Pinkertons: The Old West's Secret Police That Still Exist Today

By Grace Taylor

Pinkerton on horseback on the Antietam Battlefield in 1862. (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

The Pinkerton National Detective Agency is one of the oldest private investigation firms in America. At its peak, it was also the largest private police agency in the nation's history. Throughout their years, they've been war spies, strikebreakers, gangbusters, and presidential assassination foils, all while doing cool things like assisting the Underground Railroad and hiring the first female detective.

Allan Pinkerton

It all begins with a Scotsman by the name of Allan Pinkerton. Born in Glasgow on August 25, 1819, Pinkerton spent his young life working as a cooper for low pay. He turned to activism and became heavily involved in the Scottish Chartism movement, whose goals were universal male suffrage, better pay, and safer working conditions for the lower class. After some serious run-ins with British troops, he discovered a warrant out for his arrest, so in 1842, he and his wife fled to the United States.

Pinkerton (left) with Abraham Lincoln and Major General John A. McClernand. (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

Counterfeiting And The Underground Railroad

Pinkerton intended to lead a quiet life in that new land of opportunity, but fate had its own designs. In 1847, he just so happened upon a counterfeiter's camp while out gathering wood. As Western expansion made things like currency hard to formalize, counterfeiters had a field day faking bills and selling them, especially to immigrants like Pinkerton, who weren't as familiar with how those things ought to look. Angered, his natural inclinations told him to spy and report his findings to the local authorities.

The townsfolk were so impressed that they actually made him a sheriff's deputy, but Pinkerton was annoyed with things like government corruption and the limits of jurisdiction. He thought he could do more good for his community by creating a detective agency, which he called Pinkerton National Detective Agency to warn ne'er-do-wells that he wasn't limited by things like local or state jurisdictions.

An unwavering abolitionist, Pinkerton wasted no time putting his detective skills to work for his local underground railroad and even used his home in Illinois as a stop for slaves fleeing north. He kept his ear to the ground for talk of secession among Southern sympathizers, but due to his rising fame, it was difficult for him or his prized detectives to infiltrate their inner circles. 

That changed in 1856, when a young woman named Kate Warne stepped into Pinkerton's office to apply for a job as a detective. At first, he laughed her off, insisting there was no such thing as a female detective, but he was smart enough to hear her out. She made an impressive case for herself, pointing out that being a woman was a great advantage for a detective. She could go to places men couldn't, like the women's clubs where so much gossip took place, and anyway, who would ever suspect a sweet young lady of being a spy?

First logo for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. (Pinkerton National Detective Agency/Wikimedia Commons)

Almost Assassination

Pinkerton was sold, and it didn't take long for his faith in young Warne to pay off. She was right: No one did suspect her when she posed as a Southern belle and began befriending the wives of suspected criminals, even recovering $50,000 dollars worth of stolen money (over $1 million today) the very next year, but her true claim to fame was her role in uncovering a secret plot to kill the president-elect, Abraham Lincoln.

Pretending to be a secessionist, she partied alongside others at the Barnum's City Hotel in Baltimore, where she heard whispers of a plan to attack Lincoln as he traveled by train to the White House, either by destroying the railroads themselves or even blowing up a bridge. While Warne was confident a conspiracy was brewing, she couldn't tease out the concrete details, so she pleaded Pinkerton to tell Lincoln to cancel his speaking tour and just head straight to Washington.

Lincoln, however, knew he was unpopular and desperately needed to connect with people. It wasn't until his own soon-to-be secretary of state, William H. Seward, also caught wind of the conspiracy that Lincoln finally agreed to sneak out of Baltimore unannounced and cancel his scheduled appearances. However, it would look pretty weird for the president-elect to just skip out on a train in the middle of the night, and word would get around fairly quickly to the extremists who wanted to kill him. Using her superpower of being overlooked by pretty much everyone in charge, Warne disguised Lincoln as an invalid, posed as his sister, and bribed the conductor to let her "sick" older brother sit in the back behind a curtain so he wouldn't be a disturbance.

The conductor agreed, and no one ever knew that the next president of the United States was sitting right behind them. Warne was careful to keep a close watch over Lincoln as the night crawled on, which inspired the detective agency's slogan, "We never sleep," and perhaps even the term "private eye." Of course, Lincoln made it to his inauguration safely, but there was a lot of work ahead of him and the Pinkertons.

Pinkerton guards escort strikebreakers in Buchtel, Ohio, 1884. (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

Pinkerton's Legacy

Throughout the Civil War, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency ran counterintelligence, regularly sending word back to Washington of the Confederates' plans and locations of encampments. Allan Pinkerton even went deep undercover as a Confederate soldier using the pseudonym E.J. Allen but was discovered and nearly killed. After the Union's victory, Pinkerton spent most of his time hassling gangsters, most notably Jesse James. Obviously, the Pinkertons never caught him, although they may have accidentally killed his mom and little brother when one of their flares malfunctioned and exploded on their farm.

Strangely enough, Pinkerton's agency turned to strikebreaking (using force or intimidation to break up a labor strike) after the death of their founder, once a radical activist for the rights of the working class, in 1884. By 1890, thousands of people worked for the agency. In fact, they had more armed men at their beck and call than the entire standing U.S. Army. On July 6, 1892, this power was used against the workers of the Carnegie Steel Company in Homestead, Pennsylvania when 300 armed Pinkertons arrived by boat to forcibly put down the ongoing lockout. However, the strikers weren't playing around and opened fire on the Pinkertons as they attempted to dock their boats.

They fought for 12 hours, and after 10 deaths, the Pinkertons finally gave up. By 1893, the U.S. government had had enough of this ever-growing private police force and passed the Anti-Pinkerton Act, which severely limited their power and ability to be hired. The Pinkerton National Detective Agency actually still exists today, although it is significantly smaller.

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Grace Taylor