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First Posted: May 5, 2010
Oct 11, 2010

Pinkerton National Detective Agency


Pinkerton Logo

The Pinkerton National Detective Agency, usually shortened to the Pinkertons, was a private U.S. security guard and detective agency established by Allan Pinkerton in 1850. Pinkerton became famous when he foiled a plot to assassinate president-elect Abraham Lincoln, who later hired Pinkerton agents for his personal security during the Civil War. Pinkerton's agents performed services ranging from security guarding to private military contracting work. At its height, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency employed more agents than there were members of the standing army of the United States of America, causing the state of Ohio to outlaw the agency due to fears it could be hired out as a private army or militia. Pinkerton was the largest private law enforcement organization.

During the labor unrest of the late 19th century, businessmen hired Pinkerton agents to infiltrate unions, and as guards to keep strikers and suspected unionists out of factories. The best known such confrontation was the Homestead Strike of 1892, in which Pinkerton agents were called in to enforce the strikebreaking measures of Henry Clay Frick, acting on behalf of Andrew Carnegie, who was abroad; the ensuing conflicts between Pinkerton agents and striking workers led to several deaths on both sides. The Pinkertons were also used as guards in coal, iron, and lumber disputes in Illinois, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania, as well as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.

The company now operates as Pinkerton Consulting and Investigations, a division of the Swedish security company Securitas AB, although its government division is still known as Pinkerton Government Services. The organization was pejoratively called the "Pinks" by the outlaws and opponents.


In the 1850s, Allan Pinkerton partnered with Chicago attorney Edward Rucker, in forming the North-Western Police Agency, later known as the Pinkerton Agency.

Historian Frank Morn writes: "By the mid-1850s a few businessmen saw the need for greater control over their employees; their solution was to sponsor a private detective system. In February 1855, Allan Pinkerton, after consulting with six midwestern railroads, created such an agency in Chicago." Government Work

In 1871, Congress appropriated $50,000 to the new Department of Justice (DOJ) to form a suborganization devoted to "the detection and prosecution of those guilty of violating federal law." The amount was insufficient for the DOJ to fashion an integral investigating unit, so the DOJ contracted out the services to the Pinkerton National Detective Agency.

However, since passage of the Anti-Pinkerton Act in 1893, federal law has stated that an "individual employed by the Pinkerton Detective Agency, or similar organization, may not be employed by the Government of the United States or the government of the District of Columbia."

Chicago "Special Officers" & Watchman

July 27, 1877 J.J. White-who had been hired as a "special Officer" during a strike- was shot and killed.
July 19, 1919 Hans Rassmuson-Special Officer {Watchman}-shot and killed.
March 12, 1924 Frank Miller-Pinkerton Watchman-shot and killed.

Molly Maguires

In the 1870s, Franklin B. Gowen, then president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad hired the agency to investigate the labor unions in the company's mines. A Pinkerton agent, James McParland, infiltrated the Molly Maguires using the alias James McKenna, leading to the downfall of the labor organization. The incident was the inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes novel The Valley of Fear. A Pinkerton agent also appears in a small role in The Adventure of the Red Circle, another Holmes story.

Homestead Strike

During the Homestead Strike, the arrival, on July 6, 1892, of a force of 300 Pinkerton detectives from New York and Chicago, who were called in by Henry Clay Frick to protect the mill and replacement workers, resulted in a fight in which 16 men were killed (7 Pinkertons and 9 Strikers), and to restore order two brigades of the state militia were called out.

Detective Frank P. Geyer

In 1895 detective Frank Geyer tracked down the three murdered Pitezel children leading to the eventual trial and execution of the United States' first known serial killer H.H. Holmes. His story is told in his self-written book, The Holmes-Pitezel Case.[8] Pinkertons had previously apprehended Holmes in 1894 in Boston on an outstanding warrant for horse theft in Texas.

Steunenberg Murder and Trial

Harry Orchard was arrested by the Idaho police and confessed to Pinkerton agent James McParland that he assassinated former Governor Frank Steunenberg of Idaho. Orchard received a sentence of life imprisonment in a nationally publicized trial.

Outlaws and Competition

Pinkerton agents were hired to track western outlaws Jesse James, the Reno Gang, and the Wild Bunch (including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). On March 17, 1874, two Pinkerton Detectives and a Deputy Sheriff Edwin P. Daniels encountered the Younger Brothers (associates of James Gang); Daniels, John Younger, and one Pinkerton Agent were killed. In Union, Missouri the bank was robbed by George Collins aka Fred Lewis and Bill Randolph; Pinkerton Detective Chas Schumacher trailed them and was killed-Collins was hanged March 26, 1904 and Randolph was hanged May 8, 1905 in Union Mo. Pinkertons were also hired for transporting money and other high quality merchandise between cities and towns, which made them vulnerable to the outlaws. Pinkerton agents were usually well paid and well armed.

G.H. Thiel, a former Pinkerton employee, established the Thiel Detective Service Company in St. Louis, Missouri, a competitor to the Pinkerton agency. The Thiel company operated in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

Due to its conflicts with labor unions, the word Pinkerton continues to be associated by labor organizers and union members with strikebreaking. Pinkerton's, however, moved away from labor spying following revelations publicized by the La Follette Committee hearings in 1937. Pinkerton's criminal detection work also suffered from the police modernization movement, which saw the rise of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the bolstering of detective branches and resources of the public police. Without the labor and criminal investigation work on which Pinkerton's thrived for decades, the company became increasingly involved in protection services, and in the 1960s, even the word "Detective" disappeared from the agency's letterhead. In July 2003, Pinkerton's was acquired along with longtime rival, the William J. Burns Detective Agency (founded in 1910), by Securitas AB to create Securitas Security Services USA, Inc., one of the largest security companies in the world. Securitas, and several other major security companies, are now under union organization through the SEIU (Services Employees International Union).

Pinkerton Consulting and Investigations

Pinkerton Modern Logo

Consulting and Investigations emerged out of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. The agency merged with the William J. Burns Detective Agency in 1999 under Securitas AB.

For More Information:

Pinkerton Consulting and Investigations
The Pinkerton Investigations