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Allan Pinkerton
Portrait of Pinkerton c. 1861
Born(1819-08-25)25 August 1819
Glasgow, Scotland
Died1 July 1884(1884-07-01) (aged 64)
Resting placeGraceland Cemetery, Chicago, U.S.
OccupationCooper, abolitionist, detective, spy
Joan Carfrae
(m. 1842)
Portrait of Allan Pinkerton from Harper's Weekly, 1884
Portrait of Allan Pinkerton from Harper's Weekly, 1884

Allan J. Pinkerton (25 August 1819 – 1 July 1884) was a Scottish-American cooper, abolitionist, detective, and spy, best known for creating the Pinkerton National Detective Agency during his time in the United States.

Early life

Allan J. Pinkerton was born in the Gorbals area of Glasgow on 25 August 1819, the son of Isobel McQueen and William Pinkerton.[1] He left school at the age of 10 after his father's death. Pinkerton read voraciously and was largely self-educated.[2] A cooper by trade,[3] he was active in the Scottish Chartist movement as a young man.[4] He was not raised in a religious upbringing, and was a lifelong atheist.[5]


Pinkerton emigrated to the United States in 1842. In 1843, he heard of Dundee Township, Illinois, fifty miles northwest of Chicago on the Fox River.[6] He built a cabin and started a cooperage, sending for his wife in Chicago when their cabin was complete.[6] As early as 1844, Pinkerton worked for the Chicago abolitionist leaders, and his Dundee home was a stop on the Underground Railroad.[7]

Pinkerton first became interested in criminal detective work while wandering through the wooded groves around Dundee, looking for trees to make barrel staves, when he came across a band of counterfeiters,[8] who may have been affiliated with the notorious Banditti of the Prairie. After observing their movements for some time he informed the local sheriff, who arrested them. This later led to Pinkerton being appointed, in 1849, as the first police detective in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois. In 1850, he partnered with Chicago attorney Edward Rucker in forming the North-Western Police Agency, which later became Pinkerton & Co, and finally Pinkerton National Detective Agency, still in existence today 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 US expanded in territory, rail transport increased. Pinkerton's agency solved a series of train robberies during the 1850s, first bringing Pinkerton into contact with George McClellan, then Chief Engineer and Vice President of the Illinois Central Railroad, and Abraham Lincoln, the company's lawyer.

In 1859, he attended the secret meetings held by John Brown and Frederick Douglass in Chicago along with abolitionists John Jones and Henry O. Wagoner. At those meetings, Jones, Wagoner, and Pinkerton helped purchase clothes and supplies for Brown. Jones' wife, Mary, guessed that the supplies included the suit Brown was hanged in after the failure of John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry in November 1859.[9]

American Civil War

Pinkerton (left) with Abraham Lincoln and Major General John A. McClernand
Pinkerton on horseback on the Antietam Battlefield in 1862
Pinkerton on horseback on the Antietam Battlefield in 1862

When the Civil War began, Pinkerton served as head of the Union Intelligence Service during the first two years, heading off an alleged assassination plot in Baltimore, Maryland while guarding Abraham Lincoln on his way to Washington, D.C. as well as identifying troop numbers in military campaigns. His agents often worked undercover as Confederate soldiers and sympathizers to gather military intelligence. Pinkerton himself served on several undercover missions as a Confederate soldier using the alias Major E.J. Allen. He worked across the Deep South in the summer of 1861, focusing on fortifications and Confederate plans. He was found out in Memphis and barely escaped with his life. This counterintelligence work done by Pinkerton and his agents is comparable to the work done by today's U.S. Army Counterintelligence Special Agents in which Pinkerton's agency is considered an early predecessor.[10] He was succeeded as Intelligence Service chief by Lafayette Baker; the Intelligence Service was the predecessor of the U.S. Secret Service. His work led to the establishment of the Federal secret service.[11]

After the war

Following Pinkerton's service with the Union Army, he continued his pursuit of train robbers, including the Reno Gang. He was hired by the railroad express companies to track outlaw Jesse James, but after Pinkerton failed to capture him, the railroad withdrew their financial support and Pinkerton continued to track James at his own expense. After James allegedly captured and killed one of Pinkerton's undercover agents (who was working undercover at the farm neighboring the James family's farmstead), he abandoned the chase. Some consider this failure Pinkerton's biggest defeat.[12] He also opposed 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.[13] If Pinkerton knew this, then it directly contradicts statements in his 1883 book The Spy of the Rebellion, where he professes to be an ardent abolitionist and hater of slavery. The Spanish government abolished slavery in 1880 and a Royal Decree abolished the last vestiges of it in 1886.

