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Hidden Folklorists: Allan and Joan Pinkerton

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This post is part of the series Hidden Folklorists.

Allan Pinkerton and Joan Carfrae Pinkerton. LC Prints and Photographs Division. For complete information, visit the original here. [//]
In the series Hidden Folklorists, we’ll profile people who have a surprising connection to folklife and folklife scholarship; surprising, because many of them are famous for other activities. From the earliest days of the discipline, folklife scholarship, in both senses of “collecting folklore materials” and “performing ethnographic inquiry into expressive traditions,” has been accomplished both by trained academics and by enthusiastic people from many walks of life.  In these features, we’ll celebrate the accomplishments of people for whom folklore was an avocation rather than a career.

Allan Pinkerton is famous as a 19th-century spy, policeman, bodyguard, and private detective. He was born in The Gorbals, a neighborhood of Glasgow, Scotland, in 1819. He emigrated to America in 1842 because his political activism as a member of Chartist movement made him a target for arrest. In Illinois, he established himself as a cooper, but through his keen powers of observation he stumbled upon and acted against a ring of counterfeiters, leading to his employment as Chicago’s first police detective. He is most famous for founding the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, which he created in 1850, and which still exists today.

In this 1861 letter, Pinkerton suggested to President Lincoln that he be allowed to form a special force of agents to perform “that class of Secret Service which is the most dangerous.” This letter is part of the genesis of what we now call the Secret Service. Visit the original letter here.

In 1861, while investigating a railway case, Pinkerton uncovered an assassination plot against president-elect Abraham Lincoln. The conspirators planned to kill Lincoln in Baltimore during a stop on his way to his inauguration. Pinkerton warned Lincoln of the threat, and the schedule was changed so that he passed through the city secretly at night. This led Lincoln to ask Pinkerton to found the Union Intelligence Service, a predecessor of the Secret Service. He served on undercover missions during the Civil War disguised as a Union Major, E.J. Allen. After the war, he returned to his detective agency.

Pinkerton’s story is well known, as the various web pages devoted to him at the Library of Congress make clear. (See the list below this article–my summary above was based on these sources.) These articles reveal a complex legacy. As a Chartist, he was dedicated to workers’ rights, but as a detective he often helped companies suppress labor unions. He was also a dedicated abolitionist, and his house was a station on the Underground Railroad.

By now, you’re wondering: what does Allan Pinkerton have to do with folklife? The answer is that both Allan Pinkerton and his wife Joan (born Joan Carfrae) were renowned enthusiasts of Scottish folksong. They contributed to the preservation of traditional songs through an early publication project, which is very much the kind of work often done by folklorists, four years before the word “folklore” was even coined.

Allan Pinkerton (“E. J. Allen”) of the Secret Service on horseback, September 1862. Alexander Gardner, photographer. LC Prints and Photographs Division. For complete information, visit the original here.

The Pinkertons’ love for Scottish songs went back to their youth in Scotland.  According to historian Daniel Stashower’s account in his book The Hour of Peril:

In the summer of 1841, [Pinkerton] called on the choirmaster of a local Unitarian church to arrange a night of song at a neighborhood pub as a ‘whip round’ fund-raiser for his Northern Democratic Association. Pinkerton attended the Thursday-night concert with his mother, and as the music began, he found himself unable to take his eyes off the choir’s young soprano. Though only fourteen years old at the time, she had the bearing and polish of a seasoned performer, and she soon brought the crowd to its feet with a spirited rendition of a forbidden Chartist song. Hopelessly smitten, Pinkerton took his friend Robbie Fergus aside to learn all he could about the young singer. She was a bookbinder’s apprentice from the nearby town of Paisley, Fergus told him, and her name was Joan Carfrae. At future concerts, Pinkerton made a point of sitting in the front row, wearing his best and perhaps only suit. He soon took it upon himself to escort Miss Carfrae home after each appearance. ‘I got to sort of hanging around her, clinging to her, so to speak,’ Pinkerton later wrote, ‘and I knew I couldn’t live without her.’

Stashower’s account further quotes Allan’s memoirs:

When I had the price set on my head, [Joan] found me where I was hiding, and when I told her I was all set up to making American barrels for the rest of my life and ventured it would be a pretty lonesome business without my bonnie singing bird around the shop, she just sang me a Scotch song that meant she’d go too, and God bless her she did.

Allan Pinkerton, President Lincoln, and Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand, Antietam, Maryland, September 1862. Alexander Gardner, photographer. LC Prints and Photographs Division. For complete information, visit the original here.

