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detective agency founder
Allan Pinkerton was born into poverty in Glasgow, Scotland, on August 25, 1819. His father was a former policeman who could no longer work due to injuries sustained on the job, so Allan had to go to work as an apprentice barrelmaker at an early age in order to help his family. He married Joan Carfrae in 1842, and the newlyweds immigrated to the United States that same year.
Settling in Chicago, Pinkerton worked as a barrelmaker at Lill's Brewery for a while before deciding to go into business for himself. Moving to Dundee, a predominantly Scottish town some forty miles from Chicago, the quality of his barrels and low prices quickly earned him success and control of the market. Rather than buying wood from vendors, Pinkerton decided to find his own source. It was this business decision that ultimately led to his founding of what is now one of the world's largest security companies.
According to company history, Pinkerton was looking for suitable trees on a small deserted island in the middle of the Fox River when he came across evidence of recent human activity. Knowing that counterfeiters had been active in the area, he notified the local sheriff and the two ended up apprehending most of the counterfeiters. Pinkerton was subsequently hired as a part-time deputy, and also began getting "private detective" jobs.
Pinkerton was hired by the Chicago Police Department in 1847, and became that city's first police detective in 1849. In 1850, he and Chicago attorney Edward Rucker established the North-Western Police Detective Agency, which focused almost exclusively on railroad-related crimes. He and Rucker dissolved their partnership after about a year, at which time Allan joined forces with his brother Robert to form Pinkerton National Detective Agency. The first detective agency to set uniform fees and establish a code of ethics for its investigators, Pinkerton quickly gained a reputation for honesty and efficiency. The agency also became well known for pioneering a number of investigative tools, which allowed it to solve most of the crimes it was hired to solve.
In 1861, while investigating a railroad case, the Pinkerton Agency uncovered a plot to kill President-elect Abraham Lincoln on the train he was scheduled to take to Washington. Thanks to Pinkerton's warning, Lincoln's itinerary was changed and the plot was foiled. During the Civil War, President Lincoln hired the agency to obtain military information on the Confederates and to sometimes act as his bodyguard.
After the war, Pinkerton was often hired by the government to perform many of the duties now assigned to the Secret Service, FBI, and CIA. Pinkerton agents also became notorious for their relentless pursuit of "Wild West" outlaws, including Jesse James, Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch, and the Reno Brothers.
Allan Pinkerton assumed full control of the agency upon Robert's death in 1868, but had to turn that control over to his sons Robert and William after suffering a paralyzing stroke in 1869. He died in Chicago on July 1, 1884.
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This page was last updated on May 22, 2017.