I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
The Pinkerton Detective Agency did some good work when dealing with criminals, but it also became involved in a lot of shady undertakings for corporations trying to stop workers from unionizing.
Foundation of the Pinkerton Agency
The motto of the Pinkerton Agency was “We never sleep.” It was created by a man from Glasgow, Scotland who has been called America’s first private sleuth. And, the whole thing, which continues in existence today, was created accidentally.
Allan Pinkerton arrived in Chicago 1842, and took up his trade as a cooper. He became a local celebrity when he discovered, by chance, a counterfeiting ring. This led to his appointment as a deputy sheriff. He moved on to an investigator’s job with the Post Office before opening the Pinkerton National Detective Agency around 1850.
In the middle of the 19th century, publicly funded policing was in its infancy in America. In 1838, Boston was the first city to have an official police force; New York followed in 1845.
The function of these forces was to keep order and they did very little in the way of detection. That’s where Allan Pinkerton stepped in. He joined his brother Robert in setting up their detective service. The company used the image of an unblinking eye as its symbol, hence the phrase “private eye.”
Pinkerton Saves a President
Pinkerton agents began working with nascent police forces as well as providing security services for stagecoach and railroad companies. While dealing with a railway case, Allan Pinkerton discovered a plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln as he travelled to his inauguration in 1861.
As a result, President Lincoln gave the Pinkerton agency the job of setting up a secret service. The goal of this group was to gather intelligence on Confederate forces during the Civil War.
Pinkerton Versus the James Gang
In October 1866, the Reno Gang invented train robbing. Simeon and John Reno, along with an accomplice, boarded an Ohio & Mississippi train at Seymour, Indiana. According to the website Legends of America, “Once on board, the three masked men made their way to the express car, held a gun on the messenger, and stole some $12,000."
They pulled the emergency stop rope, jumped off the train as it came to a halt, and disappeared into the night.
The success of that robbery caught the interest of other criminals, notably the James Gang.
Valuables and money were shipped on railroads under the protection of express companies; when robberies happened express companies were the ones that suffered the biggest losses.
After the James Gang pulled off a heist at Gads Hill, Missouri in 1874, the Adams Express Company hired the Pinkerton Agency to track down Frank and Jesse James.
Detective Joseph Whicher was sent to investigate but he turned up dead. Allan Pinkerton vowed revenge and wrote: “There is no use talking. They must die.”
A raid on the James ranch went horribly wrong, with Jesse’s eight-year-old half-brother, Archie James, being killed. The botched attack turned public opinion against the Pinkerton Agency so it pulled out of the James case.
The Pinkerton Agency’s own in-house history adds that “agents become legendary during their relentless pursuit of Jesse James―the Younger Gang, the Dalton Brothers, and Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch.”
The agency also developed a library of criminals including mug shots, distinguishing features, known associates, and case histories. It was the forerunner of the FBI’s database.
Pinkerton Versus Labour
The agency entered a dark period in the later years of the 19th century when it became what History.com calls “the paramilitary wing of big business.”
Frank Morn, in his history of the organization, The Eye That Never Sleeps, writes that among working people “Pinkerton operatives were called ‘vipers,’ ‘spies,’ ‘scoundrels,’ ‘jailbirds,’ and ‘thieves set to catch a thief.’ ”
Workers were trying to organize unions in many industries to improve the often-appalling conditions of their labour. Industrialists called on Pinkerton agents to put a stop to the activism. There was less detective work than there was outright thuggery.
“Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency has 2,000 active agents and 30,000 reserves causing the state of Ohio to outlaw the agency, due to the possibility of it being hired out as a ‘private army’ or militia.”
Pinkerton National Detective Agency
When an eight-year-old boy was killed by a stray Pinkerton bullet in Jersey City in January 1887, The Nation was moved to comment that “Pinkerton’s men are, we must all admit, the greatest disgrace that has befallen the United States.”
