Allan J. Pinkerton

While I've tried to find Officers of the Law that may not be household names (although many of you apparently know your obscure history), I must admit that I have been remiss to not have at least mentioned this month's famous lawman. I dare say that there isn't a law enforcement officer in any country that hasn't heard of the Pinkerton Agency. Pinkerton Consulting & Investigations is still around today, a testament to the strong will of its founder.

Allan J. Pinkerton was born August 25th, 1819 in Glasgow, Scotland to Isabell and William Pinkerton, a policeman. When his father was injured in the line of duty, young Allan worked as an apprentice barrel-maker. Due to his membership in the Chartist movement, a political organization dedicated to universal suffrage and better working conditions for the poor, he was targeted for arrest. Pinkerton eventually fled to Canada in 1942 with his bride Joan. He was 23 years old. When their ship ran aground in Nova Scotia they were left penniless. A Scottish friend offered Pinkerton a position as a cooper (barrel-maker) at Lill's Brewery in Chicago, Illinois. He held this position for a few years before settling in a rural Scottish settlement near Dundee.

This is the point where Allan Pinkerton's life takes an interesting turn. While wandering the forest searching for lumber (remember, he was in need of barrel staves) he ran upon a group of counterfeiters. Pinkerton alerted the local sheriff and accompanied him to make the arrests. After this display of honesty and courage he was enlisted by local merchants to help deter the local counterfeiters. This led to a part-time position as a county deputy.

Deciding that small town politics was getting in the way of his future he moved back to Chicago. His reputation as a stand-up citizen with incorruptible principles resulted in him being hired by the local branch of the Treasury Department to pursue counterfeiters. This led to a position as a "full-time" Cook County Deputy in 1853. I say "full-time" because Pinkerton still worked side-jobs as a freelance detective. Finally, in 1855, he realized the potential in the private work and founded the North-Western Police Agency. This would soon become the Pinkerton National Detective Agency.

Due to lawlessness in the territories, the Pinkerton Agency was called upon to safeguard the interests of the postal service and the railroads as they pushed into the west. This turned out to be very lucrative and was instrumental in the growth of the agency. So thorough were the Pinkerton agents that they developed files on the outlaws and were the first to use photographs to identify criminals. They developed methods of surveillance and even used false identities (undercover work) to infiltrate criminal gangs.

During the Civil War Pinkerton served as the head of the Union Intelligence Service (the forerunner to the United States Secret Service) from 1861-1862. While guarding President Lincoln on the way to his inauguration, he allegedly foiled an assassination plot in Baltimore, Maryland. Pinkerton himself used the alias Major E. J. Allen on several occasions.

Tragically, in June 1884, Pinkerton bit his tongue after tripping in Chicago. He did not seek treatment and eventually died from infection on July 1st, 1884. At the time of his death, he was reportedly working on a centralized system of records for identifying criminals. This database is now maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Perhaps it is fortunate that Allan Pinkerton died when he did. Pinkerton was always a supporter of the individual worker and was probably turning in his grave when his agency became a major force against the labor movement in the United States and Canada. Because the agency was not encumbered by laws of evidence and entrapment, many felt that they worked outside the law. Some even felt that the agency developed into a private army for special interest and the wealthy.

The later years not withstanding, the legacy that Allan Pinkerton left on this country and law enforcement as a whole cannot be overemphasized. He was truly a man before his time. I wonder what he would have accomplished if he has lived another 20 years?