Personal life

Pinkerton secretly married Joan Carfrae (1822–1887), a singer from Duddingston, in Glasgow on 13 March 1842.[14] They remained married until his death.


Pinkerton died in Chicago on July 1, 1884. It is usually said that Pinkerton slipped on the pavement and bit his tongue, resulting in gangrene.[15] Contemporary reports give conflicting causes, such as that he succumbed to a stroke (which he had a year earlier) or to malaria, which he had contracted during a trip to the Southern United States.[16] At the time of his death, he was working on a system to centralize all criminal identification records, a database now maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Pinkerton's Tomb, Graceland Cemetery, Chicago
Pinkerton's Tomb, Graceland Cemetery, Chicago

Pinkerton is buried between his wife and Kate Warne in the family plot in Graceland Cemetery, Chicago.[17] He is a member of the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame.[18]


After his death, the agency continued to operate and soon became a major force against the labor movement developing in the US 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:

Despite his agency's later reputation for anti-labor activities, Pinkerton himself was heavily involved in pro-labor politics as a young man.[19] Though Pinkerton considered himself pro-labor, he opposed strikes[20] and distrusted labor unions.[21]

Allan Pinkerton was so famous that for decades after his death, his surname was a slang term for a private eye. The "Mr. Pinkerton" novels, by American mystery writer Zenith Jones Brown (under the pseudonym David Frome), were about Welsh-born amateur detective Evan Pinkerton and may have been inspired by the slang term.


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 views.[22]

In popular culture

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In the 1951 feature film The Tall Target, a historical drama loosely based upon the Baltimore Plot, Allan Pinkerton is portrayed by Scottish actor Robert Malcolm. The M-G-M production starred Dick Powell and was directed by Anthony Mann.

In the 1956 episode "The Pinkertons" of the ABC/Desilu western television series, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, the actor Douglas Evans plays Allan Pinkerton, who is seeking to recover $40,000 in stolen money but interferes with the attempt of Marshal Wyatt Earp (Hugh O'Brian) to catch the entire gang of Crummy Newton (Richard Alexander). The episode is set in Wichita, Kansas.

In 1990, Turner Network Television aired the 1990 speculative historical drama The Rose and the Jackal, with Christopher Reeve as Pinkerton, recounting his (completely fictional) romance with the Confederate spy Rose O'Neal Greenhow.

Pinkerton is a major character in the 2001 film American Outlaws, portrayed by Timothy Dalton.

Pinkerton's role in foiling the assassination plot against Abraham Lincoln was dramatized in the 2013 film Saving Lincoln, which tells President Lincoln's story through the eyes of Ward Hill Lamon, a former law partner of Lincoln who served as his primary bodyguard during the Civil War. Pinkerton is played by Marcus J. Freed.

Charlie Day portrayed Pinkerton in a Season 2 episode of Drunk History.

Pinkerton is also a recurring character in the 2014 series The Pinkertons, played by Angus Macfadyen.

Pinkerton is also portrayed in an episode of The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, by Don Galloway, and in the 1994 American biographical western film Frank and Jesse by William Atherton. In but in these cases, as in the others, he seems to be portrayed with an American accent, although he was Scottish by birth, and may still have retained his Scots accent.

Hardboiled crime fiction writer Dashiell Hammett was employed by the Pinkerton agency before becoming an author, and his experiences influenced the character of the Continental Op who was a Continental Detective Agency operative, similar to the Pinkertons.

Pinkerton is an important character in the 2016 novel 'By Gaslight' by Steven Price.

In the 2019 film ‘Badland’ Kevin Makely plays the main character and protagonist, Mathias Breecher, a detective of the Pinkerton Detective Agency.

