Pinkerton Detective Agency: How one Glaswegian helped found the Secret Service and foiled an assassination plot on Abraham Lincoln

Allan J. Pinkerton was one of the most influential Glaswegians of the 19th century - who helped shape America and its law enforcement - he’s a legend in American history, but barely recognised in his home city.
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Whether you view him as a hero or a villain, it’s undeniable the effect the man had.on the fields of policing, detective work, and even military intelligence.

His name is so synonymous with detective work, that ‘Pinkerton’ is slang for detective to this day in the United States - while the term private eye comes from his security company, which featured a logo of an unblinking eye that read ‘We Never Sleep’.

Humble beginnings

Pinkerton with his wife Joan Joan Carfrae. They married in Glasgow on March 13, 1842 right before they emigrated to America. They remained married until his death.Pinkerton with his wife Joan Joan Carfrae. They married in Glasgow on March 13, 1842 right before they emigrated to America. They remained married until his death.
Pinkerton with his wife Joan Joan Carfrae. They married in Glasgow on March 13, 1842 right before they emigrated to America. They remained married until his death.

Born in the Gorbals on July 21, 1819 - Pinkerton grew up in Glasgow as hard as any working class Glaswegian of the industrial era, being forced to leave school at the age of 10 after his father’s death.

Not to be deterred by the lack of opportunity in education at the time, Allan remained a voracious reader, growing into - by all accounts - an intelligent, self-educated, and even cunning man.

Uncommon for the era, Pinkerton was a life-long atheist, despite being baptised as a baby.

At the age of 24, Pinkerton sought greener pastures in the new world - emigrating to the newly established United States in 1842. After some travelling he found Dundee, not the one on the River Tay, but a small township in Illinois a few dozen miles out of Chicago.

It might be surprising to hear given the heritage he left behind, but Pinkerton had no predilection to becoming a detective - at this point detective work was a new industry, with the first detective agency only being set up in Paris a decade prior around 1833.

In this era of America the law was fast and loose - much looser the further West you travelled - crime was rampant, rarely discovered, and punishments were harsh, often lethal.

Ever the pragmatist, Pinkerton built a cabin and began a cooperage - the name given to the industry of barrel-making.

It was entirely by accident that the soon-to-be gumshoe discovered his passion, around 5 years after first setting up his barrel business. While wandering through the woods in Dundee looking for suitable trees for his next batch of barrels - Pinkerton uncovered a group of counterfeiters.

The Glaswegian hid and watched the criminals (believed to be part of the gang ‘Banditti of the Prairie') work, tracked their movements and reported it to the local sheriff - who soon arrested the ne’er-do-wells.

Word travelled quickly of the work of Pinkerton - who did by accident what the sheriff’s office had been trying to accomplish for some time. The feat turned him into somewhat of a local celebrity, earning him the title of sheriff of a nearby town - which would escalate into the role of Chicago’s first Police Detective, alongside a role as an agent of the U.S. Post Office.

“The affair was in everybody’s mouth,” Pinkerton later wrote, “and I suddenly found myself called upon from every quarter to undertake matters requiring detective skill.”

Pinkerton Detective Agency

The original Pinkerton logo, their motto 'We Never Sleep' spoke of their doggedness in pursuit of their targets.The original Pinkerton logo, their motto 'We Never Sleep' spoke of their doggedness in pursuit of their targets.
The original Pinkerton logo, their motto 'We Never Sleep' spoke of their doggedness in pursuit of their targets.

By 1850, Pinkerton was one of the most trusted detectives of the new criminal investigation industry in the new-world. It was at this point he partnered with Chicago attorney Edward Rucker to form the North-Western Police Agency.

The North-Western Police Agency was a private detective company, and would go on to become Pinkerton & Co, then Pinkerton National Detective Agency, and then Pinkerton Consulting and Investigations.

As the U.S. Government’s quest to tame the wild west expanded - so did their rail transport network - which led to the Pinkerton Agency becoming one of the main protectors of the railroads across America.

Train robberies quickly escalated alongside the new rail networks, and it was the Pinkertons job to investigate, track down, and stop train robberies either before, during, or after they happened.

Civil War

Pinkerton served as the head of the Union Intelligence Service for a period during the Civil War in AmericaPinkerton served as the head of the Union Intelligence Service for a period during the Civil War in America
Pinkerton served as the head of the Union Intelligence Service for a period during the Civil War in America

With the advent of the Civil War, Pinkerton graduated from criminal investigation to military intelligence on behalf of the Northern Union. Pinkerton would serve as the head of the Union Intelligence Service during the first two years of the conflict.

He would send his agents to work undercover as Confederate soldiers and sympathisers to spy on the enemy forces. Though Pinkerton took the old Glaswegian adage ‘if you want something done right, do it yourself’ to heart, and would go on missions himself undercover under the alias ‘Major E.J Allen’.

This nearly led to his execution by Confederate forces when he was rumbled in Memphis, but the crafty detective turned spy managed to escape with his life.

