Allan Pinkerton: Man of Mystery

Jun 7, 2014 | 2014 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze

by Terry Ambrose

Allan Pinkerton’s name is synonymous with the Pinkerton Detective Agency and hard men who tracked train robbers across the West to deliver frontier justice. During the agency’s 150-year history–a legacy that continues to this day–the agents known as “Pinks” or “Pinkertons” or other more colorful names became involved in cases requiring investigation, surveillance, or other undercover projects, including fighting against a cause Allan once fought for. Even the agency’s logo has exerted an influence on our society by cementing forever in our language the term “private eye.” logo

Allan Pinkerton’s is the unusual story of a man who found his calling and never looked back, but may have left behind as many questions as he did answers because, despite his passion for stringent documentation, some aspects of the first private eye’s life remain a mystery.

Allan Pinkerton began life as somewhat of a rabble-rouser. Young Allan became involved with political and religious causes that taught him skills he would use later in life. He learned the art of organizing workers, demonstrations, and covert, as well as political, operations in his work as a Chartist organizer in Scotland. Whether that work eventually forced him to leave Scotland as a fugitive is unknown, but one thing is certain, when the young barrel maker and his bride immigrated to America in 1842 they had no idea the move would take them from the laborer social class to one involving wealth and status.


Allan Pinkerton

A cooper by trade, Allan Pinkerton created a solid business within his first years as an American. He became involved in detective work only by accident when, in June 1846, he was poling his raft up the Fox River near Algonquin looking for trees to use for his business. He came across a small island on which he found a campground, which he considered highly unusual since camping was not a normal activity for any of the local citizens. Curious, he continued to visit the island and soon realized that someone was engaged in an activity on the island at night, which he considered even more suspicious. He contacted the sheriff and together, along with a posse, they returned one night to find a band of counterfeiters at work. The counterfeiters were arrested, and Allan was praised for his detective work and deductive skills.

Allan’s reputation as an investigator spread and he was soon taking in occasional cases. Eventually, he and his wife Joan moved to Chicago, where Allan partnered with Chicago attorney Edward Rucker to form what would later become the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. It was this role that led Allan to rub shoulders with Abraham Lincoln and General George McClellan.

In 1861, Allan was involved in the investigation of a case for the railway when he uncovered what he thought was an assassination plot against President-elect Lincoln. The newly elected President was informed of the plot, which was scheduled to take place in Baltimore during a stop on the way to his inauguration. Lincoln changed his itinerary so that he secretly passed through the city at night. The alleged plot remains one of the great mysteries surrounding Allan Pinkerton today, but did a great deal to raise his stature in the

When the Union Army needed help to deal with Confederate military operations, General George McClellan turned to the man who had helped save Lincoln. He asked Allan to create a network of spies to work behind enemy lines during the Civil War. The result of that request is the forerunner of today’s Secret Service. Allan’s agents worked in Kentucky and West Virginia, and Allan also did surveillance in Tennessee, Georgia, and Mississippi.

Pinkertons are probably best known as the men who tracked down train robbers and brought them to justice. However, where young Allan fought for labor rights in Scotland, his company later did exactly the opposite. After Allan’s death, the company became involved in high-profile labor-movement activities such as the Homestead Strike of 1891, which resulted in the Anti-Pinkerton Act being passed in 1893 to prevent the US government from hiring professional strike-breakers.

Allan is a man surrounded by controversy. He may have operated as a spy for the Union army and documented Confederate operations during the Civil War, but he’s also accused of embellishing the notes about his life. We may never know for sure if these accusations are valid, yet there can be no denying that Allan appears to have had a bit of writer in his makeup. Or, did he?

Did Allan actually write the more than twenty detective books, short stories, and novels he’s credited with? Or, did he hire ghost-writers to promote his name and agency? The best answer to that question may come from the preface of Allan’s first book, The Expressman and the Detective. In that 1874 preface, Allan wrote, “If there be any incidental embellishment, it is so slight that the actors in these scenes from the drama of life would never themselves detect it; and if the incidents seem to the reader at all marvellous or improbable, I can but remind him, in the words of the old adage that ‘Truth is stranger than fiction.’”

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Terry Ambrose is a former bill collector and skip tracer who now uses that background to write mysteries and thrillers. His debut mystery Photo Finish was a 2013 San Diego Book Awards Finalist. You can learn more about Terry on his website.

1 Comment

  1. Interesting, thanks!


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