Allan Pinkerton: The eye that never slept

He thwarted an assassination attempt on Abraham Lincoln, waged a bloody war against Jesse James and introduced the world to photofit. Gavin Mortimer profiles Allan Pinkerton, the Scottish private eye who changed the face of American crime fighting

Allan Pinkerton

On the evening of Thursday 21 February 1861, Allan Pinkerton arrived in Philadelphia. He made his way to the city’s Continental hotel, where he was shown to Abraham Lincoln’s suite. The president-elect of the United States of America listened impassively as Pinkerton “informed
me that a plan had been laid for my assassination, the exact time being when I expected to go through Baltimore”.

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Lincoln was scheduled to pass through Baltimore in two days’ time, en route to Washington and his inauguration as the country’s 16th president. Pinkerton had uncovered a plot to kill Lincoln as he changed trains at Baltimore. It was imperative, therefore, Pinkerton urged the president-elect, that he leave for Washington immediately.

Lincoln wouldn’t hear of it. He told Pinkerton that he intended to fulfil a public engagement in Pennsylvania’s state capital, Harrisburg, the next day, and he wouldn’t be deterred by any assassin supporting the secession of the southern states from the union. So Pinkerton proposed a compromise.

The next evening Lincoln waved goodbye to the thousands of well-wishers in Harrisburg, and headed to the station for his train to Baltimore.
He entered a railway carriage, where he changed into a tatty suit and an old felt hat. Then Lincoln was smuggled off the train and on to another that returned him to Philadelphia. There he was met by Pinkerton, who escorted him onto a train for Baltimore. They arrived in the city several hours ahead of the publicised time, and Lincoln made the short carriage ride to the connecting train station unnoticed. At 6am on Saturday 23 February, Lincoln stepped off the train in Washington, at around the time that his would-be assassins were making their way into Baltimore.

A price on his head

Allan Pinkerton’s protection of Abraham Lincoln was the culmination of a remarkable journey. Less than 20 years earlier, Pinkerton had fled his native land to escape being arrested by the British government. Now here he was, safeguarding the president-elect
of his adopted country.

Pinkerton was born in Glasgow in 1819, the son of a handloom weaver, and endured a tough childhood. Despite learning the trade of a cooper, he couldn’t find a job, so he took to the road in search of work. What he found was the Chartist movement.

The 19-year-old Pinkerton attended Chartist meetings throughout Scotland, listening as speakers demanded that the government grant the vote to every man of sound mind above the age of 21.

Pinkerton soon became a staunch advocate of Chartism, aligning himself to the ‘Physical Force’ Chartists, those who preferred direct action to dialogue. In 1839, he was elected one of the six committee members of the Glasgow Universal Suffrage Association and later that year he was present at the Newport Rising, when 22 Chartists were killed by soldiers as they tried to spring four of their number from jail.

Pinkerton laid low after the carnage of Newport. He remained a supporter of Chartism but marriage diluted his passion for the cause. Then, in the spring of 1842, he was tipped off that he was about to be arrested for his Chartist links. Pinkerton slipped out of Glasgow on a steamer bound for North America, saying later, “I had become an outlaw with a price on my head”.

Pinkerton and his wife eventually settled in Dundee, a small town 40 miles north-west of Chicago. Here he opened his own workshop and built a logcabin as a house. His wife bore him a son. Life was peaceful and productive.

That all changed in June 1846. Searching a wood for some suitable timber for his barrels, Pinkerton discovered evidence of a campfire. He sensed mischief and informed the sheriff. Over the next few days they kept watch until their patience was rewarded and they caught a gang of counterfeiters in the act of producing fake coins.

Word of Pinkerton’s exploit brought him fame. Store keepers enlisted his aid to snare petty criminals and soon his name began to ripple across the state.

In 1847, he was invited to become deputy sheriff of Cook County in Illinois. Two years later, Pinkerton was appointed the city’s first detective. Then, in 1850, he rented an office on Washington Street and opened a national detective agency. Its motto was, ‘The Eye That Never Sleeps’.

