Pinkertons Detectives

In my novel Murder on the Minneapolis, my female sleuth becomes friends with an enigmatic German gentleman with an interest in the man who died on board. He turns out to be a Pinkertons Detective, which led me to research the agency's interesting founder.

The  inception of the agency cannot exclude the remarkable life of, Glaswegian, Allan Pinkerton, who eloped with a singer, Joan Carfrae when he was 23, and sailed for Quebec with her the day after their wedding.

The ship ran into a storm off the coast of Halifax, blown off course and was shipwrecked in Nova Scotia. The Pinkertons were both injured, and lost everything they had in the submerged hold, leaving only what they were wearing and the silver Allan had in his pocket. When they stumbled onto the beachhead, the couple were surrounded by Indians who demanded their trinkets, including Joan’s silver wedding ring.

Changing his mind about Canada, Allan and Joan settled in Detroit, Michigan. He bought a wagon, a horse, cooking utensils and dried meats before heading west to Chicago. There, Pinkerton sold the horse and wagon for lodging in a hotel near the lakefront and the stockade of Fort Dearborn. Chicago in the 1850’s was a town of rutted streets and cobbled together timber storefronts. Lill's Brewery downtown was hiring barrel makers, so Allan built a cabin on the banks of the Fox River near Dundee and opened a cooperage shop

An honest man, Allan treated his employees well and undercut the Chicago firms and within a year, he had ten craftsmen working for him. As early as 1844, he was an ardent abolitionist, his shop functioning as a "station" for escaped slaves traveling the Underground Railroad to freedom in the North. Their son, William, was born in 1846. Twins Robert and Joan followed soon afterwards.

Allan helped the Cook County Sheriff to apprehend a gang of counterfeiters, which led to his appointment as deputy sheriff of Kane County, Illinois, and, later, as Chicago's first full-time detective. By later 1848, he accrued the highest number of arrests for burglaries and murders than any of the experienced police on Chicago's squad roll.

In the 1850’s, Pinkerton left his job with the Chicago police force, partnered with attorney Edward Rucker and formed the North-Western Police Agency specializing in the capture of train robbers, counterfeiters and provided private security services for a variety of industries.

As rail transportation increased, Pinkerton's agency solved a series of train robberies during bringing Pinkerton into contact with George McClellan and Abraham Lincoln.

Their building bore a sign with a logo of an eye and the words, 'We Never Sleep', which was the origins of the term, 'Private Eye'.

Their Detective Agency in Washington Street, Chicago bore a The Rules:

•    Accept no bribes
•    Never compromise with criminals
•    Partner with local law enforcement agencies
•    Refuse divorce cases or cases that initiate scandals
•    Turn down reward money (Agents were well paid)
•    Never raise fees without the client’s pre-knowledge
•    Keep clients apprised on an on-going basis

Kate Warne

Born in New York, Kate Warne was a slender, brown haired widow who walked into the agency offices in 1856 in answer to an advertisement for detectives in a Chicago newspaper. Pinkerton said: ‘Kate argued her point of view, saying women could be useful in worming out secrets in many places which would be impossible for a male detective.’
Kate Warn [holding post] and Allan Pinkerton [Seated right]

In 1858, Kate gained the confidence of the wife of a Mr Maroney, who stole $50,000 from the Adams Express Company, and with Warne’s help, $39,515 was returned. Mr. Maroney was sentenced to ten years in Montgomery, Alabama.

In April 1861, the Confederate States of America's cannons in Charleston began firing on Fort Sumter. Pinkerton was asked by Major General George B. McClellan to set up a military intelligence service. Pinkerton became head of the Union Intelligence Service, the forerunner of the U.S. Secret Service. He took Warne, Timothy Webster, and later George Bangs west to set up a headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio, to follow McClellan's Ohio division.

Kate Warne was one of five agents sent to Baltimore, to investigate secessionist activity prior to the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln. During the investigation, they unveiled the plot to assassinate Lincoln on his way to take office. Posing a rich southern lady visiting Baltimore, Kate infiltrated social gatherings, like the Barnum Hotel where she discovered details of the plot. Lincoln gained four more years before John Wilkes Booth shot him at the Ford Theatre.

After the War, Pinkerton was hired by the railroad companies to track down Jesse James, but failed to capture him. The railroad withdrew their financial support, so Pinkerton continued the search at own expense. James allegedly captured and killed one of Pinkerton's young undercover agents, at which Pinkerton gave up the chase which some consider his greatest failure.

Allan Pinkerton and Abraham Lincoln
 Kate worked on high profile cases, unusual in that women were barred from the police force until 1891 and could not be detectives until 1903. She became supervisor of Pinkerton's Female Detective Bureau, but her expenses became a sore spot between Pinkerton and his brother, Robert, who believed she was simply accompanying him as his mistress. Pinkerton would never confirm the suspicions about his relationship with Kate. He adored her and she continued to work to his standards and deliver important information through her many clever guises.

Kate caught pneumonia on New Year's Day, 1868, and died shortly afterwards with Pinkerton at her bedside. Pinkerton neither confirmed nor denied Kate was his mistress, but she was buried according to his wishes in Pinkerton's family plot in Chicago's Graceland Cemetery, and he wrote in his will that that Kate's plot was never to be sold.

In 1876, Robert Pinkerton conspired with two lead agents not to hire female detectives. Allan sent his son a blazing telegram:

"It has been my principle to use females for the detection of crime where it has been useful and necessary. With regard to the employment of such females, I can trace it back to the time I first hired Kate Warne, up to the present time. And I intend to still use females whenever it can be done judiciously. I must do it or falsify my theory, practice and truth."

Allan Pinkerton died in Chicago on July 1, 1884, and was buried in Graceland Cemetery, Chicago. Soon afterwards, his sons rid their agency of female operatives.

The achievements of Pinkertons Detective Agency are too extensive to mention in this blog, but their main cases can be read about below:

Today, Pinkertons agency employs approximately 28,000 women.


American Experience


Petrea Burchard said…
Such fascinating history! I lived in Chicago for 10 years and never visited Graceland cemetery, never knew Pinkerton and Warne were buried there.

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