"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Monday, October 15, 2018

The Pinkertons

They never slept

Men (and occasionally women) of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency played a big part in Westerns. They played a big part in American history too, so fair enough. It is perhaps surprising that a private company should exercise such power and influence in the realm of American law and order but in an age when there was no national police force, the US Marshals being about the closest we came, and local peace officers were often either incompetent or corrupt (and sometimes both on the same day, as Woody Allen put it) the Pinkertons served a valuable, even invaluable purpose. They could cross states and territories, and pursue malefactors implacably.

Allan Pinkerton (right) himself saved Lincoln from assassination in 1861 when the president-elect was traveling through Baltimore to Washington DC for his inauguration, and Pinkerton was asked by Lincoln to head up an embryonic secret service in the Civil War – an opportunity he accepted with alacrity. He was mortified when he heard of the successful attempt on Abe’s life in 1865 and wished ever after that he had been there to prevent it. There’s a good 2016 dramatized documentary on this in the American Lawmen series screened from time to time on PBS, with Neil Affleck as Allan Pinkerton. And Anthony Mann made it the subject of his movie The Tall Target in 1951, with Dick Powell in the role of the Pinkerton agent and Robert Malcolm as Allan Pinkerton, a movie which you might not regard as a Western but is as near as dammit and was reviewed on this site in June 2015 (click the link for that). There was also Saving Lincoln in 2013, with Marcus J Freed as Pinkerton.

Pinkerton agent Dick Powell saves Abe

Pinkerton himself also appeared in The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (Herbert Nelson), American Outlaws (post-James Bond Timothy Dalton) and Frank and Jesse (William Atherton), among others. Douglas Evans played Allan Pinkerton in an episode of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp. Angus McFadyen played him in the 2014 series The Pinkertons. Superman, no less (well, Christopher Reeve anyway) was Pinkerton in TNT’s fanciful 1990 movie The Rose and the Jackal, recounting his (entirely fictional) romance with a glam Confederate spy. Pinkerton was probably the inspiration for the various Whispering Smith movies, and the Audie Murphy TV series. And maybe there was something Pinkertonish about Matt Clark and glam sidekick catching all those outlaws in Stories of the Century.

Allan Pinkerton’s agents made frequent appearances in many other oaters. The agency of course involved itself on behalf of the railroads and express companies with the depredations of the James gang and there being so many Westerns about Jesse James & Co - and the railroad companies usually being the villains of the piece (poor Jesse never wanted a life of crime; he was forced into it by the greedy railroads oppressing the poor, you know how the whitewash goes) - the Pinkertons, by association, were baddies. It is true that the January 1875 firebomb attack on the James ranch, which maimed Mrs. James and killed her son Archie, was a grave political error, if nothing else, and turned whole swathes of the population against the Pinkertons.

The James homestead in Missouri

Actually, Pinkerton had worked tracking down the first train robbers of the West, the pre-James gang Reno brothers, but for some reason Western movies have tended largely to ignore the Renos, so we don’t get too many Westerns with Pinkertons chasing them. Randolph Scott was a Pinkerton man chasing the Renos in Rage at Dawn but as sometimes happened, the name was changed (perhaps for fear of lawsuits) and Randy was a ‘Peterson’ detective. (And in Fighting Man of the Plains Randy is tracked down by a certain Cummings, played by James Millican, a sleuth from the ‘Pleasanton’ Detective Agency of Chicago, Illinois). In the only other Reno brothers movie I know of, Love Me Tender (the Elvis one), there are no Pinkertons, although Robert Middleton plays a detective named Mr. Siringo, and Charlie Siringo did become a Pinkerton agent – much later (see below).

Randy was a "Peterson" man in Rage at Dawn

Allan Pinkerton himself produced numerous popular detective stories, ostensibly based on his own exploits and those of his agents. Some were published after his death, and they are considered to have been more motivated by a desire to promote his detective agency than a literary endeavor. Pinkerton may well have hired ghostwriters, but the books nonetheless bear his name and certainly contributed to the legend of the Pinkertons in popular culture, especially Western movies.

Pinkerton was an able self-publicist

Allan Pinkerton was born in the infamous Gorbals district of Glasgow, Scotland, in 1819. He was a cooper by trade and was a supporter of the Chartist movement and also a lifelong atheist. He married a singer and emigrated to the US in 1842, aged 23. He built a cabin in Dundee, Illinois and set up in the barrel trade. He was a keen abolitionist and his home was said to be a stop on the Underground Railroad. Later, in 1859, he would attend secret meetings held by John Brown and Frederick Douglass in Chicago and was evidently a keen supporter of Brown.

He is supposed to have first become involved in criminal detective work when he came across a band of counterfeiters, who may have been affiliated with the notorious Banditti of the Prairie. After observing their movements for some time he informed the local sheriff, who arrested them. This later led to Pinkerton being appointed, in 1849, as the first police detective in Chicago.

In 1850, he partnered with Chicago attorney Edward Rucker in forming the North-Western Police Agency, which later became Pinkerton & Co, and finally Pinkerton National Detective Agency (still in existence today as Pinkerton Consulting and Investigations, a subsidiary of Securitas AB.) The company’s famous logo was an open eye with the caption "We never sleep."