In the 1969 Spaghetti Western The Price of Power, Pinkerton appears as an associate of President James A. Garfield who takes part in his (highly fictionalized) assassination. He is portrayed by Spanish actor Fernando Rey.

In 1994 the episode 'Pinkertonova detektivní agentura' ('Pinkerton's Detective Agency') [25] episode of the TV series 'Dobrodružství kriminalistiky' ('The Adventure of Criminology') directed by Antonín Moskalyk was aired.

See also



  1. ^ The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (20 July 1998). "Allan Pinkerton". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. Retrieved 28 November 2021.
  2. ^ Hunt, Russell A. (2009). "Allan Pinkerton: America's first private eye (1819–1884)". The Forensic Examiner. 18 (4): 42–46. Retrieved 28 November 2021 – via ProQuest.
  3. ^ Seiple 2015, pp. 10–11
  4. ^ Seiple 2015, pp. 11–13
  5. ^ Davenport-Hines, Richard (2004). "Pinkerton, Allan (1819–1884)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved May 2, 2008. Although christened by a Baptist minister in the Gorbals (August 25, 1819), he had a churchless upbringing and was a lifelong atheist
  6. ^ a b Horan, James D. (1969) [First published 1967]. "Chapter 1: Glasgow 1819–1842". The Pinkertons: The Detective Dynasty That Made History. New York: Crown Publishers. p. 13.
  7. ^ Horan, James D. (1969) [First published 1967]. "Chapter 3: The Frontier Abolitionist and the Move to Chicago". The Pinkertons: The Detective Dynasty That Made History. New York: Crown Publishers. p. 19.
  8. ^ Seiple 2015 pp. 16–17
  9. ^ Junger, Richard, "Thinking Men and Women who Desire to Improve our Condition": Henry O. Wagoner, Civil Rights, and Black Economic Opportunity in Frontier Chicago and Denver, 1846–1887., in Alexander, William H., Cassandra L. Newby-Alexander, and Charles H. Ford, eds. Voices from within the Veil: African Americans and the Experience of Democracy. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009. p. 154
  10. ^ Stockham, Braden (2017). "Chapter 2: Literature Review: Historical Background". The Expanded Application of Forensic Science and Law Enforcement Methodologies in Army Counterintelligence (Thesis). Fort Belvoir, VA: Defense Technical Information Center. p. 6.
  11. ^ Hart, James D.; Leininger, Philip W., eds. (2004). "Pinkerton, Allan". The Oxford Companion to American Literature. Oxford. ISBN 978-0195065480.
  12. ^ Stiles, T. J. Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War.
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ ScotlandsPeople OPR Banns & Marriages Record 644/001 0420 0539
  15. ^ Bumgarner, Jeff (30 September 2008). Icons of Crime Fighting: Relentless Pursuers of Justice: Relentless Pursuers of Justice. ABC-CLIO. p. 49. ISBN 9781567206739.
  16. ^ Lanis, Edward Stanley. Allan Pinkerton and the private detective institution (M.S. Thesis 1949). p. 170, University of Wisconsin, Madison.
  17. ^ Dickinson, Rachel (1 May 2017). The Notorious Reno Gang: The Wild Story of the West's First Brotherhood of Thieves, Assassins, and Train Robbers. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 207. ISBN 9781493026401.
  18. ^ Swank, Mark A.; Swank, Dreama J. (2013). Maryland in the Civil War. Arcadia Publishing. p. 26. ISBN 9781467120418.
  19. ^ "Allan J. Pinkerton". Retrieved 2011-12-28.
  20. ^ Joel Samaha (2005). Criminal justice. ISBN 9780534645571. Retrieved 2011-12-28 – via Google Books.
  21. ^ "Detective Allan Pinkerton Was Born in Glasgow, Scotland". Retrieved 2011-12-28.
  22. ^ Mackay, James (2007). Allan Pinkerton: The First Private Eye. New York: Wiley and Sons. pp. 208–09.
  23. ^ "Wright American Fiction, 1851–1875". Retrieved 2011-12-28.
  24. ^ "Wright American Fiction, 1851–1875". Retrieved 2011-12-28.
  25. ^ Pinkertonova detektivní agentura (Television production) (in Czech). Retrieved 2021-11-28.