Home / General / “Moreover I had assumed a terrible responsibility in taking such extreme measures with him, for there was danger that he might go insane without confessing his guilt, and in that case my position would have been really dangerous”: Visions of the Past, Thanks to Gutenberg (VII)

“Moreover I had assumed a terrible responsibility in taking such extreme measures with him, for there was danger that he might go insane without confessing his guilt, and in that case my position would have been really dangerous”: Visions of the Past, Thanks to Gutenberg (VII)

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During the peak of his fame as a private investigator and head-buster for capitalism, Allan Pinkerton “wrote” some detective stories. There’s no evidence Pinkerton actually wrote a word of them and he almost certainly employed ghostwriters. But he probably did approve of the stories because they lay out his basic philosophy and investigative methods. This short collection from 1875 is a good example. It consists of two stories, “The Somnambulist and the Detective” and “The Murderer and the Fortune Teller.” Both are basically told not in the sense of mystery or even in a classic detective format. Rather the crimes and guilty parties are laid out immediately so there is no suspense. The stories then exists to demonstrate how witty and brilliant Allan Pinkerton is in his practice, the greatness of his ingenious schemes he creates to draw out confessions, and the true moral fiber of his detectives, as opposed to the criminals.

The whole story of “The Somnambulist and the Detective” is setting up the suspect. It’s a huge frame job. Basically, [Spolier Alert from terrible 19th century fiction you will never read ahead] a bank officer gets murdered. No one knows who or why. Allan Pinkerton comes south for his health. He hears about the case. He sees a slip of paper from one of the bank officer’s friends, a seemingly wealthy planter. Pinkerton, being brilliant, knows it must be him. He goes back to Chicago and sends down his detectives who set him up. One becomes his best friend, another plays a widow who manages to stay in his house, the third plays the ghost of the dead man, who the other two say they can’t see. Through sprinkling blood around various places and sending the ghost character around so the other two can deny his existence, they drive the planter insane. He eventually confesses. Game over. Pinkerton recognizes the sketchy methods he uses, thus the quote in the title. But that sure isn’t going to stop him. Rather, it shows that he needs to be right in order to bring the criminal to justice.

“The Murderer and the Fortune Teller” is even lamer. Basically, a sea captain comes to Pinkerton with a tale of his sister who had also married a sea captain but likes fun times and so sees men while he’s away. She falls for an ambitious Democratic politician who wants her too. So he poisons his wife while the sister poisons the captain so she can get his money. So they go through this long rigamarole of setting Pinkerton’s detectives to gather information, train his female detective as a fortune teller, and then forcing the woman to confess her own crimes (including an abortion) so they can throw the murderous politician into prison.

And if this is how Pinkerton operates–

I gazed steadily at him for about two minutes, which is about as long a time as I need to obtain a correct opinion of a man’s character.

–then I guess it’s hardly surprising that this is a man who would come down on the side of the plutocrats. I mean, stare at a man for a couple of minutes with all the prejudices of the age and I guess you can really tell a man’s character! I mean, what southern European immigrant wouldn’t love being stared at–but then if he looks down or away, I guess that’s telling of his shifty nature, probably susceptible to radicalism.

Who knows what Pinkerton saw in his good friend George McClellan’s face that made him serve him so poorly in his guestimates of the size of the Confederacy army. If only Pinkerton had the opportunity to gaze into Robert E. Lee’s steely face for long enough, he would have understood the real situation the Confederates were in. Alas, his foolproof methods could not be used here.

To say the least, this does not make one feel more confident in the methods the Pinkertons used to crush unions.

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