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Image shows Pinkerton National Detective Agency letterhead with an image of an eye
Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency circular, ca. 1887, featuring the agency’s famous open eye logo and “We Never Sleep” motto. Box 44, Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

“The Eye That Never Sleeps”: Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency Records

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“My grandfather worked for Pinkerton’s. Do you have his employment record?”

“I am interested in a specific case Pinkerton’s worked on. Do you have the surveillance reports and a case file for this investigation?”

These are the types of questions that researchers often ask Manuscript Division staff about the contents of the Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency Records, the subject of a new LibGuide released by the Manuscript Division. During the century that the Pinkerton family owned Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, the company operated multiple offices across the country, employed hundreds of operatives and office staff, provided security services to numerous major businesses, and conducted an untold number of investigations into matters both large and small. The branch offices often kept their own records, and many case files were given to the clients. Pinkerton’s did assemble what was referred to as the “secret archive” containing information on some of the agency’s major or more interesting cases. The contents of this archive inspired books and articles by outside authors and writers hired by Pinkerton’s to record the history of the firm, nicknamed “The Eye That Never Sleeps.”

When the Pinkerton company merged with another firm in 1999, about forty years after the last Pinkerton family member ran the agency, the remaining historical archive was donated to the Library of Congress. It joined a smaller collection of Pinkerton materials to form the Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency Records, the bulk of which is held by the Manuscript Division. (Some of the photographs were transferred to the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division.)

In addition to some Pinkerton family records and the “secret archive,” the collection in the Manuscript Division primarily contains materials from the New York and Chicago offices. Thus, the Pinkerton archive as received is selective in nature, and only represents a small fraction of the total work undertaken by Pinkerton’s since its formation by Allan Pinkerton in the 1850s.

As a result, Manuscript Division staff often have to relay disappointing news to patrons looking for their grandfather’s Pinkerton’s employment history or for information on cases not specifically listed in the finding aid. Even the files for some of the most famous cases consist primarily of newspaper clippings and articles about the case, rather than original investigative reports or wanted posters. Handling inquiries about the Pinkerton collection is often a matter of tempering patrons’ expectations about the information they may find.

But that is not to say that researchers won’t be rewarded by their own detective work in the Pinkerton records! There is a great deal of interesting and historically valuable material to be found throughout the collection.

Letterpress copybooks in the Administrative File series, for example, document Allan Pinkerton’s time running a secret service operation for Union general George B. McClellan and the Army of the Potomac from 1861 to 1862. While military intelligence was not Pinkerton’s forte, the copybooks provide a record of his operations. These were also among the few items of early Pinkerton history to survive the Chicago Fire of 1871 because they were on loan to Abraham Lincoln’s former law partner in Springfield, Illinois. The letterbooks with Allan Pinkerton’s outgoing correspondence in the 1870s and early 1880s not only shed light on his involvement with the detective agency, but personal letters also reflect tensions between him and his sons, William and Robert, who ran the Chicago and New York branches, respectively. Pinkerton particularly despaired over “Willie’s” bad behavior, which is very evident in his letters.

Identification card with mugshots and a physical description of Pat Crowe
Identification card with mugshots and a physical description of Pat Crowe, October 10, 1905, issued by the Department of Police, Omaha, Nebraska. Box 97, Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

While many of the files in the Criminal Case File series mainly contain published materials, others offer contemporaneous sources and/or documentation of continued interest in cases long after they concluded. These files may include correspondence among Pinkerton personnel and external sources, mugshot photographs accompanied by physical descriptions of criminals, and wanted posters and reward notices, as well as newspaper clippings reporting on the individuals or the case. The case files about Patrick Crowe are one example.

A $50,000 reward notice for the capture of Pat Crowe.
Reward notice for Pat Crowe, January 4, 1901, following Crowe’s December 1900 kidnapping of Edward Cudahy, Jr. Box 97, Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

In December 1900, Pat Crowe and at least one accomplice kidnapped the teenaged son of Edward Cudahy, the owner of a large meatpacking business in Omaha, Nebraska, where Crowe once worked. The young Cudahy was returned unharmed, but Crowe successfully made off with the $25,000 ransom and skipped the country. After turning himself in several years later, Crowe was acquitted of kidnapping charges. He then (mostly) made crime pay by writing and lecturing about his previous misdeeds. Crowe’s “stick-up” work in the 1890s first put him on Pinkerton’s radar, and the Pinkerton collection contains several folders of correspondence about Crowe’s activities, photographs and physical descriptions of him, decades of newspaper clippings on Crowe and his career, and reward notices.

Header and first paragraph of a letter from Pinkerton to George Bangs describing Crowe as a "liar and a blowhard."
William A. Pinkerton to George D. Bangs, February 7, 1908, expressing his contempt for Pat Crowe’s publicity efforts. Box 97, Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

The file also reveals the Pinkerton family’s personal and professional contempt for Crowe. On December 6, 1905, Robert A. Pinkerton described him as “a low down dirty thief.” William A. Pinkerton minced no words in a February 7, 1908, letter about Crowe’s boasts and publicity efforts: “Of all the low down, dirty dead-beats and contemptible no-account thieves I ever knew, Pat Crowe is the worst,” Pinkerton proclaimed. “He always was a ‘four-flusher’ [empty boaster] and a bluffer and has got himself a notorious reputation by giving out fake stories about himself. He is the biggest liar and blowhard in the United States. … If there ever was a dime novel desperado, that one is Pat Crowe.”

What thieves and desperados will you uncover in the Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency Records?

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“Letterpress” was a technology commonly used in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to make reproductions of documents, especially outgoing correspondence. A special thin tissue paper was moistened and placed over the document to be copied. The two pages were literally pressed together, so that some of the ink on the original document would be absorbed into the letterpress page. The translucency of the letterpress paper allowed the copied text to be read as normal. Letterpress copies allowed individuals and businesses to retain copies of the correspondence they sent.

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