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

By | March 28, 2021

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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.

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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?