Pinkerton's great detective story
HIS CREDENTIALS sound like those of an all-American hero. The original "Private Eye", he founded the world's most famous detective agency, foiled a plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln and pursued outlaws and desperadoes - including the notorious Jesse James - across the American west.
Allan Pinkerton, whose agency still bears his name, cut his teeth many miles and an ocean away - in the mean streets of 19th-century Glasgow.
Pinkerton was born in the city's tough Gorbals area in 1819. His father William was an ex-policeman who had been removed from active service after being injured while on duty. As a young boy, Pinkerton was a fiery redhead, often preferring fishing in the River Clyde to schoolwork. But when his father died in a political riot in Glasgow, the young man had to work to support the family. He left school and became a runner for a pattern maker then an apprentice barrel maker in the McCauley Cooperage Works.
The working class Chartist Movement, which advocated political and social reform, was sweeping the country and Pinkerton became one of its most active participants in Glasgow. On the day of his wedding to Edinburgh woman Joan Carfrae in 1842, Pinkerton was warned that a company of soldiers was on its way to arrest him. Instead of a romantic honeymoon, Pinkerton and his bride boarded a boat for the New World.
The vessel was shipwrecked off the coast of Nova Scotia and, penniless, the couple slipped across the border where Pinkerton started work as a cooper in Chicago. They moved to the nearby immigrant town of Dundee where Pinkerton discovered the hideout of a gang of counterfeiters, informed the local sheriff and then helped apprehend them. The Wild West was a lawless and violent land and the sharp Pinkerton saw an opportunity.
In 1850, Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency was formed in Chicago. A large unblinking eye with the slogan "We Never Sleep" was emblazoned on the agency’s headquarters, giving rise to the phrase Private Eye.
Pinkerton and his men soon developed a reputation for toughness and efficiency. They pursued wrong-doers relentlessly and created the world’s first rogue's gallery. Illinois lawyer and would-be presidential nominee Abraham Lincoln hired Pinkerton as his personal bodyguard and was rewarded when the agency uncovered a plot to assassinate the American political icon in Baltimore as he travelled to his inauguration. Pinkerton’s place in US history was assured and a host of other high-profile cases saw he and his men regarded as heroes.
Pinkerton's pursuit of the outlaws Frank and Jesse James was legendary but, as the agency expanded, so the tactics became less scrupulous and more shady and reckless. Agents firebombed the house of James' mother, blowing off one of her arms and killing a child. They were hired as strike-breakers by rich capitalists and public sympathy soon evaporated. The same man who fought for workers' rights in Scotland saw his name become synonymous with helping to crush the burgeoning labour movement in America.
In his later years Pinkerton turned his mind to writing detective stories and to publicising his agency. His life ended strangely in 1884 after slipping on a Chicago street. He bit his tongue when his chin hit the pavement and failed to treat the injury properly. However, the tongue turned gangrenous and he died.
His sons, Robert and William, kept the agency going, turning from detective work to security. The business exists to this day, now known as Securitas Security Services and based in California, but forever linked to its Scottish founder.
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