The counterintelligence work done by Pinkerton and his agents was novel at the time, something never done by the American army before. It’s comparable to the work done by the U.S. Army Counterintelligence Special Agents today.

Pinkerton Detective Agency serves as a predecessor to the likes of the U.S. Federal Secret Service, which in turn informed the rest of the Western world's intelligence agencies like MI6, FBI, and CIA to name a few.

Saving Abraham Lincoln

Pinkerton foiled an assassination plot on Abraham Lincoln - four years before he was shot dead by John Wilkes BoothPinkerton foiled an assassination plot on Abraham Lincoln - four years before he was shot dead by John Wilkes Booth
Pinkerton foiled an assassination plot on Abraham Lincoln - four years before he was shot dead by John Wilkes Booth

While serving as the head of the Union Intelligence Service, Pinkerton headed off an assassination plot targeting Abrahm Lincoln as he passed through Baltimore on his way to Washington D.C.

It was in March 1861, shortly before Lincoln’s first inauguration as US President that the top-hat wearing President elect was targeted by Southern sympathisers.

Pinkerton believed that Confederate agents would attempt to sabotage the rail lines to Washington D.C. - but while doing undercover work, he found that there was a fully fledged assassination plot in place.

Pinkerton informed the President and immediately changed his travel plans - pushing forward the schedule to an overnight train. He also cut telegraph lines to make sure the conspirators couldn’t communicate.

It’s even said that Pinkerton had Lincoln pose as the disabled brother of one of his agents to cover up his identity.

This decision to skip over Baltimore on his tour of the U.S had Lincoln labelled a coward in the press - while none of the would-be assassins were ever arrested, leading many historians to believe the threat had been minimal or not real at all.

The idea of Lincoln being targeted by assassins isn’t all that surprising given the tensions in the U.S. at the time - and knowing what we know now. He would survive another four years until the sitting President would be shot dead in a theatre by assassin John Wilkes Booth in 1865.

Back in the saddle

Following his service for the Union Army, the Pinkerton Detective Agency headed by their Glaswegian founder was back on the tail of tran robbers like the Reno Gang.

He was hired to track down outlaw Jesse James - but after a few blunders and missteps the railroad companies withdrew their financial support. Such was the doggedness and determination of Pinkerton that he continued to track James at his own expense, although to no avail, which was very possibly the detectives greatest failing.

He would go on to work with the Spanish Government, suppressing a revolution in Cuba in 1872 which hoped to bring an end to slavery and give citizens the right to vote.

Pinkerton would die in Chicago in 1884 - not in the line of duty - but due to illness, an accident or poor health, reports conflict between malaria, a stroke, and a bad fall.

Who was Allan J. Pinkerton?

A portrait picture of Allan J. PinkertonA portrait picture of Allan J. Pinkerton
A portrait picture of Allan J. Pinkerton

Pinkerton became a legend - and was many things to many people. To criminals and enemy soldiers he was an all-seeing presence who operated from the shadows to foil their plots. To those he protected under his service he was a god-send, a defender of democracy, and agent of justice.

The man himself was made of contradictions. Pinkerton declared himself as a staunch abolitionist and hater of slavery in his 1883 book The Spy of the Rebellion, but still his detective agency suppressed a revolution in Cuba that sought to end slavery in the country and give rights to its people.

Despite being a strong supporter of labour rights, the detective agency was heavily involved in breaking strikes - at times with subterfuge, on other occasions by force.

Though he believed himself to be an agent of justice, many of those under the employ of the Pinkerton Detective Agency were brutal in their methods, leading to many collateral civilian deaths in their pursuit of outlaw gangs and strike-breaking action.

Agents were so brutal at the Homestead Mill Strike of 1892, in which 300 Pinkertons battled with thousands of Steel Industry workers with bricks, guns and even dynamite, that laws were brought in to outlaw the use of outside security in labour disputes.

The so-called ‘Anti-Pinkerton act’ was enacted in several states, in the case of Ohio outlawing the service of the Pinkertons outright.

This wasn’t the only reason the Pinkertons became so controversial though - by the 1890s, the detective agency had 2,000 detectives and 30,000 reserves—more men than the standing army of the United States at the time.

The Pinkerton Legacy

The Pinkerton logo todayThe Pinkerton logo today
The Pinkerton logo today

Pinkerton Detective Agency exists to this very day for private security and consulting services - now known as Pinkerton.

Their legacy can’t be doubted - their methods of subterfuge informed the work of intelligence agencies across the world, long before the likes of the Cold War, James Bond, and the information age.

At the time of Pinkerton’s death he was working on a ‘Rogues Gallery’ which tracked down the worst offending criminals and catalogued their crimes, methods, and motives.

This was picked up by the FBI and transformed into the criminal database they retain today.

Without a doubt, for good or bad, Allan Pinkerton was one of the most influential Glaswegians the world has ever known.