Baron Klaus Wulfenbach: Commodore Jed Dagger has been associated with the Aether Salon since its beginnings, and has been a frequent speaker on subjects of the military, spycraft and matters of security. We welcome her again today on another fascinating subject.
Jedburgh Dagger: Today I am going to be talking about a topic that is of interest to me, both professionally and historically. What I found when I began to gather my notes was that there is a great deal of material on the subject, and that there is also a lot of inherent bias depending on which source you choose, so what I will try to do is stick to a down the middle approach, point out both the good and the bad, so like Cromwell have the portrait contain warts and all.
As it goes, the name Pinkerton has grown from just the name of a man, to represent both an organization and a line of work. While the younger folks may not be as familiar with the term, it was for many years associated with ‘private detective’ because of the size of the organization it represented. Their logo, with the big eye and their motto, ‘We never sleep’, added to the vernacular of the ‘private eye’.
At the height of it’s power during the early part of the 20th century, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency was the largest private law enforcement agency in the world. While they are no longer known for their detective business, the agency is still in business today and primarily involved with corporate threat intelligence, risk management, executive protection, and active shooter responses. And just as a sidebar, their headquarters is in Ann Arbor Michigan.
Let’s start by talking about this guy. This is Allan Pinkerton, the founder of the agency, and a pretty fascinating man in his own right. He was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on August 25, 1819. He was a cooper by trade (and just for one of many sidebars, that means he made barrels), he was largely self taught, and he dropped out of school at the age of 10 when his father passed away. One point I found of interest was that he was involved in the Scottish Chartist movement as a young man.
The Chartist movement was a working class male suffrage movement in England during the early 1800s to reform the electoral process for Parliament, and to advocate for the rights of factory workers in cities. I included this because later we’ll see that the Pinkertons were very involved in strikebreaking and anti-labor union activities in the United States. Pinkerton himself was a strong advocate of workers rights but was very distrustful of unions.
Just to add another bit in there, the Chartists were also advocates for the right to vote for all citizens, and to eliminate the land ownership bits from serving in Parliament.
In 1842 he and his wife immigrated to the United States and he moved to Dundee Illinois. He set up a business as a cooper, and oddly enough this business venture is what launched his career as a detective. During this time while he was wandering the woods looking for trees suitable for making barrel staves, he found a group of men involved in counterfieting. He observed the men, followed them out of the woods, gathered additional information on what they were doing, and eventually gave this information to the local sheriff.
Just to add another layer to this, Pinkerton was also involved in the abolitionists of the Chicago area, and his house was used as a stop on the Underground Railroad. I’d like to add that the Pinkertons were known for hiring both minorities and females, which was pretty well unheard of during the Victorian era.
In 1849, Pinkerton was appointed as the first police detective in Chicago, Illinois. He was getting a reputation as a man who could get the job done, and the work he did in Cook County led to the next step in the story. In 1850, he partnered with Chicago attorney Edward Rucker in forming the North-Western Police Agency. This agency was what would eventually become Pinkerton National Detective Agency.
One of the primary clients of the new agency was the railroad. The United States of the 1850s had a massive growth in westward expansion, and a great deal of this expansion was linked to the rise of railroads. The railroad was the way to get the raw materials of the west back east to the manufacturing centers, it was a way for people to travel faster from city to city, and it was the way those manufactured goods could get to both markets internally and internationally. With that expansion there was of course big money involved, and the trains became the targets of criminal activity.
This criminal activity led to the Pinkertons being hired to both protect the trains and to solve the robberies. During this time the Pinkertons solved several high profile robberies of the Illinois Central Railroad, and this helped launch Pinkerton into the next part of his career.
I’ve said it for years that sometimes it is who you know that contributes to your success, along with whatever talent you have. During Pinkerton’s dealings with the Illinois Central, he met a couple of folks who turned out to be important later on. The Chief Engineer of the railroad (and that’s design and build stuff, not drive trains) was a West Point graduate and former Army officer by the name of George McLelland, who will later be the commander of the Army of the Potomac. The railroad also had a lawyer on staff who you might recognize that Pinkerton dealt with, a farmboy by the name of Abraham Lincoln.
