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  Allan Pinkerton (1819–1884), by Alexander Gardner, 1862 Allan Pinkerton (1819–1884), by Alexander Gardner, 1862
Pinkerton, Allan (1819–1884), private detective, was born on 21 July 1819 in a tenement flat in Muirhead Street, the Gorbals, Glasgow, eldest son of William Pinkerton (1767–1827/1828?), a former hand-loom weaver who worked in Glasgow city gaol, and Isabella McQueen (1779?–1854), a spinning-mill worker. He had three brothers, four elder half-brothers, and three elder half-sisters. Although christened by a Baptist minister in the Gorbals (25 August 1819), he had a churchless upbringing and was a lifelong atheist. His schooling ended at the age of about eight when his father died. A pattern-making shop in the Gorbals provided his first job. Living with his mother, to whom he was devoted, he endured extreme poverty in boyhood before working as a tramp cooper making barrels, kegs, and casks (1837–8).

Pinkerton became an ardent Chartist in 1839, and was nominated as the Glasgow coopers' representative at the Chartist convention in Birmingham. He participated in the Chartist march on Monmouth Castle in 1839 and advocated force to obtain their objectives. When young his qualities included energy, muscularity, earnestness, and ambition; less prepossessingly, he was also narrow, opinionated, violent, and puritanical. His chief pleasure in this period was as a member of singing clubs. The drunken degradation of the Gorbals made him a convinced teetotaller (although later, when working under cover, he necessarily broke this rule).

When a police warrant was issued for Pinkerton's arrest as a Chartist he went into hiding. Shortly afterwards, on 13 March 1842, he married, in Glasgow Cathedral, Joan Carfrae (1827–1886), a bookbinder's apprentice, daughter of John Carfrae, of Neilston, Paisley. His wife was aged just fifteen at the time of the marriage, although she claimed to be eighteen. They had two sons, William (1846–1923) and Robert (1848–1907), who both followed their father into Pinkerton's Agency, and four daughters (three of whom died young). Working his passage as a ship's cooper, Pinkerton crossed the Atlantic with his bride and was wrecked off Nova Scotia (April 1842). In 1843 he built a cabin in the small Scottish settlement of Dundee, 50 miles north-east of Chicago, and set up as a cooper. He was an archetypal barefoot immigrant.

While collecting lumber for his cooperage in 1847 Pinkerton discovered the hide-out of a gang of counterfeiters and horse thieves. Together with the sheriff, he led a posse which captured the malefactors. After this incident he was asked by a shopkeeper to ensnare a man circulating forged banknotes, and became deputy sheriff of Kane county. His forthright advocacy of the abolition of slavery made him unpopular, and he was tried for atheism by the Baptist church in Dundee. As a result, about 1848, he left to become a deputy to the sheriff of Cook county. In 1849 he was appointed by the mayor as the first detective in Chicago, but resigned after a year because of political interference. He was next appointed as special United States mail agent to solve post-office thefts and robberies in Chicago.

Pinkerton formed the North-Western Police Agency, soon better known as Pinkerton's Agency, for the purpose of conducting detective work in Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana (initially in partnership with a local attorney). The date of 1850, usually given for the agency's foundation, may be too early. Pinkerton's private police force could pursue criminals across local or state boundaries more effectively than bounty hunters, marshals, sheriffs, and deputies in country districts, and was both better resourced and less corruptible than city police departments. He recruited an extensive staff to protect property, pursue criminals, trace missing persons, and investigate crimes including murder. He always refused divorce work and investigations of sexual conduct. Employing both uniformed guards and undercover detectives (whom he tutored in disguises and techniques such as shadowing), he was a strict disciplinarian. He was a tenacious detective with organizational talents and a mastery of detail. As early as the 1850s he began accumulating photographs of miscreants; this rogues' gallery was imitated by other police forces. By 1854 Pinkerton had a contract to guard the rolling-stock of the Illinois Central Railway with a yearly retainer of $10,000, and his business soon prospered far beyond the mid-western states. Offices were opened in New York (1866) and Philadelphia (1867).

