Allan Pinkerton
rating: +2+x

Basic Information

He fought Civil War spies and Wild West train robbers; he saved the life of Abraham Lincoln and established the first Private Detective agency. His name became synonymous both with law and with anti-union violence. The FBI used his company's standards and practices as a model for their own agency. He put the eye in Private Eye. His name was Allan Pinkerton.

Pinkerton was born in Glasgow, Scotland in the year 1819. As a young man, he apprenticed to be a cooper, or barrel-maker. He also became involved with the Chartist movement, a reformist group seeking to expand the rights of the working classes. His political activities put him in trouble with the Law, and in 1842 he and his new wife fled Scotland and came to the United States.

He established a cooperage in the Scottish community of Dundee, near Chicago. While chopping wood on a nearby island, he discovered evidence of a counterfeiting ring, and helped the local sheriff capture the gang. His shrewd observation skills led him to become a deputy sheriff, and later the first police detective in Chicago.

In the 1850s, Pinkerton decided to go into business for himself. He partnered with a local attorney to found the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. He had established a reputation as an uncompromising, incorruptible lawman and established strict ethical guidelines for his firm and for his agents. He developed techniques of surveillance and undercover work. He hired the first female detective in America, realizing that there were situations where a woman would be a more effective agent than a man. In the 1850s, he investigated a series of train robberies and his success fueled his growing reputation. His company's logo, an eye with the motto "We Never Sleep", became symbolic of the Pinkerton's vigilant dedication.

Pinkerton was a fervent abolitionist and an admirer of John Brown, as well as a friend of Abraham Lincoln. In January, 1861, while investigating rumors of planned attacks on a major rail line, Pinkerton agents discovered instead a plot to assassinate Lincoln on the way to his inauguration. Pinkerton persuaded Lincoln to change his schedule and placed agents all along the route to thwart the assassination.

From 1861-1862, during the Civil War, Pinkerton served as head of the Union Intelligence Service, a precursor to the United States Secret Service. His agents often worked undercover as Confederate soldiers and sympathizers, and Pinkerton himself went on espionage missions under the alias of "Major M.E. Allan". He broke a major Confederate spy ring operating in the heart of the Capitol, run by one of the most admired ladies of Washington society.

After the Civil War, Pinkerton returned to his agency and resumed his pursuit of train robbers, swindlers and confidence men. He pioneered the use of a "mug shot" to identify criminals and began compiling a database of crime. His agents tracked Frank and Jesse James, the Younger Brothers, Butch Cassidy's Hole-in-the-Wall Gang and several other outlaw gangs.

He also became involved with the growing union movement. The man who had fled his native Scotland agitating for worker's rights, had now become a friend of railroad barons and plutocrats, who hired Pinkerton agents as strikebreakers, protecting scabs and sometimes inciting violence against striking workers.

In 1884, Pinkerton slipped and fell on a Chicago street, biting his tongue. The resulting cut turned gangrenous, and Pinkerton died on July 1.

See Also

Pinkertons Agent
Molly Maguires


2. Allan Pinkerton and his Detective Agency: We Never Sleep — a good article describing several of Pinkerton's cases.

Game and Story Use

  • In a historical game set in the mid-1880s, particularly a Civil War campaign or a Western campaign, Alan Pinkerton might make a good patron.
  • PCs might actually come across Pinkerton working undercover as "Major Allan"
  • Political intrigues forced Pinkerton to leave the Union Intelligence Service in 1862, but what if he had remained in charge? Could he have prevented John Wilkes Booth's assassination of Lincoln?
  • Pinkerton came in contact with several important figures of the 19th Century making him a potential divergence point for alternate histories.
Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License