Allan Pinkerton

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Allan Pinkerton
BirthplaceGlasgow, Scotland
NationalityScottish American
Detective and spy
Known for Creating the Pinkerton Agency

Pinkerton, Allan,

1819–84, American detective, founder of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, b. Glasgow, Scotland. A cooper by trade, he emigrated to the United States in 1842 and opened in West Dundee, Ill., a cooper's shop, which became a station on the Underground Railroad. His discovery and capture of a band of counterfeiters led to his appointment (1846) as county sheriff and, in 1850, to an appointment as the first city detective on the Chicago police force. He established in the same year a private detective agency, which had considerable success in solving train- and express-company robberies. In 1861 he foiled a plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln, and in the Civil War Pinkerton organized and directed an espionage system behind the Confederate lines. His agency secured (1869) evidence on which the Molly MaguiresMolly Maguires
, secret organization of Irish-Americans in the coal-mining districts of Pennsylvania. Its name came from a woman who led an extralegal, antilandlord organization in Ireland during the 1840s, and its membership was drawn from the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an
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 were broken up. After Pinkerton's death, the agency was continued by his sons, Robert A. Pinkerton and William A. Pinkerton, and was active in breaking the Homestead strike of 1892. For its role in industrial disputes on behalf of management, particularly in its use of labor spies, the agency was denounced by organized labor. Pinkerton wrote of his own experiences in Criminal Reminiscences and Detective Sketches (1879) and other books.


See biography by S. A. Lavine; R. W. Rowan, The Pinkertons (1931); J. D. Horan, Desperate Men (1949) and The Pinkertons (1967).

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Pinkerton, Allan

(1819–84) detective, Union secret service chief; born in Glasgow, Scotland. Son of a policeman, he became a barrelmaker before emigrating to the U.S.A. in 1842 and settling in Illinois. His abolitionist sympathies led him to aid the "underground railroad" for escaping slaves. After helping to capture a gang of counterfeiters, he was elected a deputy sheriff of his county (1846); in 1850 he moved to Chicago and became the deputy sheriff of Cook County and a detective on the Chicago police force. In 1852 he formed his own private detective agency and gained considerable fame for solving a series of train robberies. In 1861 he discovered a plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln while he was to travel by railroad to the inauguration in Washington, D.C.; Pinkerton personally guarded Lincoln on this trip. As a result, Gen. George McClellan got Pinkerton named to head the Federal army's new secret service; under the alias "Major E. L. Allen," Pinkerton came up with some intelligence, but its quality was so poor that it was said to have contributed to McClellan's failed Peninsula Campaign; when McClellan lost his command, Pinkerton also lost his post. He continued, however, to investigate damage claims against the government (1862–65). After the Civil War, he went back to Chicago and expanded his own detective agency to other cities. It became known for organizing groups of armed men and hiring them out to help management break strikes by the new labor unions. (In 1892 it was "Pinkerton men" who were called in for the infamous Homestead affair.) He published ten volumes about his experiences as a detective.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.