Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Allan Pinkerton and His Detective Agency: We Never Sleep

Roots of a Detective

"There are only two people of value on the face of this earth: Those with a commitment and those who require the commitment of others."

John Adams

Allan Pinkerton noted that in the few short years he and his family were away, Chicago had continued to grow outwards and upwards; many elegant facades of brick had replaced the one-dimension ramshackle frames. Along the lakefront, its ports boomed with a cacophony of the loading and unloading of cargo freights that had brought their potpourri of goods from New York City, Philadelphia and other cities beyond the Great Lakes. Locomotives criss-crossed each other on a roundabout network of rails that cut through the city; transport houses stuffed their boxcars with merchandise heading west where men and women were shaping new destinies on a fertile soil. Scythes, plows, seeds and linens crammed the freight cars destined for the territories beyond Great Father Mississippi.

With industry came people and with the people came bright, novel ideas and visions. But, crime came, too, fed by those whose ambitions leaned on the get-rich-quick view of life or simply just to live, the easy way. Throughout the city at any hour of the day, one might discover his pockets picked, his store broken into, his horse stolen or his belly tapped by a plug-ugly behind it, demanding his billfold. In many sections of the city, a decent woman couldn't walk evenings without fear of rape. Swollen bodies turned up habitually in the marsh grass where the Chicago River flooded during the spring.

In the late 1840s, Chicago claimed less than a dozen policemen to protect a population of 30,000 and because those policemen avoided the worst neighborhoods and the worst people, hopes for civic safety refused to improve.

Investigator Pinkerton found his job cut out for him. Facing the near calamity he saw before him, he shoved forward on his beat, taking no guff, no sass, and no bribery. And those who were ready to ridicule the new Scotty in navy blue stood up to take note that this bright boy meant business. Plus, he'd as soon swing a club than tolerate a sneer. Suddenly, Chicago had itself an authentic policeman.

He was soon asked to become the city's first detective. In this job he again succeeded, for his integrity was unbendable; he possessed an uncanny ability to read people; he could discern a suspicious party on a busy street; glib and mentally quick, he tricked the guilty into confessing before they realized that they had. But, the catalyst of all this was his bravery. He feared no one.

He loved his work, devotedly, but there was such a thing as practicality. With a growing family, the meager pay simply did not suffice. As far as he saw it, he had two roads to take: to return to barrel making or to effect something he had been considering for some time: to open his own private investigation business. There was no such business of this type in the city, and only a few in the entire country. Before deciding, he sought out possible clients who knew him from his detective's work and who might consider hiring him on a freelance basis.

Young lawyer Lincoln (Library of Congress)
Young lawyer Lincoln
(Library of Congress)

Among these were the railroad companies headquartered in the Midwest, including one of the leading pioneers in the industry, the Rock Island and Illinois Central Railroad, a firm for which he had successfully investigated many shipping thefts. Its president, George B. McClellan, and its attorney, a man named Abraham Lincoln, had great respect for Pinkerton and it wasn't rare that the three would dine together.

Assured of support from satisfied clients such as these, Pinkerton resigned from the city, hung a shingle over the door at 151 Fifth Avenue in the heart of Chicago's market district and advertised his services in newspapers across the country. Curious citizens read that this enterprise calling itself Pinkerton's National Detective Agency promised not only results, but also hard-core ethics. Pinkerton biographer Sigmund A. Lavine says, "In a day when many law enforcement officers openly associated with criminals and shared their illegal profits, (Pinkerton's code) reflected the honesty and integrity of the man." Allan Pinkerton promised to:

  • accept no bribes;
  • never compromise with criminals;
  • partner with local law enforcement agencies, when necessary;
  • refuse divorce cases or cases that initiated scandals of clients;
  • turn down reward money (his agents were paid well);
  • never raise fees without the client's pre-knowledge; and
  • apprise clients on an ongoing basis.

Pinkerton became a one-man promotional blitz. As his organization nabbed crooks, murderers and embezzlers, he was sure that news of those "pinches" would storm the local papers. Not shy about telling the press about his excellent record, he also platformed his devotion to duty and his obsessive pursuit of any criminal he was paid to apprehend whether the flight led him or his agents from sea to sea.

Those who hired Pinkerton found these boasts not idle.

