JIM REES profiles Allan J. Pinkerton, the Scottish-American detective and spy, best known for creating the Pinkerton National Detective Agency – forerunner of today’s Secret Service


Sam Spade, Philip Marlow, Sherlock Holmes and Jim Rockford have two things in common. They are all private detectives and they are all fictional. Allan Pinkerton was also a private detective, but he actually existed and his exploits read as if they should be within the pages of a crime novel.

Pinkerton was a hard-boiled, clever, ruthless individual who, once his sights were set, never deviated from the task in hand. He is remembered as both a hero, who brought villains to justice, and as a heartless hunter who broke as many laws as those he was chasing.

Born in the Gorbals area of Glasgow on 25 August, 1819, Pinkerton knew how to handle himself. He feared nobody and grew up tough. His father was a local policeman, but he was injured in the line of duty, eventually dying from his injuries.
This put the family into financial dire straits which helped politicise Allan. On his father’s death, he secured an apprenticeship with a local cooper – a barrel maker – but he believed that major social change was necessary.

New industrial cities and towns, such as Glasgow and Manchester, were teeming with poverty-stricken workers who had no say in the political process. Meanwhile, long defunct villages still retained the right to return MPs to parliament. They were usually nothing more than mouthpieces of the local landlords

Pinkerton was still in his teens when he joined the Chartist movement to change this situation.

Those in power disagreed that anything needed to be changed and they used the army and militia to put down any appearance of rebellion. Prominent members of the movement were targeted and arrested.

In 1842 Pinkerton married Joan Carfrae of Edinburgh. At their marriage, a friend warned Pinkerton that he was about to be arrested. The young couple made their way to Glasgow and boarded a ship for America.

Even this was wrought with danger. The ship was wrecked on a rocky Nova Scotian shore. Thankfully, Pinkerton and his bride managed to get ashore safely. Penniless, they made their way into the United States and settled in Dundee, Illinois, near Chicago.

He established a cooperage business and things seemed to be going well, until he once again became involved in politics on the side of the underdog.

The campaign for the abolition of slavery was gathering momentum and Pinkerton allowed his business to be used as a cover for the ‘underground railroad’, the name given to the secret routes by which escaped slaves could be brought safely out of the South into the northern states and even into Canada.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own