Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Allan Pinkerton and His Detective Agency: We Never Sleep

Other Horizons

"Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait."

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Allan Pinkerton died July 1, 1884, a month and a half short of his 65th birthday. A freak accident really, the otherwise hale Pinkerton had slipped on a Chicago street, biting his tongue when his chin hit the pavement. Not tending to the rather nasty cut, it turned gangrenous. He was put to rest with much fanfare in Chicago's famous Graceland Cemetery, where he rests today near his wife and the remains of other pioneers who put Illinois on the map.

As a tribute to their services, Allan Pinkerton had allowed two of his favorite agents gone-before-him to be buried in his family's private plot Timothy Webster, who was hanged by order of the Confederate legislature, and Kate Warne, who had succumbed to pneumonia on New Year's Day, 1868.

The ethics Pinkerton left behind and which were faithfully practiced by his sons, William and Robert, who ran the agency after their father's death are best described in a letter he wrote to Superintendent George H. Bangs on December 21, 1868, describing his war on criminals. The language, says James Horan's Desperate Men, clearly illustrates "a man equipped with an indomitable and enormous tenacity. A man, too, who once he has begun to fight will never yield and though beaten to his knees will continue to bring the war to his enemy."

Excerpted, the letter reads, "I shall not give up the fight with those parties until the bitter end and the last die is cast whatever that may prove to be; life or death, prosperity or adversity, the present life or the eternity of darkness...It must be war to the knife and the knife to the hilt...Delay no fight one moment; make all the attacks you can; keep yourself right upon the attack and with hands clean and with clear conscience you are sure to win...I don't know the meaning of the word 'fail' (and) no power in heaven or hell can influence me when I know that I am right. Remember, sir, that the right is mighty and must prevail and all we have to do is to manage our affairs with discretion, with honor, with integrity and we must and we shall win..."

William Pinkerton (Pinkertons, Inc.)
William Pinkerton
(Pinkertons, Inc.)

Upon taking ownership of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, William and Robert worked as a single mind. Their decisions kept the best interests of their father at heart, but looked further beyond the shores of America in pursuing criminals. A new era deemed it so, for the "modern" crime-doer, especially those from the big cities, were beginning to find that there was one way and only one way to escape the footfall of the Pinkerton tail: to go overseas. Steamships had replaced the masted schooners; ocean liners could transport a person from New York to Ireland or England in a week; and men like Adam Worth and Maximilian Shinburn were taking advantage of that technology.

Shinburn, a swindler and bank robber had scooted the U.S. after a spree in the States; William Pinkerton chased him through Europe, unable to capture him directly because of foreign relation laws, but working with the countries' authorities to track him down for extradition. When Shinburn returned to the U.S., he was arrested in the midst of a robbery.

Worth, however, proved more elusive, keeping ahead of William's never-idling grasp for 30 years. After robbing the Boylston Bank in Boston of $1 million dollars in 1869, Worth fled to Liverpool, thence to Paris, then to London where he lived in Mayfair regally, funding his lifestyle by acting as broker for and often director of a number of illegal money-taking enterprises in England and across the Continent. Worth, says a Pinkerton report, "perpetrated every form of theft - check forging, swindling, larceny, safe cracking, diamond robbery, mail robbery, burglary...(and) became a clearing house or receiver for most of the big crimes perpetrated in Europe." In 1876, he masterminded a plot to steal the celebrated Thomas Gainsborough painting ]Duchess of Devonshire] from a London art gallery.

Adam Worth (Pinkertons, Inc.)
Adam Worth
(Pinkertons, Inc.)

And yet, William Pinkerton liked and admired Worth who, albeit a thief, hated guns and never harmed anyone throughout his career. The detective saw Worth as a man of intellect and bearing, which he was, and always believed Worth represented that certain class of criminal that, given a different start, might have been a successful businessman.

"William Pinkerton had a strangely subtle view of the criminal mind," Ben Macintyre attests in his biography of Worth, The Napoleon of Crime. "He harried his quarry with the perseverance of a monomaniacal bloodhound, but he brought to his work an unlikely admiration, even affection, for the criminal classes."