Feeling that he needed something focal, in time he created a logo to convey just what the Pinkerton National Detective Agency was all about. Americans soon became familiar with its motto, "We Never Sleep," accompanied by a graphic of an open, alert eye studying them from the pages of magazines, circulars, newspapers, and from billboards and wanted posters. The trademark spawned the term "private eye" and went on to become as prominent a peacekeeping tool as the Winchester repeating rifle and the Colt .45.

America began referring to Pinkerton himself as "The Eye."

A legend was born and a tradition.

The Pinkerton logo (Pinkerton's, Inc.)
The Pinkerton logo (Pinkerton's, Inc.)

Pinkerton insisted on high decorum. According to his code, his agents were to have no "addiction to drink, smoking, card playing, low dives or...slang." For that matter, Pinkerton handpicked his staff. Two of his first agents were George H. Bangs and Francis Warner, detectives with big city savvy, experience and unblotched reputations. Both would remain with him for years and eventually serve as supervisors, running the day-to-day operations while he was out of town directing particular assignments.

In his memoirs, Pinkerton was to credit two specific agents one female for doing more in the early days than anyone else to establish the firm's reputation for efficiency and honor. They were Timothy Webster and Kate Warne.

Webster, at age twelve, migrated with his parents from England to the United States. A machinist by trade, he moonlighted as policeman in New York City until he realized he enjoyed enforcing the law more than wrenching a bolt. He joined New York's city force, quickly displaying himself as a man of intelligence, guts and skill. The captain of the police department at the time and a friend of Pinkerton, James Leonard, noted that Webster's intuitive skills were being wasted as beatwalker; he suggested that Allan Pinkerton consider him.

The Scotsman liked the tall, amiable Webster from the start; one to discern a personality at a glance, Pinkerton observed self-assurance in his smile, aggressiveness in his handshake and loyalty in his pupils. Webster would go on to lead many of the most dangerous assignments in the tumultuous years ahead.

If Pinkerton initially hesitated at the idea of a woman joining his corps, consider the strict sex-defining era of the mid-1850s, not the man. But, consider the man when it came to his observing almost immediately that Kate Warne was a very special human being. She was determination itself, and brilliant.

According to the Pinkerton Corporation's website, Kate walked into the agency's quarters in Chicago in 1856, seeking employment. Pinkerton was surprised that the slender, brown-haired young lady was not interested in clerical work but in becoming an agent! Repressing a laugh, he told her that it was not the agency's custom to employ women operatives.

"Kate argued her point of view eloquently," reads the website, "pointing out that women could be 'most useful in worming out secrets in many places which would be impossible for a male detective'. A woman would be able to befriend the wives and girlfriends of suspected criminals and gain their confidence. Men become braggarts when they are around women who encourage them to boast. Kate also noted that women have an eye for detail and are excellent observers. Her arguments swayed Pinkerton, who hired her the next day and never regretted the decision."

Thus, Kate became the first female detective in the United States. Moreover, Pinkerton soon hired other females based on Kate's suggestion, appointing her Supervisor of Women Agents. Their ranks grew, Kate having shown Pinkerton their intrinsic value to his organization.

By hiring Kate, Pinkerton showed his foresightedness. City enforcement bureaus would have ridiculed the idea of women in that industry at that time. "Women were not allowed to join police departments until 1891 (almost forty years after Pinkerton hired them)," asserts the Pinkerton Website, "and did not become investigators until 1903. The term policewoman was not used until 1920."

As his muster of agents increased, Pinkerton devoted more time to the administration of his business, making sure his agents were well equipped and properly trained. He worked with telegraphers, government technicians and arms experts to see that his agency understood and could use the most updated technology and armament.

That is not to say, however, that The Eye didn't participate in cases. He did, many of them. Sometimes, impromptu. Take the case of the slippery-looking cad he spotted leaving the Waverly Hotel one morning. Following him around corners, in and out of doorways, the fellow eventually led him to the city train station where he deposited into a suitcase a great number of things that he drew from his coat pocketwatches and necklaces and earrings and pendants and letter openers. Arresting him on the spot, Pinkerton brought the character back to the hotel on a hunch and, sure enough, the lobby was crammed with angry guests giving the day-clerk one hell of a time because someone had broken into their rooms pre-dawn to pirate their belongings.

