Allan Pinkerton

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

ALLAN PINKERTON: THE FIRST PRIVATE EYE, James Mackay’s definitive biography, develops the singular story of a politically active Scottish emigrant—a copper by trade—who emigrated to Illinois, became involved with the Underground Railroad assisting runaway slaves fleeing north, and happened to expose a counterfeiting ring. This last serendipitous event established his reputation as a detective, and in 1850 he opened the Northwest Detective Agency in Chicago, adopted the slogan “We Never Sleep,” and posted as his trademark a staring eye. This was the first such firm in the United States, and he became America’s first private sleuth.

Pinkerton’s firm was immediately successful, signing contracts with Chicago area railroads victimized by organized bands of robbers; working with the United States Post Office to investigate security breaches in midwestern sorting offices and railway cars; exposing corrupt contractors and officeholders in Washington, DC; and starting for the Lincoln administration what would become the Secret Service. In addition, during the Civil War, he developed a close relationship with General George McClellan, whom he admired, and—using the nom de guerre “Major Allen”—Pinkerton became the erstwhile Union commander’s security chief, coordinating (with his network of operatives) military intelligence, interrogating prisoners and deserters, and slipping behind Confederacy lines in pursuit of information. Because of the extensive work Pinkerton performed for the government over the years (such as solving many interstate crimes), Mackay concludes that the Northwest Detective Agency became a de facto national police force, a putative Federal Bureau of Investigation (which was not created until 1908).

Though Pinkerton’s Civil War activities are the centerpiece of the book, it is compelling throughout, for Mackay’s subject lived life on the brink, from his youth in Glasgow’s Gorbals (the city’s slum) to his later years, when he and his men chased after the James gang, became involved with Pennsylvania’s Molly Maguires, and ransomed a New York tycoon’s body from grave-robbers.