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  • Dean Smith

The Pinkerton’s: Oddity’s of America’s First Detective Family

The Pinkerton’s. Their name is a familiar one to many Americans. Few high school history classes leave out the United States’ first private detective agency, or its controversial role throughout the late 19th century. Those who managed to sleep through the lectures about the American Wild West, likely haven’t escaped Hollywood’s love/hate affair with the company, and watched romanticized versions of the Pinkerton’s, e.g. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, or seen a much darker, more villainous portrayal in shows such as Deadwood. Whatever the source, it’s a well-known company, one rich with American history, and like most long-lived organizations, there’s more than a few oddities in our detective’s closest.

Allan Pinkerton – Atheist and Abolitionist

The company’s founder, Allan Pinkerton, didn’t have detective work in mind as a young man, he was a political agitator – a member of the Chartist movement. This organization fought for the working-class, and Pinkerton was one of the voices demanding political reform, and the extension of democratic rights, throughout Great Britain. In retrospect, Pinkerton’s involvement with the Chartists is confusing. After all, this is the man who, decades later, used his agents to maul union members and striking workers – the very people he once championed.

Chartism was a cause he believed in passionately, but when authorities issued a warrant for his arrest in 1842, Pinkerton was forced to flee, emigrating to the United States, and settling in Chicago. A cooper by trade, he founded a business, and although Pinkerton had left his birthplace behind, he hadn’t forgotten his Chartist principles, and, as early as 1844, became deeply involved with the abolitionist movement.

It’s a part of Pinkerton’s story that’s often overlooked, but before detective work became his life, he worked with well-known abolitionists, and his home was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Visits from prominent anti-slavery leaders weren’t unusual at Pinkerton’s home, and several became close friends, such as John W. Jones and especially the radicalized, ultra-violent, John Brown. Pinkerton thought so highly of Brown that he’s quoted for saying, “Look well upon that man, Willy. He is greater than Napoleon and just as great as George Washington.”

Throughout the years leading up to the Civil War, Pinkerton developed a career as a law man, and founded his detective agency, but he never stopped fighting slavery, and one contemporary noted that Pinkerton’s right hand caught lawbreakers, but his left hand broke the law whenever the fight against slavery required.

Allan Pinkerton Was Surprisingly Progressive

In 1856, Pinkerton made an unusual, for the time, decision when he hired Kate Warne, a 23-year-old widow. He was hesitant at first, but the woman who walked into his Chicago office and requested a job as a detective, was a bold sort, and Warne convinced Pinkerton that a female investigator could “worm out secrets in many places to which it was impossible for male detectives to gain access.” Almost a century before the popularization of the cold war style female spies, Warne was proving that 20th century fiction had nothing on her. She was an expert at working undercover, and her talent at gaining a suspect’s confidence, or extracting information, is the stuff of legend. She once befriended the wife of a thief and convinced the woman to reveal the criminal’s stash of ill-gotten gains, which led to his capture. On another case, she lured crucial information from a suspect after disguising herself as a fortune-teller. Throughout the years that followed, Warne was the first woman Pinkerton hired, but not the last, and by the outbreak of the Civil War, his company’s roster was swelling with female employees. He stated proudly, and often, that Warne was one of the best investigators he ever hired, and when she died in 1868, America’s first woman detective was buried in the Pinkerton family plot.

The Grisly Death of Hillary Farrington

The Pinkerton’s made a name for themselves pursuing and capturing old West outlaws and developed a popular image as heroes for their work. In the late 1860s, they captured the Reno brothers’ gang, America’s first organized train robbers, for example and Allan Pinkerton personally chased Frank Reno to Windsor, Ontario. Company detectives caught bank and train robbers, often recovering thousands of stolen dollars in high-profile, and well-publicized, acts of derring-do. The agency reputation blossomed, and American’s viewed the Pinkertons as the heroes.

Not every detail of their successes enjoyed wide-spread publication, and it’s not difficult to understand why Pinkerton didn’t advertise some of the more disturbing.

Although the Farrington Brothers do not enjoy the fame of other Old West outlaws, their gang was once one of the most feared in the country. Trained under Commander Quantrill, one of the Confederacy’s most skilled practitioners of guerilla warfare, Hillary and Levi Farrington took to robbing following the Civil War. The brothers were arrested by the Pinkerton’s in 1871 after a protracted gun battle, and William Pinkerton, Allan Pinkerton’s son, was transporting Hillary Farrington, when events took a disturbing turn.

While on a paddle steamer headed for Columbus, Kentucky, William, for some strange reason, offered Hillary Farrington a drink at the bar. The criminal accepted, didn’t want people to see him in handcuffs, and asked to be taken in through the backdoor. This meant Pinkerton would have to take Hillary out of the main cabin and onto the deck of the ship, where the pair would have to walk around to the bar’s rear entrance.

Unsurprisingly, Hillary tried to seize Pinkerton’s gun the moment the pair were alone outside. A fight ensued and, although the Hillary won the fight for the weapon, he lost the war. William Pinkerton landed an uppercut that threw Farrington over the rails and into the boat’s churning paddle. Needless to say, Hillary was pounded to death, and this was one detail William’s father left out of the public account.

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