In 1892, the Carnegie Steel Company in Homestead, Pennsylvania refused to negotiate with the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers over wages. The company closed the steel mill and called in Pinkerton agents.
About 300 Pinkerton men arrived on barges, brought by tugs down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh. They were met by workers on the banks of the river. No one knows who fired the first shot, but someone did and others joined in. The battle lasted most of the day and led to the deaths of nine workers and three Pinkerton agents with many others wounded.
There were a lot of violent incidents involving Pinkerton agents and workers seeking a better deal from employers.
Union Busting Today
Of course, Pinkertons no longer engages in the rough stuff of the past, but it still hires out to companies that don’t want to deal with unions.
Amazon, the mega-retailer, has hired Pinkerton agents to keep an eye on its employees. The detective agency also has the remit to gather information about efforts to unionize workers.
Stories frequently appear in respected media outlets about Amazon’s workplace culture; they are never complimentary. They describe a frenetic work pace that allows two 15-minute breaks per shift. New York City warehouse staff catalogued 12 workplace injuries per 100 full-time employees; that’s three times higher than the U.S. average. Others talk of the indignity of having to urinate in a bottle because they can’t leave their work station.
Forbes Magazine says Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, has a net worth of more than $200 billion. Leaked documents in 2019 reveal that “Amazon has hired Pinkerton operatives . . . to gather intelligence on warehouse workers” (Vice).
Lauren Kaori Gurley writes that “The documents offer an unprecedented look inside the internal security and surveillance apparatus of a company that has vigorously attempted to tamp down employee dissent and has previously been caught smearing employees who attempted to organize their colleagues.”
Christy Hoffman is general secretary of UNI Global Union, which represents more than 900 affiliated unions around the world. She describes Amazon as “a company that is ignoring the law, spying on workers, and using every page of the U.S. union-busting playbook to silence workers’ voices.”
And, the Pinkerton Detective Agency is there lending a hand.
There are about 5,800 people working at the Amazon Bessemer warehouse in Alabama. Of the 3,215 who voted on unionizing only 738 were in favour. The union drive was defeated.
- Kate Warne was hired by Allan Pinkerton in 1856 as a detective, the first female to hold such a job in America. Initially reluctant to hire a woman, Pinkerton later said Warne was one of the best detectives he ever employed.
- Red Dead Redemption 2 is a video game set in the Wild West marketed by Rock Star Games. The game includes two Pinkerton agents and Securitas AB, the Swedish company that now owns Pinkertons, slapped a cease and desist order on Rock Star saying the game infringed the security agency’s trademark. There was a counter-suit from Rock Star before everybody calmed down and both sides withdrew their legal complaints.
- The 1995 movie Frank & Jesse purports to tell the story of Allan Pickerton’s pursuit of the James Gang. It is riddled with factual errors including the scene below that shows the James Gang encountering Pinkerton during a train hold-up; a meeting that never happened. It’s curious too how Allan Pinkerton has shed his Glaswegian accent, something that has never happened to a native of that city in the history of the world.
- “Allan Pinkerton’s Detective Agency.” PBS American Experience, undated.
- “Reno Gang & the 1st Big Train Robbery.” Kathy Weiser, Legendsofamerica.com, December 2020.
- “Our History.” Pinkerton Detective Agency, undated.
- “Pinkerton’s Men.” The Nation, January 27, 1887.
- “10 Things You May Not Know About the Pinkertons.” Evan Andrews, history.com, August 22, 2018.
- “ ‘I’m not a Robot’: Amazon Workers Condemn Unsafe, Grueling Conditions at Warehouse.” Michael Sainato, The Guardian, February 5, 2020.
- “Secret Amazon Reports Expose the Company’s Surveillance of Labor and Environmental Groups.” Lauren Kaori Gurley, Vice, November 23, 2020.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor
Anya Ali from Rabwah, Pakistan on May 06, 2021:
That was interesting! I so wanted to be a detective when I was a child.
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on May 04, 2021:
Rupert, thanks for sharing an interestingly article. May it find you well online.