Allan Pinkerton was a grizzled, tough-as-haggis, face-punching old Scotsman who came to the United States to pursue his undying lifelong dream of building barrels with his hands and selling them for cash. During his efforts to make it in the dog-eat-dog world of barrel-making, Pinkerton somehow fell ass-backwards into a career of crime-fighting badassitude that eventually led him to create the Secret Service, save Abraham Lincoln's life from an assassination attempt, infiltrate Confederate strongholds in the Deep South, and track outlaws like Jesse James and Butch Cassidy on horseback through the rough backcountry of the Wild West, all while running a nationwide ring of private detectives and dickpunching any criminal scumfuck foolish enough to position his groin within arm's reach of America's First Detective. Nowadays Pinkerton is remembered as the greatest detective this side of Batman, and while Pinkerton never really wore a whole lot of capes and bullet-proof Kevlar costumes like the Dark Knight, he did carry a badass double-barreled sawn-off Doom II-style super-shotgun and he wasn't afraid to use it to blast gigantic holes through his enemies' torsos whenever the situation necessitated Charles Bronson-grade lethal force.
Cooper-turned-supercop Allan Pinkerton was born August 25, 1819, in Glasgow, Scotland, the son of a police patrolman. As a kid Pinkerton got in trouble for routinely skipping skipping school to go hunting in the woods, but when Allan's dad was whacked while trying to keep order during a political riot, young Pinkerton took a job as a barrel-maker and used the income from his back-breaking manual labor to help support his mother. For a while everything was going about as well as an exciting career in barrel-making can possibly go, but when Allan was 22 he was abruptly forced flee the country when the Democracy-flavored political movement he was participating in were all declared Traitors to the Crown and sentenced to Death by Facekicks. Pinkerton and his new wife – who, by the way, had just married him the day before Allan got word that jackbooted thugs were coming to rough him up and slit his throat – grabbed whatever shit they could carry and hopped the first ship for Canada.
That ship ran aground on some rocks off the coast of Nova Scotia and sunk, leaving Allan and his wife badly injured and shipwrecked on the coast without any of their worldly possessions.
Enjoy your honeymoon, suckers!
Refusing to be demoralized by something as monumentally insignificant as having no money, no home, and no possessions other than the clothes on his back, and, you know, having his own country kinda sorta trying to hang him for treason, Pinkerton just kept on keeping on. He quickly decided he'd seen enough of Canada when he'd face-planted into some of her rocks, and instead of settling in the Great White North he used the last two silver pieces in his pocket to catch a ride to the glamorous land of opportunity known as Detroit, USA. From there the happy young couple spent the rest of their honeymoon walking from Detroit to Chicago, spending their nights sleeping in the barns of nice people who didn't mind that Allan had no money to pay them for their hospitality. The Pinkertons finally settled down in a predominantly-Scottish suburb outside Chicago, and Allan went back to working in his true passion: Barrel-making.
Within twelve months Allan Pinkerton owned his own barrel-making company, had a dozen guys working for him, went to sleep on piles of money, lived in a log cabin he'd forged with his own two hands, and had his house set up as a stop on the Underground Railroad.
While it's hard to imagine what could possibly tear a man away from a rewarding career involving smacking barrels with a mallet for 10 hours a day, Pinkerton sort of fell into a new profession in 1849 when he accidentally broke up a massive counterfeiting ring while out looking for lumber. You see, it turns out that Allan Pinkerton was too cheap to buy pre-cut wood to build his barrels, instead preferring to save cash by just taking a fucking axe out in the woods and chopping the damn trees down himself like a Real Man. Well one day, he was out on some fucking island doing God-knows-what when he discovered a bandit hideout where some assholes were counterfeiting money (Pinkerton was just so damned good that he solved crimes without even trying) – Pinkerton told the Sherriff what was up, was deputized an honorary member of the Chicago P.D., and went back there a couple days later with a shotgun and broke the whole ring up himself. For this badass display of Robocop-grade steel balls, Pinkerton was offered a job with the Chicago Police. He accepted, despite having zero experience in law enforcement aside from his father's old war stories, and by the end of 1849 he'd arrested more burglars and murderers than anyone else on the force – including a few vets who'd been doing the job for 20+ years. Patrolling a city of 30,000 people and just 12 cops, Pinkerton was soon appointed Chicago's first Police Detective, and earned a reputation for being fearless, incorruptible, tenacious, and for not putting up with criminal bullshit anywhere. Eventually he became so popular for his tremendous acts of criminal-smashing awesomeness that he decided to make some extra cash by going freelance, opening the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in 1850.
