Allan Pinkerton (1819-84), founder of Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on August 25, 1819. Pinkerton emigrated to the United States in 1842 and eventually established a barrel-making shop in a small town outside of Chicago. He was an ardent abolitionist, and his shop functioned as a “station” for escaped slaves traveling the Underground Railroad to freedom in the North.
Pinkerton’s career as a detective began by chance when he discovered a gang of counterfeiters operating in an area where he was gathering wood. His assistance—first in arresting these men and then another counterfeiter, led to his appointment as deputy sheriff of Kane County, Illinois, and, later, as Chicago’s first full-time detective.
Pinkerton left his job with the Chicago police force to start his own detective agency. One of the first of its kind, this predecessor to Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency provided an array of private detective services—specializing in the capture of train robbers and counterfeiters and in providing private security services for a variety of industries. By the 1870s, Pinkerton’s growing agency had accumulated an extensive collection of criminal dossiers and mug shots that became a model for other police forces.
In 1861, while investigating a railway case, Pinkerton uncovered an apparent assassination plot against Abraham Lincoln. It was believed that conspirators intended to kill Lincoln in Baltimore during a stop along the way to his inauguration. Pinkerton warned Lincoln of the threat, and the president-elect’s itinerary was changed so that he passed through the city secretly at night.
Union General George McClellan later hired Pinkerton to organize a “secret service” to obtain military information in the Southern states during the Civil War. Pinkerton sent agents into Kentucky and West Virginia, and, traveling under the pseudonym “Major E. J. Allen,” performed his own investigative work in Tennessee, Georgia, and Mississippi.
After McClellan was replaced as the commander of the Army of the Potomac in 1862, Pinkerton resumed the management of his detective agency. The agency expanded after the Civil War, opening offices in New York City (1865) and Philadelphia (1866). As his business grew, Pinkerton drew public attention to its work by producing a series of popular “true crime” stories.
In time, because Pinkerton’s Agency was often hired by industrialists to provide intelligence information on union-organizing efforts, Pinkerton guards and agents gained notoriety as strikebreakers. Notable confrontations between Pinkerton agents and laborers include the 1886 Haymarket Riot and the 1892 Homestead Strike, both of which occurred after Pinkerton’s death in 1884..
- Search the Library of Congress’ online collections of photos, prints and drawings , using the keyword Pinkerton, to find images of Pinkerton, his sons William and Robert, and some of the criminals that Pinkerton’s Agency apprehended over the years.
- More about the Pinkertons can be found in the Manuscript Division’s collection of Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency Records, 1853-1999 and the Visual Materials from the Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency Records which includes photographs, letters, and ephemera, found in the Library’s Prints & Photographs Division. Some of these items can be found online.
- The collection Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress, contains a number of letters by and/or related to Allen Pinkerton. To find these, search the collection using the keyword: Pinkerton.
- See Pinkertons: Topics in Chronicling America for tips on how to search for relevant information in the Library’s collection of historic newspapers.
- Search the collections on the keywords detective agency, to find assorted materials relating to the Pinkertons and other similar enterprises from the late nineteenth to early twentieth century.
- Learn about a different side of Allan Pinkerton through the American Folklife Center’s blog post Hidden Folkorists: Allan and Joan Pinkerton.