Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 433

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 433


This is the grave of Allan Pinkerton.

Born in 1819 in Glasgow, Scotland, Pinkerton’s father died young. Forced to survive basically on his own, Pinkerton became a voracious reader and autodidact and then joined the Chartist movement. That’s, uh, a little ironic given his later career. In 1842, he emigrated to Illinois. He got involved in abolitionism and his house was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Pinkerton became interested in law enforcement when he was wandering around the forests near his home and stumbled across a group of counterfeiters. Now, it is hard to understand today how completely bonkers the American monetary system was in these years, how many different sorts of notes were floating around, the sheer amount of counterfeit currency. In an era where even if you had legitimate notes from some bank in Vermont, what was that going to get you in Illinois, it was incredibly easy to counterfeit money. Stephen Mihm’s book A Nation of Counterfeiters is excellent on this point and also an entertaining read, at least for an academic book. He began to follow them around and investigate them, finally informing the local sheriff. This led to him being hired on as a police detective in 1849, as the first detective in Cook County. Police in Cook County have never done anything bad ever since….

In 1850, Pinkerton started his own agency, when became, of course, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, after a number of name changes. His firm worked a bunch of railroad lobbies, which led him to get to know a man named George McClellan, who was the chief engineer and VP of the Illinois Central Railroad, as well as that railroad’s lawyer, Abraham Lincoln. He remained active in politics too, raising funds for John Brown’s raid on Harpers’ Ferry in 1859. In fact, he directly assisted John Brown with $500 when Brown freed 11 slaves in Missouri in 1858 and needed to get them to Canada.

In 1861, with the nation falling apart in the Civil War, Pinkerton was tasked with getting Lincoln to Washington safely. As there was a real chance of his assassination in Baltimore, this was a significant undertaking in an era before any meaningful security for the president. He then joined the Union army as a spy and intelligence officer. He took real risks here, integrating himself with Confederates. He was nearly killed in Memphis. But he also vastly overinflated the total of Confederates George McClellan was facing, giving a big ol’excuse to that already reticent general to not fight. In that, Pinkerton contributed materially to the endless slog of the war.

After the war, other than trying and miserably failing to catch Jesse James, Pinkerton turned his attention to a new evil: labor unions. If you are wondering how someone would go from supporting John Brown to killing unionists, the answer was pretty easy. Both slavers and unions undermined the free market doctrine of contract so beloved by mid-19th century northerners. Free labor ideology was inherently individualistic. Slavery and unions undermined the ability of free white men to control their own destiny. Pinkerton was far from the only abolitionist to turn with incredible viciousness on labor unions, even if few went farther than him in the project.

The Pinkertons started working as thugs for companies against strikers in 1866, during a miner’s strike in Braidwood, Illinois. A more serious action took place in the same town in 1874, when miners walked out over wage cuts. Allan Pinkerton and 20 armed guards came to Braidwood in response. But in this case, Braidwood’s mayor sided with the miners and took away the guns and would not allow the Pinkertons to march in the street. When one hit an old woman, the police arrested him and fined him $100. Once a group of women attacked Allan Pinkerton, forcing him to flee. This experience led Pinkerton to not hire his forces out for labor strikes for a decade. However, Pinkerton undercover agents were used, particularly against the Molly Maguires. Through this period, Pinkerton also became a children’s author, writing books about catching evil criminals. I’ve read one of them. It’s, uh, not great.

The most notorious period of Pinkerton use was actually when his sons William and Robert took over the agency, after Allan’s death in 1884. They are buried next to Allan. This would lead to the Pinkertons’ most notorious period, where it became the agency of choice for capitalists to not only defend their facilities but undermine workplace organization by any means necessary. This did not mean it was particularly effective because the agency soon acquired such a nasty reputation that its arrival would send local residents into an uproar and often lead to more problems from employers than it was worth. Local authorities not infrequently arrested Pinkerton agents upon arrival, such as in New Braidsville, Ohio, where 25 Pinkertons were arrested for carrying concealed weapons. Of course, corporations had a lot of power in the Gilded Age and the Pinkertons were quickly freed and allowed to do what they wanted. But the level of local hostility, including from local law enforcement, was often stark. In 1885, workers at a McCormick’s Harvester Company plant went on strike. The Pinkertons arrived. Fights happened daily. At one point, strikers stopped a busload of Pinkerton men and beat them severely, stealing all their weapons. When the Pinkertons finally shot an old man, McCormick had to give in entirely to the strikers and they won the strike.

No small part of the problem was the undisciplined nature of the Pinkertons. They often did not act as a professional police force. They acted as thugs. They often drank and harassed people with their guns. Many people commented that the men the Pinkertons hired were bad characters to begin with.

In early January 1887, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad announced a 2 1/2 cent per hour pay cut for its coal handlers. They walked off the job. Railroad officials brought in hundreds of strikebreakers and hired the Pinkertons. On January 17, the secretary of the Jersey City police board issued more than 100 badges to Pinkertons. Two hundred more were sworn in by the courts to fight strikers in Bayonne. Violence followed in both cities. The mayor of Jersey City immediately demanded the removal of the Pinkertons, fearing this violence. The next day, a Pinkerton shot 14 year old Thomas Hogan, who was not involved in the strike. Police arrested four Pinkertons for it. The murder solidified labor sentiment around the region. Coal handlers on the other side of the Hudson refused to handle this non-union coal. Jersey City courts indicted three of the four Pinkertons to the murder, although only one went to trial and he was found innocent. But by this time, the Pinkertons were too afraid to go into Jersey City.

The most notorious Pinkerton action of course came in 1892 at Homestead, when Henry Clay Frick sent the Pinkertons on a boat to attack strikers, an action that led to an all-day shootout between the two sides, eventually forcing the Pinkertons to surrender after three Pinkertons and ten civilians died, and making the name of the company synonymous with unionbusting to the present. Even before this, politicians such as Tom Watson and William Jennings Bryan were speaking publicly against private guards. The actions at Homestead only raised the level of criticism. The Populists, meeting at the same time in 1892, incorporated an anti-Pinkerton plank into its platform. The day after Homestead, the House announced it would investigate the action of the agency. The Senate followed suit. These investigations weren’t all that serious–this was the Gilded Age after all and concerns about private property far outweighed any concern about dead strikers–but once again, the logical conclusion for many employers should have been that hiring Pinkertons was not worth the hassle. States went farther than Congress, with Montana, Wyoming, Georgia, and Missouri banning the importation of private police from out of state. By 1900, 26 states had similar laws on the books, including Pennsylvania. Many of these laws specifically banned the Pinkertons.

After Homestead the Pinkertons began moving out of the corporate thug business, feeling the damage to the company’s reputation not worth the business. After all, the company’s main business was always catching criminals, not serving as shock forces for capitalists. Still, the Pinkertons remained involved in union-busting by sending its agents out as spies.

Allan Pinkerton and his thuggish sons are buried in Graceland Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois.

If you would like this series to visit other anti-union thugs, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. When the Pinkertons stepped away from union-busting, other firms happily stepped up. William Gibboney Baldwin, co-founder of the Baldwin-Felts Agency, famous for its murderous work in the West Virginia coal wars, is in Roanoke, Virginia, and his co-funder, Thomas Felts, is in Galax, Virginia. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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