The Pinkerton Files

The following is an article from Uncle John's Slightly Irregular Bathroom Reader.

Before there was an FBI, Secret Service, or any other national law-enforcement organization, there was the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Founded by Allan Pinkerton in 1850, it existed for 145 years, sleuthing for government and big business, and chasing bank robbers, mobsters, and spies. Here are a few of Pinkerton’s high-profile cases.


Background: Weeks before Lincoln was to be sworn into office, a Pinkerton agent named Timothy Webster learned of a secessionist plot to assassinate the president-elect when he switched trains in Baltimore on the way to his inauguration.

What Happened: Pinkerton told Lincoln about the plot, and the future president agreed to change his travel plans. At the appointed hour, Lincoln, wearing a soft felt hat and an overcoat on his shoulders to disguise his features, slipped out of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, hours ahead of schedule on a secret chartered train. When it left the station, Pinkerton had the telegraph lines cut so no one could warn the plotters that Lincoln was on the way.

Aftermath: Lincoln made it to Washington without incident, but his political enemies mocked him for sneaking into the capital. “I did not then, nor do I now, believe I would have been assassinated, had I gone through Baltimore as first contemplated,” Lincoln later admitted. “But I thought it wise to run no risk, where no risk was necessary.”


Allan Pinkerton, President Abraham Lincoln, and Maj. Gen. George McClellan.

Background: Following the start of the Civil War in April 1861, General George McClellan, who commanded the Army of the Potomac, asked Pinkerton to head his personal “secret service” -he wanted Pinkerton detectives to gather intelligence on Confederate forces. Pinkerton agreed; he and his men went to work, spying behind enemy lines and interrogating captured Confederate soldiers to find out what they knew.

What Happened: It was the single biggest failure of Pinkerton’s career. He routinely overestimated enemy troop strength. In 1861, for example, he estimated that there were 150,000 Confederate troops near Manassas, Virginia, when there were only about 50,000. In April 1862, he estimated 120,000 troops near Yorktown, Virginia, when fewer than 17,000 troops were actually there. Two months later he calculated than General Robert E. Lee was leading a force of 180,000 men, when in fact they numbered only 50,000.

How did Pinkerton get the numbers so wrong? He was a great admirer of McClellan, who was obsessed with the idea that he was consistently outnumbered. Pinkerton willingly tailored his estimates to suit his boss. Even then McClellan wasn’t above throwing out Pinkerton’s numbers and making up his own higher ones.

Aftermath: At best, Pinkerton’s failure helped the general lose his job -when McClellan botched the battle of Antietam in September 1862, Lincoln removed him from command. At worst, PInkerton’s inflated estimates may have caused the Civil War to drag on until 1865 when it might have been ended in 1862.


Background: During the Civil War, Jesse and Frank James were members of a Confederate guerrilla group known as Quantrill’s Raiders. They used hit-and-run tactics to terrorize Union troops and civilians along the Kansas-Missouri border, and when the war ended they used of those same tactics against banks, trains, stagecoaches, and other targets.

What Happened: In March 1874, Pinkerton sent two of his top detectives, John W, Whicher and Louis Lull, to go undercover and try to get close to the James gang. Both men were found out and murdered; Pinkerton swore revenge against the Jameses.

He never got it. If anything, Pinkerton’s vendetta against the James boys turned them into even bigger folk heroes than they had been before. In 1875 Pinkerton agents, acting on a tip, raided the Missouri farm of Frank and Jesse’s mother, Zerelda. One of the agents threw an incendiary device into the house -Wild West buffs still argue over whether it was a bomb or just a flare- and it exploded, killing Zerelda’s 8-year-old son Archie. Public sympathy shifted swiftly to the James family, and Pinkerton detectives began to be seen as symbols of the ruthlessness of the giant railroads and the eastern money men who controlled them.

Aftermath: Pinkerton detectives were still chasing Jesse James when he was murdered in his own home by two members of his gang -brother Robert and Charles Ford- while he turned his back to adjust a picture hanging on a wall. The Ford brothers hoped to collect the $10,000 reward on Jesse but instead only narrowly escaped being hanged for the crime. Fearing he was next, Frank James surrendered to the governor of Missouri, was tried for two different murders, and was acquitted both times.