I had always wondered how Pinkerton managed to become the head of the Union’s Intelligence Service, and it came down to knowing a guy, who knew a guy….
In 1859, Pinkerton attended the secret meetings held by John Brown and Frederick Douglass in Chicago along with abolitionists John Jones and Henry O. Wagoner. This was part of the organizing and planning for the raid later that year that John Brown would lead at Harper’s Ferry West Virginia, and would be one of the incidents that led to both the start of the American Civil War and to the election of Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency.
With the start of the Civil War in 1861, Pinkerton became the head of the Union Intelligence Service. During this time he and his agents were involved in identifying Southern troop movements, and also were instrumental in breaking up an assasination plot against Lincoln in Baltimore Maryland as the President made his way back to Washington DC.
Dahlia Vinter: But John Brown was hanged
Jedburgh Dagger: Yes he was. Without wheeling off-topic onto that too hard, the Brown Raid into Harper’s Ferry set a lot of balls rolling. While he was tried and hung for what he did, his sentiments stirred up a lot of things politically for why he did it.
Glaubrius Valeska: Bit of a surprise to me that Douglass helped plan that raid.
Jedburgh Dagger: Brown tried to get him to go with. Anyways, let’s get back onto my notes 😉
Jedburgh Dagger: As a part of his intelligence gathering operations, he had agents in the south posing as Confederate soldiers and sympathisers to collect information on troop movements and supplies. Pinkerton himself conducted several missions posing as Major E.J. Allen of the Confederate Army. During the summer of 1861, he traveled through the south to gather information on troop dispostitons and fortifications. While in Memphis, he was apparently ferretted out and had to make an escape from local authorities who figured out who he was.
Pinkerton served as the head of the Union Intelligence Service for two years, and this service enevtually led to the creation of the United States Secret Service, the aggency which is investigates crimes such as forgery and counterfieting, and also protects the elected officials of the United States government. Just a bit of trivia here. The bill that created the Secret Service had been passed by Congress and was awaiting Lincoln’s signature on the day he was killed on April 14th, 1865. Plus, the Secret Service was mandated to conduct counterintelligence operations within the United States until 1908, when this function was shifted to the Bureau of Investigation, which became the FBI in the 1930s.
Pinkerton returned to working for the railroads after the war ended. His agency was involed in both protecting the railroads against robbers and to the hunting down of those men involved in the robberies.
One of the most well known of these was Jesse James. The Pinkertons had a lot of involvemnt with the James and the Youngers. The railroads hired the Pinkertons to find James, and Pinkerton struggled to make headway with the investigation. After the railroads pulled their financial backing Pinkerton continued to pursue James on his own dime. Several Pinkerton agents were killed during the course of the pursuit, including two that were killed during a confrontation with the Younger brothers (which also resulted in the death of one of the Youngers) and another who was working undercover at a local farm killed by Jesse himself.
So this is part of how the Pinkerton name became associated with chasing down criminals in the American West.
Still playing to the theme of their involvement with the government, in 1871 Congress created a Bureau of Justice that was tasked with enforcing crimes against the Federal government. As Congress is often want to do, it was underfunded, so this job ended up being contracted to Pinkertons agency.
You can see he was still pretty well connected, and there was a little blurring of the lines between private and governmental authority there.
Apparently it got bad enough that Congress passed the Anti-Pinkerton Act in 1893, stating that an “individual employed by the Pinkerton Detective Agency, or similar organization, may not be employed by the Government of the United States or the government of the District of Columbia.”
Oddly enough, the Federal government still employs private contractors for some security and quasi-military functions today, and this law was cited in a couple of court cases.
During the last half of the 19th century, and into the 1930s, the Pinkertons were also involved in a lot of strike-breaking work.
