Investigating Allan Pinkerton

Continuing the occasional series of outstanding Scots ignored or overlooked


The pugnacious, street smart, Allan Pinkerton

Allan Pinkerton is not quite in the half-forgotten category of previous personalities illuminated here, but as far as Scotland is concerned readers will find it hard to discover much about him in his native Glasgow, or even a conventional statue in a street, though Hollywood has made him famous ten times over.

I began researching the life and times of this single-minded Scottish political rebel and pioneering lawman Allan Pinkerton for a television drama. What a character he was. I thought it was going to be a hard slog to avoid familiar Hollywood hokum, Jessie James gang myths, escapades of which Pinkerton is so often associated, but enquiry brought forth a string of pearls to choose from.

Pinkerton grew up in abject poverty, a tough Gorbals street fighter, someone who believed in the overthrow of unpopular governments, active in the British Chartist movement, a movement to secure rights and influence for the working classes. Chartism got its name from the formal petition, or People’s Charter, that listed the main aims of the movement. It’s all the more remarkable that he became a granite pillar of the American establishment. A street fighter a pillar of society? Absolutely so. A Pinkerton man is the first person you meet when you enter an American embassy.

Pinkerton had a price on his head, forced to flee Scotland. On a boat top Canada he met his future wife, Joan Carfrae. He proposed to her there and then and she answered his offer by singing  a  Burns song. After a shipwreck, an attack by native Indians, and a long trek by horse and foot inland, they settled in a small town called Dundee, just outside Chicago. There he opened a cooperage, and by request from neighbours, having tracked down a couple of lazy thieves, began solving small-time thieves. As his reputation grew so did his bank balance. Pining for his homeland he imported 85,000 larch tree saplings from Scotland to plant around his house, naming it “The Larches”.

My research uncovered a rare book, now sitting on my bookshelves, one he wrote and published in 1884, ‘Thirty Years a Detective’, (reissued some recently) stories of the cases he solved, quite an achievement for a rough kid from Glasgow with no education, who taught himself to read. He knew even then how to operate the back streets to buy and sell things to scrape a living. He called his detectives ‘operatives’.

The book is broken up into themed chapters, each with a dozen cases to tell as example: Hotel Thieves; Steamboat Operators; House Breaking; Confidence and Blackmail; Forgers; Express Robbers; there’s hardly a category of crime Pinkerton was not called to solve.

He’s chiefly known for establishing the Pinkerton Detective Agency, the one with a human eye as its emblem, the legend underneath, “We never sleep”. It gave rise to the phrase, ‘private eye’.


Having a Pinkerton man on your tail brought fear to the heart of any crook. A Pinkerton detective was tenacious and incorruptible.

Pinkerton wrote: “The profession of detective is an officer of justice, and must himself be pure and above reproach. The public safety and the perfect fulfilment of his calling require this; and where the detective is found to possess these qualifications, success invariably attends his operations.”

By that code, respect for the Agency grew and grew. Bank mangers realised they could trust a Pinkerton detective above all others. Moreover, Pinkerton never took a cut of the money stolen and found; he charged only operative fees and expenses. Being a lot smarter than the average self-employed, self-proclaimed detective, Pinkerton suggested each bank employ a permanent Pinkerton guard. The Agency’s clients multiplied like rabbits.

Pinkerton had an unerring ability to choose people with potential qualities to become a good detective: George H. Bangs, for example, a bank teller who could spot a forged note instantly, honest and loyal enough to become Pinkerton’s office manager; Clarence A. Seward, an impressionist able to alter appearance like a chameleon as a spy, D. W. Mann, a woodsman able to track a fleeing assailant across any territory.

One of his best operatives was Timothy Webster, a New York policeman. When the agency began working for the unionists and Lincoln, both as spies and message couriers, Webster was captured by the secessionist Confederate army.

When Pinkerton heard the news, he and President Lincoln sent a message to the Confederacy threatening that if Webster was put to death, the Union would reciprocate by hanging a Confederate spy. Union policy had been to keep Confederate spies in jail and exchange them for Union prisoners. The Confederacy ignored the threat and on April 29, 1862, Timothy Webster climbed the gallows in Richmond, Virginia at Camp Lee. After the initial attempt to hang Webster failed, he was helped to the gallows again and was heard to say, “I suffer a double death!” before being killed on the second attempt

Confederate officers had trusted Webster many times with valuable documents and information and the Confederacy was extremely embarrassed by Webster’s death. Pinkerton never got over his death. He had boasted all his operatives came back with their case solved.


A newspaper sketch of the execution of operative Timothy Webster

But for my purposes I was more interested in how Pinkerton came to employ the first female detective, Kate Warne.

Warne was a woman of independent mind and feisty. She could ride a horse, shoot a pistol, and sleep rough while chasing a villain as good as any man. Pinkerton came across her when investigating the death of her husband. She wanted revenge on his killer, and, seeing she had the skills to follow it through, took the decision to make her a trainee detective. In double quick time she proved herself more than worth her salary.