Background: The early 1870s were a time of labor unrest in the coalfields of Pennsylvania. Railroad cars were sabotaged, buildings were burned, and mine superintendents (as well as German and English miners) were beaten and killed. A secret society of Irish immigrant coal miners called the Molly Maguires was suspected of the violence, and in 1873 the Reading Railroad, which owned many of the mines, hired the Pinkerton agency to break up the group.

What Happened: In 1873 Pinkerton agent James McParland got a job in the coalfields posing as James McKenna, an Irish immigrant on the lam for a murder charge in Buffalo. Over the next two years, he worked the mines while working his way up the ranks of the Molly Maguires, all the while sending written reports back to Pinkerton headquarters. By 1875 the Mollies knew they had an informer in their midst, and suspicion fell on McParland. He slipped out of town, having gathered enough evidence to shatter the Molly Maguires and send ten of their leaders to the gallows.

Aftermath: The operation was a tactical success, but it further stigmatized the Pinkerton agency as a hired gun of big corporations, a reputation that would dog it for years to come.


Background: The American Mafia got its start in New Orleans in the 1870s. In 1890 members of that city’s Provenzano crime family assassinated chief of police David Hennessey as he was preparing to testify in court against them. The police arrested 19 Provenzano mobsters and threw them in jail, but the case against them was weak and it looked like they were going to get away with murder.

What Happened: The Pinkertons joined the case. They arranged for detective Frank Dimaio to assume the identity of Anthony Ruggiero, a real mob counterfeiter doing time in Italy, then staged an arrest so that he thrown in jail with the Provenzanos. Only six other men knew his true identity: three at the Pinkerton agency, two at the U.S. Secret Service, and the district attorney. That made the assignment very dangerous: without the guards’ protection, the mobsters were certain to kill Dimaio if they ever found out who he was. In his four months in jail, Dimaio contracted dysentery and malaria and lost 40 pounds, but he also gradually won the confidence of one of the Provenzano gang- Emmanuel Politz. Dimaio tricked Politz into admitting his role in the murder and then implicating the others.

Aftermath: Dimaio’s evidence helped to build an ironclad case against the mobsters, but they still managed to intimidate witnesses and the jury, which returned a verdict of not guilty. The mobsters beat the rap, but not for long: the next morning an angry crowd stormed the jail and murdered them.


Background: On January 25, 1876, a group of masked men stormed the home of John Whittelsey, chief cashier of the Northampton, Massachusetts, National Bank, and forced him to hand over the combinations to the bank’s three safes. The robbers then went to the bank and made off with $1.2 million. It was the largest bank robbery in U.S. history and would remain so until 1950.

What Happened: While interviewing bank employees, Robert Pinkerton learned that William Edson, a representative from the vault company, had recently been to the bank. Edson was the one who talked the bank into entrusting all three safe combinations to Whittelsley. Before that the bank had divided them among different employees, a much safer arrangement. Pinkerton put Edson under 24-hour surveillance. Another clue -that one of the robbers shrugged his shoulders continuously- led to the identification of the ringleaders, “Hustling” Bob Scott and his partner, Jim Dunlap. They were put under 24-hour surveillance, too, and when they were followed to a meeting with Edson, Pinkerton knew he was on the right trail. Detective “interviewed” Edson several days in a row until he cracked and turned state’s evidence against the gang.

Aftermath: Scott and Dunlap got 20 years; Edson went free.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Slightly Irregular Bathroom Reader, a fantastic book by the Bathroom Readers' Institute. The 17th book in this the Bathroom Reader series is filled to the brim with facts, fun, and fascination, including articles about the Origin of Kung Fu, How to Kill a Zombie, Women in Space and more!

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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The Pinks were also used as strikebreakers and anti-union thugs. Opposition to them was so strong that the Anti-Pinkerton Act was passed in 1893. "An individual employed by the Pinkerton Detective Agency, or similar organization, may not be employed by the Government of the United States or the government of the District of Columbia." It's still on the books.
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