The biggest strike breaking instance I will mention was the Homestead Strike in Pittsburg. Henry Clay Frick, the President of Carnegie Steel, used the Pinkertons to break a strike during 1892. 300 Pinkerton detectives from New York and Chicago were called in to protect the Pittsburgh-area mill and strikebreakers. This resulted in a firefight and siege in which 16 men were killed, and 23 others were wounded. To restore order, two brigades of the Pennsylvania militia were called out by the Governor. It was a huge mess, and was possibly the worst of the strikes of the time.
Baron Klaus Wulfenbach: Why did he mistrust the unions so much?
Jedburgh Dagger: He saw them as another political organization that sought to work for their own ends, rather than the advertised ones
ℒucifer ℳorningstar: And union bosses were often quasi-criminal themselves.
Baron Klaus Wulfenbach: Danke.
Jedburgh Dagger: I was going to say that the large private detective agencies began to decline in the start of the 20th century as local, state and Federal governments began to take on that role for themselves. Classically government did a lot more ‘order maintenance’ things, and then began to take on the investigative tasks later.
Just as another side note, the Pinkerton agency dropped the word ‘detective’ from their title in the 1960s. Allan Pinkerton himself died in 1884.
Liz Wilner: did he have a family?
Solace Fairlady: Would the Agency have been such vehement strike breakers if he were still alive at the time/ more so, maybe? or more considerate?
Jedburgh Dagger: The cause was under some question. They suspected it may have been a stroke, or malaria from when he was in the south during the war. 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.
Jedburgh Dagger: and yes, he was married, and had a son and a daughter.
Solace Fairlady: metal punch cards, like in “The Difference Engine”?
Jedburgh Dagger: No idea what his original basis was. But what he saw the need for would all come together in the late 1920s because of folks like John Dillinger
Solace Fairlady: Visionary, or just seeing the obvious
Jedburgh Dagger: Well, to go off on that tangent – Criminals can be mobile. Records of that time were pretty well centralized to the town in which things happened
Solace Fairlady: Could you be extradited, as it were, from one state to stand trial in another, back then?
Jedburgh Dagger: So bad people do bad things, move, and no one knows they are bad people
ℒucifer ℳorningstar: And often, to catch a criminal who is mobile, one needs to be able to cross reference and share information.
Jedburgh Dagger: ok, one question at a time 😉
Jedburgh Dagger: Yes, you could be extradited. But you’d have to have someone with jurisdiction, and the right paperwork to do so
Solace Fairlady: marshals, or Pinkertons?
Jedburgh Dagger: Just like now, but now things are easier because of communications
Jedburgh Dagger: Depends. If you had someone who was wanted, anyone could bring them back, but you run into dealing with the locals
Jedburgh Dagger: To circle back to where I was before, this is how the FBI became a ‘thing’
Jedburgh Dagger: the US Marshalls had the authority before, but they did not have the funding or the manpower to bring back everyone between states
Jedburgh Dagger: Now to answer Solace’s question. I don’t know if they would have been less ardent in strikebreaking if he was still alive.
Solace Fairlady: Complex man, Chartist yet anti-union
Jedburgh Dagger: He was said to distrust organized unions and he disliked strikes. But he was an advocate for worker’s rights.
Jedburgh Dagger: I think one part of him that I found interesting was he was largely self-educated
Solace Fairlady: Seems a lot of the “great” people, the influential and interesdting of that time, were
Jedburgh Dagger: His father died when he was 10, he dropped out of school to work, and was a voracious reader
Jedburgh Dagger: Are there any more questions?
ℒucifer ℳorningstar has none, but completely enjoyed the lecture 🙂
Solace Fairlady: When is your next presentation, this one was awesome!
Ceejay Writer: This really was, I’ve learned SO MUCH
Jedburgh Dagger: Ask Klaus. He’s the one that guilted me into speaking this time 😛
Francesca Alva: Thank you, this was so interesting
Solace Fairlady: He does have those puppy dog eyes
Baron Klaus Wulfenbach: You can show your appreciation, if you have not yet, by tipping the tip-bot, so the monies may be handed to our excellent speaker.