Kate Warne, disguised as a Union soldier, one of two existing photographs

Kate Warne was born in New York City. Almost nothing is known of her prior to 1856 when, as a young widow, she answered an employment advertisement placed by Alan Pinkerton. She was one of four new agents the Pinkerton Detective Agency hired that year and proved to be a natural, taking to undercover work easily. She had taken part in embezzlement and railroad security cases when in 1861 the Pinkertons uncovered a lead about the first Lincoln assassination conspiracy.

It was in helping to uncover the second, successful plot to assassinate President Lincoln, (Pinkerton thwarted the first becoming his trusted security adviser) that Warne came into her own. It transpired her husband had been a sympathiser of the Confederate cause to the point that he joined the group called ‘Jerusalem Regained’, the secret name given for their plan. Pinkerton admired Warne enormously. She accompanied him to hunt down the plotters and Lincoln’s assassin, the actor John Wilkes Booth.

In the task, a long, arduous journey into dangerous terrain among Confederates, Warne got close to Pinkerton, too close according to his fiercely loyal wife, Joan, and in that, and the case they pursued, there are marvellous complications, plot twists, heroism, and conflict of emotions and ambitions.


An early photograph of Pinkerton and Joan, his wife

Personal relationships aside, Pinkerton is credited with establishing the first ever secret service, borne out of working for the Union in the Civil War. He also began the first aerial recognisance – by hot air balloon – over Confederate lines.

When his Agency burned down in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 he rebuilt it. Rumour has it the name of the senator behind Lincoln’s assassination was lost in the Agency’s destruction. In building his beloved home outside Chicago he had 10,000 larch trees imported from Scotland planted in its grounds.

Pinkerton’s one serious misstep was sending in operatives with cudgels to break up a strike at one of Carnegie’s steel mills in Homestead, Pennsylvania. The mill manager sent for Pinkerton guards, but when they arrived they met thousands of angry strikers. After an-all day battle Pinkerton’s men were defeated. In all, nine strikers and seven Pinkerton men were killed, with many on both sides badly injured. The incident tarnished Pinkerton’s reputation for a decade. Pinkerton claimed to be pro-union but anti-strikes. Instead he cemented his credentials for law and order over civil rights, an inevitable process, some argue, when also a government spying organisation.

After he died, the Agency was placed in the hands of his two sons, William and Robert, who expanded its work well into the twentieth century successfully. One of its operatives was an aspiring detective novelist, Dashiell Hammett.


The famous photograph of Pinkerton with Abraham Lincoln. When Lincoln saw photographs of dead soldiers on the battlefields he said, “Seeing these, [photos] people will never want to go to war again”.

Thirty Years a Detective is one of seventeen books he published. Some of the inaccuracies it contains are the cause of dictating his memoirs to associates without checking proof copy, but it offers a insight into Pinkerton’s methods and criminal culture of his day. Although not free from shortcomings it ranks as the most valuable archive of Pinkerton’s work and accomplishments.

The book of his exploits is a golden opportunity to produce an engrossing television drama series about a significant Scot. Will BBC Scotland’s new drama commissioning editor take the lead? [That was an easy joke, but it probably scared the hell out of  the BBC bosses.]

(A shorter version of this essay appeared in the November edition of iScot magazine)

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3 Responses to Investigating Allan Pinkerton

  1. liz g says:

    A fascinating read…. thank you.
    Must admit that I am finding a few similarities to Pinkertons story in a series I am watching on Amazon right now.
    Turn…. could be that Pinkertons story had some influence on it’s writers….
    But I don’t know if the story itself is based on real people, who clearly weren’t him!

  2. Grouse Beater says:

    Hello, Liz.
    There was a version of Pinkerton played by superman actor, Christopher Reeve, (it really showed up his emotional limitations) with a distinctly comical false beard. It truly sucked! But I’ve lost count of all the others who’ve tried, usually as cameos in a film about a parallel historical character.

  3. Yes, fascinating read, GB. I enjoyed that.
    I was aware of this Scot – another ‘forgotten or ignored’ – but his story has so much to offer that I’ll look forward to the day your screenplay does that story justice.
    Probably a naive question; have you tried selling it in the US?

    On subject; There’s an old cemetery at the foot of Glasgow’s Abercromby St in Calton, where you’ll find the final resting place of Dr James Smith, a fine marble obelisk marking the grave. He was another Scot who was known personally to Abraham Lincoln, his counsel valued, his friendship undoubted. The story of their meeting – mostly down to Mary Lincoln – is an interesting and, as always, proud read. Our many prominent citizens have been cast-aside and historically abused, until faint, internet-snippets shine a light upon them once more. These Scots should be known to us.

    Sell that screenplay, GB

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