In the first few years of the agency's history, many of its cases were local. But, as the reputation of Pinkerton spread, the cases took on a more interstate rhythm, involving the tracking of a criminal's activities through many states and over many months before being solved. Such was the Adams Express job.

Adams, which operated an expedient rail-and-coach mail-delivery service cross-country, lost almost $50,000 in a series of strange heists on its Columbus, Georgia-to-Montgomery, Alabama route in the fall of 1858. The firm could not understand how strongboxes, containing large shipments of money sent special rail from Columbus, could turn up empty in Montgomery with no visible tampering to the locks or hinges. Their only supposition was that someone had gotten ahold of a key. Unable to lay the blame on anyone in particular, the company fired the two men most responsible for the security of the shipments, John Maroney, the sending agent in Columbus, and Leonard Chase, the messenger whose job it was to guard the money en route. Neither man had been able to reasonably explain how the cash turned up missing; Maroney claimed he deposited the money in the strongboxes and sealed them adequately, while Chase vowed he hadn't left the shipments from his sight the whole time he was paid to guard them.

Pinkerton called together his best agents, including Kate Warne. Winning the approval of such a national concern as Adams was crucial, for it would mean a boon to his own organization in terms of national notoriety and the respect of other major corporations.

Experience told Pinkerton that thefts of this nature were inside jobs. He believed that the money was removed before the packages were sent. Surveying Maroney's and Chase's movements, agents confirmed that neither man attempted to contact the other, nor had had any visible communication prior to the heists; they didn't seem to be working in cahoots. Chase, the messenger, exhibited no suspicious activity, but John Maroney's actions reeked of suspicion.

Pinkerton operatives went to work.

They followed Maroney and his wife when they vacationed in Virginia, reporting that the couple spent more money than their station in life allowed. When Maroney by himself traveled to New Orleans he again tossed bills around flippantly. When Mrs. Maroney went to visit a relative in Pennsylvania, Kate Warne pursued, taking board in the same hotel where her mark lodged. Posing as a Mrs. Imbert, wife of a convict, she soon ingratiated herself with the lady and the two shared many a conversation.

Pinkerton had Maroney arrested in New Orleans on suspicion and placed in the same cell with one of his agents, Frank White. White, adapting the character of a corralled thief, spouted injustice and hatred for lawmen until he won the confidence of Maroney. One evening, while they chatted, Maroney confessed that he was the perpetrator of the Adams Express robberies. He had taken the money prior to shipment, he admitted to White, hoping the blame would be laid on the messenger.

Nevertheless, Pinkerton knew that to charge Maroney with the crime at this point would be futile not until he could directly link the stolen cash with the suspect. That stolen currency needed to be resurfaced from wherever Maroney had hidden it and that is when White introduced his cellmate to his crooked lawyer, actually Pinkerton Special Assistant George Bangs, who promised to have Maroney exonerated for a fee of $4,000.

"Done!" cried Maroney.

Suddenly, Mrs. Maroney decided to take a quick trip back to Montgomery, Alabama, confiding in "Mrs. Imbert" that she needed to help her husband who was imprisoned. Kate wired her boss: "She is planning a trip to Montgomery be sure she is shadowed."

The detectives closed in. Operative White, who had gained Maroney's trust, promised to meet his friend's wife once his lawyer sprung him in a day or two. That done, arrangements were made for White to act as go-between for the Maroneys and "crooked lawyer" Bangs. Showing up at the lady's doorstep, he followed her to the cellar where, from within a hollow wall, she unearthed a steamer trunk loaded with federal greenbacks.

The Maroneys were promptly arrested and Pinkerton personally returned what was left of the $50,000 booty exactly $39,515 to E.S. Sanford, vice president of Adams Express. Their guilty clerk was tried and handed a 10-year prison term; the courts did not go after his wife.

Adams Express was delighted. The story of Pinkerton's handling of the case became headline news across the nation; Allan Pinkerton and his detective agency were now household names. For days, Americans read installment after installment of the true mystery and its solution by the country's newest hero.

The stories were so popular that they overrode those of another sort emerging from another arena: the expected nomination of anti-slaver Abraham Lincoln as 16th President of the United States and the South's promise to break from the Union if that happened.

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