|Born||August 25, 1819|
|Died||July 1, 1884 (aged 64)|
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
|Resting place||Graceland Cemetery, Chicago, U.S.|
|Occupation||Cooper, abolitionist, detective, spy|
Allan J. Pinkerton (August 25, 1819 – July 1, 1884) was a Scottish cooper, abolitionist, detective, and spy, best known for creating the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in the United States and his claim to have foiled a plot in 1861 to assassinate president-elect Abraham Lincoln. During the Civil War, he provided the Union Army – specifically General George B. McClellan of the Army of the Potomac – with military intelligence, including extremely inaccurate enemy troop strength numbers. After the war, his agents played a significant role as strikebreakers – in particular during the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 – a role that Pinkerton men would continue to play after the death of their founder.
Allan J. Pinkerton was born in the Gorbals area of Glasgow on August 25, 1819, the son of Isobel McQueen and William Pinkerton. He left school at the age of 10 after his father's death. Pinkerton read voraciously and was largely self-educated. A cooper by trade, he was active in the Scottish Chartist movement as a young man. He was not raised in a religious upbringing, and was a lifelong atheist.
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. He built a cabin and started a cooperage, sending for his wife in +Chicago when their cabin was complete. As early as 1844, Pinkerton worked for the Chicago abolitionist leaders, and his Dundee home was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
See also: Pinkerton (detective agency)
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, 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 B. McClellan, then Chief Engineer and Vice President of the Illinois Central Railroad, and Abraham Lincoln, a lawyer who sometimes represented the company.
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.
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 providing estimates of Confederate troop numbers to General George B. McClellan when he commanded the Army of the Potomac. 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. 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.
Military historians have been strongly critical of the intelligence Pinkerton provided for the Union Army, which for the most part was undigested raw data. In the view of T. Harry Williams, Pinkerton's work was "the poorest intelligence service any general ever had." Pinkerton's estimates of Rebel troop numbers, derived from his credulous interrogations of Confederate prisoners, deserters, refugees, escaped slaves ("contrabands"), and civilians unused to counting large bodies of men, badly exaggerated the size of those formations, sometimes almost doubling their actual strength. Pinkerton's numbers caused McClellan to consistently believe that he was drastically outnumbered by the Confederate forces he faced. McClellan's action in the face of what he believed were overwhelming odds were unduly cautious, causing him to avoid offensive actions almost completely in favor of siege warfare and taking a defensive posture. This lead to his retreat in the Peninsula Campaign, his failure to crush Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia at the Battle of Antietam, and his unnecessary delay in carrying out his orders to pursue Lee's army as they retreated from their invasion of Maryland back into Virginia. These actions were all based on McClellan's firm trust of Pinkerton's reports, although the problem was compounded by the intelligence-gathering ineptitude of Brigadier General Alfred Pleasonton, McClellan's head cavalryman and his alternate source of enemy troop information when Pinkerton did not have agents in place.[a]
Following Pinkerton's services for 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. 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. 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.
Pinkerton secretly married Joan Carfrae (1822–1887), a singer from Duddingston, in Glasgow on March 13, 1842. 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. Contemporary reports give conflicting causes, such as that he succumbed to a stroke – he had a year earlier – or to malaria, which he had contracted during a trip to the Southern United States. At the time of his death, he was working on a system to centralize all criminal identification records; such a database is now maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Pinkerton is buried between his wife and Kate Warne in the family plot 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 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. Though Pinkerton considered himself pro-labor, he opposed strikes and distrusted labor unions.
Allan Pinkerton was so famous that for decades after his death, his surname was a slang term for a private eye, whether they were agents of the Pinkerton Agency or not. 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.
Although christened by a Baptist minister in the Gorbals (August 25, 1819), he had a churchless upbringing and was a lifelong atheist