In their roles as folksong lovers, the Pinkertons had a hand in publishing an early song collection in Illinois, long before Pinkerton’s success as a detective. They had been taken in as lodgers by Allan’s friend Robbie Fergus, who was establishing himself as one of Chicago’s first printers. According to an account placed online by Pinkerton’s family:

It was extremely tough going all the same and at this stage, Allan did not foresee that he would eventually make a fortune. Indeed, his prospects in Chicago remained bleak and by early the next year, 1843, he was ready to move on to pastures new. Meantime, there was always the companionship of other Scots expatriates and musical evenings where he and the others could indulge in nostalgia for Scotland by listening to Scottish ballads. At this time, he and Joan were lodging with Robbie Fergus and in some recompense for his hospitality, the Pinkerton couple helped the printer get out a book of Scottish and country ballads – among the first ever printed in Chicago.

Joan’s experience as both a singer and a bookbinder made her an ideal participant, and Allan’s characteristic willingness to try his hand at anything no doubt played a role too. A biographical piece on Pinkerton in the September 25, 1889, issue of the Indiana State Sentinel, clarifies the couple’s individual roles in the bookbinding process:

This was in the summer of 1842. A temperance revival, conducted by a herculean Scotchman who sung old country ballads with marvelous effect, was in progress. The little printing shop of Fergus & Ellis collected and printed these songs. Mrs. Pinkerton folded the little volumes. Allan Pinkerton trimmed them with a shoemaker’s knife, punched the holes for the stitches with a shoemaker’s awl, and Pinkerton and wife together, with a darning-needle stitched every copy of this, the first songbook ever printed in Chicago.

Allan Pinkerton, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing left. Portrait by Brady’s National photographic Galleries, ca. 1861. LC Prints and Photographs Division. For complete information, visit the original at this link.

Unfortunately, no account I’ve seen explains whether Allan and Joan were involved in choosing the songs for the book, but it’s likely that they were.  After all, they were close friends of the publisher, who himself had no experience making a song collection. They were also song enthusiasts, and participated in music-making with the publisher. Finally, Joan was a renowned singer, and therefore arguably the most qualified of the three to choose the content. It seems likely from all this that the Pinkertons had some editorial role, and if so, we might well term them early folklorists.

Sadly, though, their contribution seems not to have lasted.  At AFC, we’ve been asked about this songbook many times, but we don’t think we’ve seen a copy. Given the accounts above, it seems there were only a few of them printed. Chicago in 1840 had only 4000 people (although its growth between then and 1850 was explosive), so there wasn’t that much of a local market. Moreover, the book seems aimed at the Scottish population, which was a handful. Given that much of the city went up in flames during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, it seems unlikely too many copies survived. Still, we hold out hope. We’d love to know of any copies of this book in archives or libraries.  We’ve seen the title given as “Scottish & Country Ballads” and the publisher given as “Fergus & Ellis,” although the publisher was usually known as Ellis & Fergus.  If anyone reading this has any information, please leave us a comment below!

This isn’t Pinkerton’s only connection to folklore. He’s also the subject of many traditional stories. Many people claim, for example, that the logo of his detective agency, an all-seeing eye, led to the expression “private eye” being used for a detective. Most scholars believe the phrase really comes from abbreviating the phrase “private investigator” (which seems to predate “private eye” by many years) to “private i.” As usual, such issues will never be fully solved!

In honor of the Pinkertons and their connections to folklore, visit this link to hear Charlotte MacInnes sing Scots folksongs for Sidney Robertson Cowell in 1939. Who knows? Some of these songs could well have been sung by Joan Carfrae about a century earlier!


Pinkerton Resources at the Library of Congress

Complete list of collection items and web pages at the Library related to Alan Pinkerton.

Finding aid to the Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency records.
(If that doesn’t work, cut and paste this URL into your browser window: )

Curated Library of Congress web resources concerning Pinkerton include the following:


Topics in Chronicling America: The Pinkertons (newspaper collections)

The First Private Eye (magazine article)

Private Eyes (blog post at Inside Adams)

Today in History, August 25

The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War (webcast of a book talk with Daniel Stashower)

American Treasures of the Library of Congress (online exhibition)

Comments (3)

  1. I too am fascinated by this and have endeavoured to find the songbook. Can I take it that no other comments posted here in the time since this articles publication two years ago means it still remains a mystery?

  2. Recently watched the excellent 2019 documentary “The Booksellers.” As an aficionado of the song form, intrigued at the possibility of their being a copy or two still in existence. Would enjoy seeing the song collection first and foremost, but that said, this history and background certainly sweetens the deal!

  3. A plaque is being erected this year (2022) near to where his home in the Gorbals,Glasgow once stood. Ironically it is at the building of Legal House which is the HQ on Glasgow of the Scottish prosecution service.

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