In the 1850s, with the huge expansion of the railroad network, Pinkerton became a regular employee of the companies, and thus came into contact with George McLellan, the railroad engineer who would have a distinguished career as soldier and politician, and railroad lawyer Abraham Lincoln.

During the Civil War Pinkerton agents often worked undercover as Confederate soldiers and posed as sympathizers to gather military intelligence. Pinkerton himself served on several undercover missions using the alias Major EJ Allen. He worked across the Deep South, focusing on fortifications and Confederate plans. He was found out in Memphis and barely escaped with his life.

Allan Pinkerton at Antietam

After the war Pinkerton went back to working for the railroads, and when the investigation into the James gang went wrong, with Pinkerton men killed and the firebombing of the James home, the express companies abandoned the effort but Pinkerton continued hunting the Jameses at his own expense. He finally gave up the chase, though, and TJ Stiles, in his fine biography of Jesse James, considers this Pinkerton’s biggest defeat.

The later history of the Pinkertons is less glorious and even contradictory. Though a Chartist, keen to expand the franchise to the working man, a pro-labor man and a convinced abolitionist, Pinkerton accepted a job from the Spanish government in 1872 to help suppress a revolution in Cuba which aimed to end slavery and give citizens the vote.

What, never?

Pinkerton died in Chicago in 1884, according to one theory after stumbling on a sidewalk and biting his tongue, then gangrene set in. After his death, the agency, run by Allan’s sons William and Robert, increasingly operated against the labor movement and this changed the image of the Pinkertons for years. Episodes such as the Homestead Strike of 1892 in Pittsburgh, which was the direct impetus for the Anti-Pinkerton Act of 1893, prohibiting the federal government from hiring its detectives, the Pullman Strike of 1894, and the Ludlow Massacre of 1914 were, by our standards, disgraceful actions and it is difficult to see how Allan Pinkerton would have condoned them.

Back in the world of the Western, though, the agency established field offices in the West, notably in Denver, and it was from here that the Pinkertons worked on detecting the crimes perpetrated by the Wild Bunch in the 1890s and early 1900s. Charlie Siringo and Tom Horn were both Pinkerton employees working on aspects of the case. There is a (highly fictional) account of Tom Horn tracking down the Wild Bunch (Rod Cameron as Kid Curry is their boss) in Fox’s entertaining (but historically absurd) Dakota Lil in 1950.

Siringo was a Pink

...as was Tom Horn

In Episode 11 of Yancy Derringer, Yancy is falsely accused of complicity in a waterfront property theft. Administrator Colton manages to get Pinkerton man Matthew Younger (Mark Roberts) to drop the charges.

In Republic’s Hell’s Crossroads (1957) the lawman on the trail of the James gang is aided by Pinkerton man Barton MacLane. In Universal’s The Lone Hand (1953) Joel McCrea’s son witnesses a murder as the wicked Varden brothers (Alex Nicol and James Arness) shoot a Pinkerton man in the back, and that sets the story going.

That's Pinkerton man Barton on the right

Jim Arness prepares to shoot a Pinkerton

In The Long Riders (1980) James Whitmore Jr. is rather good as the Pinkerton man: his steely determination counterbalances nicely the driven Jesse.

In the 2007 anniversary remake of 3:10 to Yuma, Pinkerton man Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda) is a repellent bad guy.

It’s still happening. In Goodnight for Justice: Queen of Hearts (2013) badman Ricky Schroeder is pursuing glam Katherine Isabelle. He finally catches up with her and it seems her fate is sealed but fortunately for her there is a Pinkerton man (Ryan Robbins) in the saloon and she surrenders to him to avoid a fate worse than death or, er, death. In Five Grand in 2016 (known as The Gunfighter in Canada and England) the badman (Orson Ossman) is pursued by Pinkerton agent (Chris Voss).

Voss is a Pinkerton on the trail

This list is far from exhaustive. You will many a Western with Pinkerton agents in it, more often than not as not very savory characters. And you will find Westerns with detectives who are not Pinkertons. But the Chicago agency had a big impact, and in fact the word almost became a generic one for private eye, much as Biro has for ball-point pens or Hoover for vacuum cleaners.

But enough of vacuum cleaners. In the next post we’ll be back to Westerns, as is only right and proper.

Allan Pinkerton's tomb in Chicago



  1. Hi Jeff. Thanks for such a great blog. Don't forget the Pinkertons as thugs working for George Hearst,in the Deadwood TV series.

  2. Who are those guys? -- answered.

  3. Interesting article.I actually worked for Pinkerton briefly in 1987/88. No glamour though.

    1. You weren't an agent tracking down outlaws with daring and skill?

    2. No I was a security officer assigned to a newspaper. The midnight shift no less.

  4. Jeff, good article. In 2001 the Pinkerton Agency's security contract ran out at a particular corporation and a security agency that I worked for, at the time, took over. I was a little envious that the Pinkerton's wore gold-colored shields(badges) with black lettering. Although, we didn't wear "no stinking badges!"

    1. Badges are key elements of Westerns. Every marshal and sheriff sported one and even the Texas Rangers (who for most of the 'Western' time didn't have badges at all). I imagine that Pinkertons would have kept their badges well concealed…