Allan Pinkerton and His Detective Agency

A Brief History of the Pinkertons

Allan Pinkerton During Civil War
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Allan Pinkerton (1819-1884) never intended to be a spy. So how did he become the founder of one of the most respected detective agencies in America? 

Immigrating to America 

Born in Scotland, August 25, 1819, Allan Pinkerton was a cooper, or barrel-maker.. He immigrated to the United States in 1842 and settled near Chicago, Illinois. He was an industrious man and quickly realized that working for himself would be a much better proposition for himself and family. After some searching, he moved to a town called Dundee that was in need of a cooper and quickly gained control of the market because of his superior quality barrels and low prices. His desire to continually improve his business actually led him down the path to being a detective.

Catching Counterfeiters 

Allan Pinkerton realized that good quality raw materials for his barrels were easily obtained on a small deserted island close to town. He decided that instead of paying others to provide him with the materials, he would travel to the island and get it himself. However, once he got to the island, he saw signs of habitation. Knowing that there were some counterfeiters in the area, he surmised this could be the hideout that had long eluded officials. He teamed up with the local sheriff to stake out the camp. His detective work led to the arrest of the band. The local townspeople then turned to him for help in arresting the ringleader of the band. His natural abilities eventually allowed him to track down the culprit and bring the counterfeiters to justice.

Founding His Own Detective Agency

In 1850, Allan Pinkerton founded his detective agency based on his own incorruptible principles. His values became the cornerstone of a respected agency that still exists today. His reputation preceded him during the Civil War. He headed the organization responsible for spying on the confederacy. At wars end, he went back to running the Pinkerton Detective Agency until his death on July 1, 1884. At his death the agency continued to operate and would soon become a major force against the young labor movement developing in the United States of America. In fact, this effort against labor tarnished the image of the Pinkertons for years. They always maintained the high moral standards established by their founder, but many people began to view them as an arm of big business. They were involved in numerous activities against labor and during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

  • Pullman Strike (1894)
  • The Wild Bunch Gang (1896)
  • Ludlow Massacre (1914)

Many labor sympathizers accused the Pinkertons of inciting riots as a means of keeping employment or for other nefarious purposes. Their reputation was harmed by their protection of scabs and business property of the major industrialists including Andrew Carnegie. However, they managed to last through all of the controversy and still thrive today as SECURITAS.

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Kelly, Martin. "Allan Pinkerton and His Detective Agency." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Kelly, Martin. (2020, August 27). Allan Pinkerton and His Detective Agency. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "Allan Pinkerton and His Detective Agency." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).