Linking with the Paris Sureté and with London's Scotland Yard, Pinkerton kept abreast of Worth's movements; he visited his foreign compatriots on occasion to update the agency's dossiers on Worth and others and, while there, tracked down Worth's hangouts. Knowing that the fugitive knew him by sight, he would show up at the latter's American Bar in Paris and at the Criterion Restaurant in London just to psychologically harass him. Sitting at his table, chatting about this and that but always avoiding the obvious, the obvious message was there very strongly: The Eye is on you, Worth.

Their chats were agreeable and Worth, always the gentleman, never tempered nor fused. In fact, as their last tête-à-tête ended at the Criterion, where they shared porter, Worth stopped the lawman as he was about to leave. "I have always respected you Pinkertons," he said, and shook the other's hand. "May the best man win."

Pinkerton knew he meant it.

Robert Pinkerton (Pinkertons, Inc.)
Robert Pinkerton
(Pinkertons, Inc.)

In 1891, Worth was arrested in Belgium on charges of mail theft. While under interrogation, the Belgian police wired for background information on their captive in hopes that they could drop a long-term sentence on him. Scotland Yard responded and so did the Sureté. The Pinkerton brothers, who had the largest and most incriminating file, and which could have hanged Worth, ignored the telegram. As William told Robert, "The old man's going to suffer enough. Let's leave him be."

After nearly a decade behind bars, a broken Adam Worth returned to America and paid a surprise visit to William Pinkerton at the Chicago office. He had heard of the benevolence extended him and now wanted to return the favor.

The Pinkerton National Detective Agency had fallen on bad press after it had unwisely agreed to help the Carnegie Company squelch a disturbance of labor at its Homestead, Pennsylvania, steel plant in 1892. What the agency figured would be a small affair turned bloody when the picketing laborers, armed with handguns and a small cannon, opened fire on the Pinkerton strikebreakers. Men on both sides of the fray were killed, but the newspapers used the episode to illustrate the plight of the common man under the weight of unscrupulous corporations using bulldogs to get what they wanted. The Pinkertons were blasted by the media and by all organized labor as turncoats from the people. After so many decades of maintaining a high esteem from the public, their reputation soured.

Worth figured it was time for the world to remember what the Pinkertons were really all about. "I want to return the Duchess of Devonshire to its rightful owners," he told William, "but only if you mediate. You have solved this case as sure as if you caught me stealing her, sir, for you always knew I was the thief and you were always that one twinge in my conscience. For your professionalism and kindness, permit me to be your servant."

The story of the agency's successful handling of the case, its diplomatic efforts to return the painting to Agnew's of London, reached the newspapers. But this time the newspapers didn't balk. They praised the brilliance, the determination and the ethics of the oldest American detective agency in America.

And America remembered what Allan Pinkerton's brainchild was all about.

*****

Robert died in 1907, William in 1923. Following in their footsteps was Robert's son, Allan, a World War I veteran, who led the agency onward until he passed on in 1930. The last of the Pinkerton family to direct the firm was Robert II, great-grandson of the man who founded it. Upon his death, the agency became a corporation.

Throughout the last 75 years, with the creation of the FBI and the maturity of local law enforcement agencies, Pinkerton found its role as a man-hunter less needed, but its specialization in security a demand. By mid-century, agents were spending less time chasing criminals cross-country and more time investigating insurance frauds and providing round-the-clock security for large corporations. Today, the majority of Pinkerton clients are Fortune 500 companies.

At the recent millennium, Pinkerton Investigative Services is, to quote its profile, "a leading provider of world-class, global security solutions, including uniformed security officers, investigations, consulting, business, intelligence, security systems integration and employee selection services." The overseas relationships that Allan Pinkerton's sons began has flowered and peaked with the March, 1999, merger with Securitas AB, of Stockholm. High-tech, fully state-of-the-art, Pinkerton is a senior partner of the world's largest security company with offices in more than 32 countries.

Nor bad for a company started by a barrelmaker 150 years ago, based on elements as intangible as human responsibility and ethics.

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