Pinkerton was a convinced abolitionist who befriended John Brown and aided the escape of fugitive slaves. As a sequel to his employment by the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railway to investigate threats against its property by Southern sympathizers, he and his informants protected Abraham Lincoln from a Baltimore assassination plot in April 1861. After the outbreak of the American Civil War he organized a secret service department for the Union army, sending scouts to the enemy lines and spies behind those lines. Although he helped to break a Confederate spy ring in Washington, DC, in 1861–2, he was less competent at military intelligence than in detective work. He adulated both Lincoln and General George B. McClellan, the chief engineer of the Illinois Central Railway, who became a major-general in the Union army.

Pinkerton was involved in combating new forms of criminal activity after the civil war: the Reno gang from Indiana, shortly followed by Jesse James's gang from Missouri, inaugurated the armed hold-up of trains in 1866; wire-tapping of telegraphic lines, whether to manipulate the New York stock market or for other motives, became common. Perhaps his most sensational achievement was his remorseless hunting down of the thieves who stole $700,000 from a secure railroad car of the Adams Express Company travelling from New York to Boston in 1866. In 1869 Pinkerton suffered a paralytic stroke which left him unable to talk until 1871. His mobility was also destroyed, but with agonizing perseverance he gradually resumed walking, though he was henceforth crippled down one side of his body. In 1873–7 his agency was involved in Philadelphian mining districts combating the lawless and intimidatory Irish-American militants known as Molly Maguires.

Eugene Aram (1832) by Edward Bulwer-Lytton was, so Pinkerton averred, the greatest novel in history; this romantic tale of human frailty, murder, remorse, and incrimination satisfied the great detective's imaginative needs in frequent rereadings. He himself gave his name to eighteen volumes of detective memoirs which popularized the Pinkerton's man as a familiar figure of American culture. These were mostly ghosted, often unreliably, and were usually lurid and melodramatic. The earliest were The Bankers, their Vaults and the Burglars (1873) and The Expressman and the Detective (1874). The Molly Maguires and the Detective (1877) and The Spy of the Rebellion (1883) are reasonably trustworthy; Strikers, Communists, Tramps and Detectives (1878) is of atmospheric interest, while others such as Professional Thieves and Detectives (1890) are thoroughly unreliable. The slogan of Pinkerton's Agency was ‘the eye that never sleeps’: Allan Pinkerton came to be known as ‘Eye’, and from this sobriquet derives the phrase ‘private eye’.

About 1871 Pinkerton acquired a country property near Onarga in Illinois. Importing a shipload of larch trees from his native Scotland, he named his house The Larches, and laid out a model estate where he entertained millionaires and politicians. Self-willed, stubborn, domineering, and bombastic, his tendencies to self-pity and pettiness were aggravated by his long years as an invalid. After 1881 he suffered further strokes. He died of gangrene and septicaemia, having bitten his tongue in a fall, on 1 July 1884, in Chicago, and was buried in Gracelands cemetery, Chicago. His widow died on 13 May 1886.

Richard Davenport-Hines


J. Mackay, Allan Pinkerton: the spy who never slept (1996) · J. D. Horan, The Pinkertons (1970) · N. B. Cuthbert, Lincoln and the Baltimore plot, 1861 (1949) · A. Pinkerton, The Molly Maguires and the detective (1877) · A. Pinkerton, The spy of the rebellion (1883) · R. W. Rowan, The Pinkertons (1931) · m. cert. [Scotland]


Hist. Soc. Penn., corresp. · Hunt. L., record book · L. Cong. · L. Cong., letter-book · L. Cong., Pinkerton's Inc. archives |  Chicago Historical Society, Chicago, Illinois, Joan Pinkerton Chalmers collection; Zebina Eastman MSS · Hist. Soc. Penn., Samuel Morse Felton MSS


photograph, 1860–69 (with Abraham Lincoln), L. Cong. · A. Gardner, photograph, 1862, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, National Portrait Gallery [see illus.] · photographs, repro. in Horan, The Pinkertons, frontispiece · photographs, Chicago Historical Society, Chicago, Illinois