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photograph of Allan Pinkerton facing left from the chest up with a beard and coat with dark collar
Allan Pinkerton. Brady's National Photographic Galleries, ca. 1861.

Private Eyes

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A number of years ago I was asked for help in finding information on someone who supposedly worked for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, and in the process, I was surprised to discover that the Manuscript Division has some of the company records.  Ever since then, every time I run across a mention of this company, I think of that collection.

Allan Pinkerton was born in Glasgow on August 25, 1819 and moved to the United States as a young man. After working for the Chicago police, he left to found Pinkerton National Detective Agency. He is credited with disrupting an assassination plot against President Lincoln and was even hired to “investigate” and gather military information in the South in the early days of the Civil War. His Union Intelligence Service was a precursor to the United States Secret Service.  After his service in the war, he returned to the private sector and his company.  Allan Pinkerton died July 1, 1884, the companyhe founded is still around doing pretty much what he did all those years ago.

group of fifteen men - one is Black - seated and standing in front of trees and a tent most wearing hats and plain clothes except one in uniform
Group at Secret Service Department Headquarters, Army of the Potomac, Antietam. Incidents of the war. October 1862
photo of Jesse James from the upper chest facing left with a black tie and slick backed hear and goatee beard
Jesse James. ca May 1882.

If you want a better sense of what the firm actually did, a quick look though the finding aid on this collection is eye opening – if you will pardon the pun. There is the Criminal Case File, which has information on many crimes of the day.  For example, there were the thefts at the Adams Express Co., forgeries at the Bank of England, the murders of Josephine Barnaby and William Lowe Rice, a robbery of the Bauman-Massa Jewelry Co., information from the investigation of the Molly Maguires, material on the Homestead Strike, etc.  Even more tantalizing is the material on gangs and outlaws that became part of American folklore, such as Jesse James and the James family, the Younger family, the “The James-Younger Gang”, the William Barrett gang, Harvey “Kid Curry” Logan’s gang, and the Bass-Collins gang.

three people in front of a tent Allan Pinkerton with his hand in the coat wearing a hat (left), President Lincoln in coat and hat (center), and John McClemand wearing uniform and hat facing left (right)
Antietam, MD. Allan Pinkerton, President Lincoln, and Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand. Alexander Gardner, October 3, 1862.

The Administrative File contains internal information, such as training manuals from the 1950’s, public relations and promotional material, material related to the American Bankers Association, and reward books from Denver, New Orleans, Kansas City and other locations.  But it also has information on the firm’s activities including even more material related to the “Baltimore Plot” to assassinate Lincoln, other Civil War related activity, and. U.S. Secret Service correspondence.

If you want to read more, there are a number of articles in Chronicling America. There was one from 1895 in the Omaha Daily Bee that caught my eye because it related many anecdotes and included drawings based on photos from the Library’s collection that I featured in this post.  The article was written by Cleveland Moffett who wrote True Detective Stories from the Archives of the Pinkertons, as well as another article in 1905. There were many other articles covering the firm’s exploits, including one written not long after Pinkerton died, another titled “King of the Sleuths,” which was a “study of the modern detective” featuring William Pinkerton; and lastly, one that featured Bob Pinkerton and a robbery of $40,000.

Allan Pinkerton wearing a hat on his horse in the center of the image with both facing right; two tents and trees in the background
Antietam, MD. Allan Pinkerton (“E. J. Allen”) of the Secret Service. Alexander Gardner, September 1862.

The Library has books about Pinkerton, such as Allan Pinkerton: The Eye who Never Slept, as well as items like General Principles and Rules of Pinkerton’s National Police Agency. Allan Pinkerton was himself an author, and the Library has several of his books including The Expressman and the Detective, The Detective and the Somnambulist; The Murderer and the Fortune Teller and an autobiography.

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