At first the agency was a one-man business, but the more Chicago’s burgeoning railroad network expanded, the more criminals entered the city and the more Pinkerton’s services were called upon. By the mid-1850s Pinkerton had several people working for him, handpicked not just for their intelligence and cunning, but also
for their integrity. Pinkerton was incorruptible and he was determined his employees (he called them ‘operatives’) would be likewise. No backhanders, no bribes, no blackmail.

Pinkerton introduced many groundbreaking techniques [see panel above] to detective work and his success at capturing criminals brought its own rewards. In 1855, the Illinois Central Rail Company began paying Pinkerton $10,000 a year [approximately $250,000 today] to protect its six railroads. It was while signing the contract with Illinois Central that Pinkerton first met Abraham Lincoln, the lawyer hired by the railroad company.

The president’s protector

Five years later the lawyer was elected president of the United States and when, in February 1861, Lincoln toured the eastern states on his inauguration tour, Pinkerton was asked by the railroad bosses to ensure his safety.

A month after Lincoln’s inauguration on 4 March 1861, the United States was torn apart by civil war and Pinkerton immediately put his detective agency at the disposal of the federal government. A fierce abolitionist, Pinkerton “detested slavery… this institution of human bondage” and was determined to do all he could to contribute to the defeat of the southern states.

For the first year of the war, Pinkerton and his team of detectives carried out important military espionage in Virginia, a state divided in its loyalties. Then in April 1862 one of Pinkerton’s most effective spies, Timothy Webster, was hanged by the Confederacy. The incident badly shook Pinkerton and in November 1862 he resigned his military position and returned to catching railroad crooks and uncovering cotton frauds on behalf of the government. Nonetheless, when Lincoln was eventually assassinated in April 1865, Pinkerton wired Edwin Stanton, the secretary of war, to tell him: “How I regret that I had not been near him previous to that fatal act. I might have been the means to arrest it”. A valid boast or the self-justification of a man who had been found wanting in the field of military espionage? Though Pinkerton deserved some credit for creating a single wartime espionage entity, where he failed was in his inability to collate the field reports from his spies and apply them to the bigger military picture.

Postwar America, however, presented Pinkerton with ample opportunity to reassert his reputation as a thief-catcher par excellence as hundreds of disbanded soldiers turned to banditry. In 1866 he and his detectives tracked down the men who had robbed a train of $700,000 [$10m today], a success that led Pinkerton to open offices in New York and Philadelphia.

That same year, the Reno gang committed the first of what would be a string of train robberies in the Midwest. Pinkerton discovered the whereabouts of the gang’s hideout town and placed one of his men as a bartender in the Renos’ favourite saloon. During one raucous party, the bartender showed John Reno, the leader,
a camera he had bought that afternoon. He persuaded Reno to pose for a photograph, which was then dispatched to Pinkerton. Soon after, John Reno was arrested by Pinkerton while waiting to catch a train, and the gang lost its heart.

Throughout the 1870s, Pinkerton and his men waged a bloody war with another gang, this one led by Jesse James. It was
a feud that cost lives on both sides and led James to declare: “I know God some day will deliver Allan Pinkerton into my hands”. By the time James was shot by Bob Ford in 1882 [a killing that had nothing to do with the Scot], Pinkerton’s health was in decline and he died two years later. His sons, William and Robert, took over the business and were soon pursuing outlaws from New York City to Mexico City, and from South America to the south of England.

At the turn of the century, Pinkerton agents were on the trail of Robert LeRoy Parker and Harry Longabaugh, better known as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The pair fled the USA and were shot dead in 1908, the same year that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was established,
America’s first official nationwide law enforcement agency. In effect, the FBI began doing what Pinkerton’s detective agency had been practising for 58 years: chasing criminals the length and breadth of America.

In the words of the epitaph on Allan Pinkerton’s headstone, in creating America’s first detective agency he had proved himself to be: “A friend to honesty and a foe to crime”.

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Gavin Mortimer is author of Double Death: the Story of the Civil War’s Most Daring Spy, which will be published in 2010 by Walker Bloomsbury