The most famous private detective agency in American history, the Pinkertons went hard after embezzlers, murderers, thieves, and myriad other jackasses across the United States, picking up the slack that local hayseed Mayberry bullshit police departments weren't equipped to handle. Ruthlessly efficient in their inexorable search for outlaws who need to have their asses wrecked, the Pinkertons never compromised, never accepted bribes or rewards, and refused to be distracted by bureaucratic bullshit like state lines or due process or police brutality or any of those other things that Dirty Harry Callahan never gave a fuck about once in his life. Offering their services to transcontinental railroad companies, banks, and government agencies across the country, Pinkerton's Agency grew exponentially in size thanks to a crazy self-aggrandizing PR machine and a spotless arrest/capture/execution record that makes Judge Dredd look like one of those sassy jerks who mediate traffic disputes on daytime television. It wasn't long before the Pinkertons basically morphed into an all-encompassing apparatus that was like the FBI, the Secret Service, Blackwater, and Dog the Bounty Hunter all rolled up into one badass ultra-efficient machine of gangster-incinerating justice.
But shit was just getting started. The Agency got a bit of a break in 1861 when Allan Pinkerton was in Baltimore trying to uncover the mastermind of some continent-spanning criminal empire and somehow managed to uncover a cleverly-organized plot to assassinate the recently-elected President Abraham Lincoln on his way to his inauguration in Washington DC. Pinkerton, who was friends with Lincoln dating back to Honest Abe's days working on the Illinois Central Railroad, warned the prez, crashed a party in his honor, and managed to get Lincoln out of town just in time to save him from an assassin's bullet. He was rewarded by being appointed the first head of the newly-formed Union Intelligence Service, an organization that we know today as the Secret Service.
Pinkerton and Lincoln.
When the Civil War finally exploded across the Eastern half of the country and turned all of America's fields and rivers into blood-soaked battlegrounds, Pinkerton used his network of agents to gather intel from Confederate strongholds throughout the South, gathering details on troop movements, city defenses, and other details critical to the Union's war effort – including one time when he got a female agent (Pinkerton was the first employer in American history to hire female detectives) into the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond to sketch out schematics of the gigantic fucking submarine the Rebels were allegedly working on.
Never one to send others to do work he wasn't comfortable doing himself, and in addition to leading counter-espionage operations aimed at taking down Confederate spy networks in Washington D.C. Pinkerton also personally infiltrated the South on multiple occasions. His most exciting encounter came while he was scouting out the defenses of the city of Memphis – not long after completing his mission he was discovered by the local authorities and he flee his hotel room mid-shave by climbing down a drain pipe with his face covered in shaving cream while guys ran up the stairs with guns and ropes to whack him, but he somehow managed to escape like probably through some crazy Assasin's Creed shit.
Pinkerton agents, circa 1870. Allan had guys like this at his beck and call throughout the country.
Pinkerton was eventually taken off Secret Service detail and subsequently replaced by the clowns who let Lincoln get capped in the head at Ford Theater, so instead of running the Presidents' personal spy network he instead went back to work running his multi-million-dollar national detective agency. Tracking down badass Old West outlaws from Kansas to California, Pinkerton not only hunted the most dangerous gunslingers the country has ever seen, but he also worked security for banks, stagecoaches, and railroads, and infiltrated hardcore criminal organizations. When he wasn't ordering tough-looking motherfuckers to apprehend murderers and bust caps in horse thieves he revolutionized police work as we know it, inventing mug shots, spending countless hours improving the practice of handwriting analysis, and assembling a national database of known criminals from across the country.
Oh yeah, and he also captured Cole Younger, blew up Frank James' mom's house, broke up Butch Cassidy's gang, brought Black Jack Ketcham and the Reno Brothers to justice, personally chased Jesse James through the Smoky Mountains on horseback with a shotgun on his lap, and wrote a bunch of crime novels that would end up being listed by Arthur Conan Doyle as influences for the Sherlock Holmes stories.
After a long and glorious life of kicking ass and recording the names in a series of jacketed folders with pictures of the offenders, Allan Pinkerton died of a probable stroke on July 1, 1884, at the age of 64 (some stories claim he fell on the sidewalk, bit his tongue, and got gangrene, but those stories are what we like to call "bullshit"). Allan's son took over the Agency after his death and ended up getting into trouble for his nasty habit of opening fire on labor disputes and union organizers, but the Agency survived and is still around today, 162 years after its founding by one of America's most successful and most famous cops. Pinkerton's name is also the title of Weezer album with "El Scorcho" on it, which counts for something I think.
Oh right, and the national database of criminals (as well as most Pinkerton practices), was adopted by the federal government in 1908 when they decided to create their own national detective agency based on Allan Pinkerton's model of interstate crime-fighting. They called it the FBI.
TruTV Crime Library
Pinkerton Government Services Website
Beyemer, William Gilmore. On Hazardous Service. Harper, 1912.
Dempsey, John S. Introduction to Private Security. Cengage Learning, 2010.
Jeffries-Jones, Rhodri. Cloak and Dollar: A History of American Secret Intelligence. Yale Univ. Press, 2003.
MacKay, James. Allan Pinkerton: The First Private Eye Book Sales Inc., 2008.