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Allan Pinkerton


Allan Pinkerton
(1819-1884)

Founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency

A trained cooper, Pinkerton sailed for the US at 23 to avoid arrest for his Chartist political activities. Success in uncovering a counterfeiting ring led him to set up his own group of young and morally upright detectives in Chigaco in 1852. They pulled off some spectacular feats, including breaking up the Molly Maguires, a Pennsylvania-Irish secret society, and saving President-elect Abraham Lincoln from assassination. Pinkerton headed the US secret service during the Civil War (1861-65) and was a fervent abolitionist; his own home was a station on the Underground Railroad.

More About Allan Pinkerton. How wonderful that Scotland gave the world its very first private eye. Some historians, however, believe that the country did herself a favour by exporting the man across the ocean and washing her hands of him.

At first, he appeared to be a typical Glasgow rebel of the early 19th century. He trained as a cooper, he was a Chartist, he believed in the rights of the working man. A troublesome crowd, those Chartists, who wanted votes for all men. When things got hot for them, Allan skipped the country and settled in Dundee, Dundee in Illinois, that is. There, while he kept on making barrels, he became interested in crime prevention. He was quite good at it. He invented a super scheme of sitting in empty barrels to eavesdrop on criminals' conversations, and then informing the police.

When pursuing crooks, he used the ploy of keeping his eyes open for camp fires at night, which he himself certainly regarded as a stroke of genius. He had such a high opinion of his detective powers, in fact, that he gave up barrels and founded his own detective agency. It didn't do too well until Pinkerton convinced American railroad companies that his agency could put a stop to thefts on their lines, and suddenly he was in business. What this erstwhile Chartist's agency actually concentrated on was spying on trade unionists to defeat their organising efforts.

Nothing could stop the man now. In 1861 he was given the job of guarding newly-elected President Abraham Lincoln, and during the Civil War Pinkerton was in charge of the Union's spying efforts against the Confederates. He wasn't about when the actor and Confederate sympathiser John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. But a man can't be everywhere at once. Pinkerton did his best, but his best was fairly awful.