons, Robert and William, after his death, and by the 1890s it was at the height of its existence. There were 2000 full-time agents, and 30,000 reserves. This caused Ohio to outlaw the hiring of The Pinkerton National Detective Agency, because of the fear that it could be hired as a private army. The company is now worth over 1.5 billion dollars, and continues to provide many security services within the country. It is also a worldwide leader in corporate risk management solutions, operating in over 100 countries.

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