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Allan Pinkerton
File:Allan Pinkerton-retouch.jpg
Head-and-shoulders portrait of Allan Pinkerton.
Born 21 July 1819(1819-07-21)
Glasgow, Scotland
Died 1 July 1884 (aged 64)
Chicago, Illinois
Resting place Graceland Cemetery, Chicago
Nationality Scottish
Occupation Detective and spy
Known for Creating the Pinkerton Agency
File:Pinkerton allan late harpers.jpg

Portrait of Allan Pinkerton from Harper's Weekly, 1884.

Allan Pinkerton (21 July 1819 – 1 July 1884) was a Scottish American detective and spy, best known for creating the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, the first detective agency of the United States.

Early life, career and immigration[]

Pinkerton was born in Gorbals Glasgow, Scotland, to William Pinkerton and his wife, Isobel McQueen, on 21 July 1819.[1] The location of the house where he was born is now occupied by the Glasgow Central Mosque. A cooper by trade, he was active in the British Chartist movement as a young man. Pinkerton married Joan Carfrae (a singer) in Glasgow on 13 March 1842 [2] secretly before moving to America. Disillusioned by the failure to win suffrage, Pinkerton emigrated to the United States in 1842, at the age of 23.

In 1849 Pinkerton was appointed as the first detective in Chicago. In the 1850s, he partnered with Chicago attorney Edward Rucker in forming the North-Western Police Agency, later known as the Pinkerton National Detective Agency and still in existence as Pinkerton Consulting and Investigations, a subsidiary of Securitas AB. Pinkerton's business insignia was a wide open eye with the caption "We never sleep." As the United States expanded in territory, rail transportation increased. Pinkerton's agency solved a series of train robberies during the 1850s, first bringing Pinkerton into contact with George McClellan and Abraham Lincoln.

American Civil War[]


Pinkerton (left) with Abraham Lincoln.

Prior to his service with the Union Army, he developed several investigative techniques that are still used today. Among them are "shadowing" (surveillance of a suspect) and "assuming a role" (undercover work). Following the outbreak of the Civil War, Pinkerton served as head of the Union Intelligence Service in 1861–1862 and foiled an alleged assassination plot in Baltimore, Maryland, while guarding Abraham Lincoln on his way to his inauguration. His agents often worked undercover as Confederate soldiers and sympathizers, in an effort to gather military intelligence. Pinkerton served in several undercover missions under the alias of Major E.J. Allen. Pinkerton was succeeded as Intelligence Service chief by Lafayette Baker. The Intelligence Service was the forerunner of the U.S. Secret Service.


Following Pinkerton's service with the Union Army, he continued his pursuit of train robbers, such as the Reno Gang and the famous outlaw Jesse James. He was originally hired by the railroad express companies to track down James, but after failing to capture him, the railroad withdrew their financial support and Pinkerton continued to track James on his own dime. After James allegedly captured and killed one of Pinkerton's young undercover agents, who was foolish enough to gain employment at the farm neighboring the James farmstead, he finally gave up the chase. Some consider this failure Pinkerton's biggest defeat.[3] He also sought to oppose labor unions. In 1872, the Spanish Government hired Pinkerton to help suppress a revolution in Cuba which intended to end slavery and give citizens the right to vote.[4]

In late June 1884 he slipped on a pavement in Chicago, biting his tongue as he did so. He didn't seek treatment and the tongue became infected, leading to his death on 1 July 1884. At the time of his death, he was working on a system that would centralize all criminal identification records, a database now maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.


Pinkerton on horseback on the Antietam Battlefield in 1862.

Pinkerton is buried in Graceland Cemetery, Chicago. He is a member of the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame.


After his death, the agency continued to operate and soon became a major force against the radical labor movement developing in the United States and Canada. This effort changed the image of the Pinkertons for years. They were involved in numerous activities against labor during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including:

  • The Homestead Strike (1891)
  • The Pullman Strike (1894)
  • The Wild Bunch Gang (1896)
  • The Ludlow Massacre (1914)
  • The La Follette Committee (1933–1937)

Many labor sympathizers accused the Pinkertons of inciting riots in order to discredit unions and justify police crackdowns.[citation needed] The Pinkertons' reputation was harmed by their protection of replacement workers ("scabs") and the business property of the major industrialists, including Andrew Carnegie.

Pinkerton was so famous that for decades after his death, his surname was a slang term for a private eye. Due to the Pinkerton Agency's conflicts with labor unions, the word Pinkerton remains in the vocabulary of labor organizers and union members as a derogatory reference to authority figures who side with management.[citation needed]

Pinkerton's exploits were in part the inspiration of the 1961 NBC western television series, Whispering Smith, starring Audie Murphy and Guy Mitchell.


Pinkerton produced numerous popular detective books, ostensibly based on his own exploits and those of his agents. Some were published after his death, and they are considered to have been more motivated by a desire to promote his detective agency than a literary endeavour. Most historians believe that Allan Pinkerton hired ghostwriters, but the books nonetheless bear his name and no doubt reflect his own views.

See also[]


  1. ScotlandsPeople OPR Births & Baptisms Record 644/002 0020 0107
  2. ScotlandsPeople OPR Banns & Marriages Record 644/001 0420 0539
  3. Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War. T. J. Stiles.
  4. Allan Pinkerton: The First Private Eye. James Mackay Review author[s]: Stephen H. Norwood, The Journal of American History, Vol. 85, No. 3. (December, 1998), pp. 1106-1107.

External links[]

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