Allan Pinkerton was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on August 25, 1819, the son of a police sergeant who was later wounded during the Chartist riots. Pinkerton himself became a Chartist and, fearing for his safety after participating in the turmoil, emigrated to the United States in 1842. He settled in a Scottish community at Dundee, III. He became an outspoken abolitionist, serving as the local conductor on the Underground Railroad.
While working as a cooper in Dundee, Pinkerton was instrumental in capturing a group of counterfeiters. After several private commissions in detective work, he was named deputy sheriff of Kane County in 1846. In 1850 he became the first detective on the reorganized police department of Chicago. He simultaneously organized a private agency and left public service not long after.
Pinkerton’s agency, unlike the typical agency of the day, was run with strict propriety. He would not, for example, undertake investigations of the morals of a woman, the stock-in-trade of most private detectives, except in connection with some other crime. Nor did he set his fees according to how much money he regained in a theft case, a practice which frequently tied detectives to the underworld. Pinkerton’s operatives received uniform fees, set in advance, plus expenses. Pinkerton quickly developed a national reputation as a result of work for the U.S. Post Office, the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, and the Illinois Central Railroad (through which he developed a valuable friendship with its president, George McClellan).
In 1861 Pinkerton was investigating alleged Confederate sabotage of a railroad in Maryland when he claimed to have unearthed a scheme to assassinate the president-elect, Abraham Lincoln, then on his way to his inauguration. Pinkerton convinced Lincoln to revise his plans for entering Washington, D.C., and he supervised Lincoln’s secret journey. Pinkerton later discussed the organization of a national secret service with the President but, when nothing developed, joined his old client, now Gen. McClellan, as head of intelligence in the Army’s Ohio Department. When McClellan left the Army in 1862, Pinkerton resigned his post and spent the rest of the war investigating cotton speculation frauds in the Mississippi Valley.
Following the war, Pinkerton turned active direction of his flourishing agency over to his two sons, although he continued to take an interest in agency affairs and kept control of central policy. He supervised the agency’s growth in its chief fields of endeavor, the pursuit and capture of train robbers like the James gang; the supplying of a private corps of armed guards to industries and special events such as county fairs; and the breaking of labor unions. He became a vociferous enemy of labor unions.
Pinkerton had a penchant for self-celebration, writing some 20 books about his and his detectives’ exploits. He died on July 1, 1884.