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Pinkerton (detective agency)

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Company typeSubsidiary
IndustryPrivate security contractor
FoundedChicago, Illinois, U.S.
(c. 1850; 174 years ago)
FounderAllan Pinkerton
HeadquartersAnn Arbor, Michigan, U.S.
Area served
ServicesSecurity management, risk management consulting, investigations, employment screening, protective services, security, crisis management, intelligence services
ParentSecuritas AB (1999–present)

Pinkerton is a private security guard and detective agency established around 1850 in the United States by Scottish-born American cooper Allan Pinkerton and Chicago attorney Edward Rucker as the North-Western Police Agency, which later became Pinkerton & Co. and finally the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. At the height of its power from the 1870s to the 1890s, it was the largest private law enforcement organization in the world.[1] It is currently a subsidiary of Swedish-based Securitas AB.[2]

Pinkerton became famous when he claimed to have foiled the Baltimore Plot to assassinate President-elect Abraham Lincoln in 1861. Lincoln later hired Pinkerton agents to conduct espionage against the Confederacy and act as his personal security during the American Civil War.[3][4]

Following the Civil War, the Pinkertons began conducting operations against organized labor.[5] During the labor strikes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, businesses hired the Pinkerton Agency to infiltrate unions, supply guards, keep strikers and suspected unionists out of factories, and recruit goon squads to intimidate workers.[6] During the Homestead Strike of 1892, Pinkerton agents were called in to reinforce the strikebreaking measures of industrialist Henry Clay Frick, who was acting on behalf of Andrew Carnegie, the head of Carnegie Steel.[7] Tensions between the workers and strikebreakers erupted into violence, which led to the deaths of three Pinkerton agents and nine steelworkers. [8][9] During the late nineteenth century, the Pinkertons were also hired as guards in coal, iron, and lumber disputes in Illinois, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, and were involved in other strikes such as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.[10]

During the 20th century, Pinkerton rebranded itself as a personal security and risk management firm. The company has continued to exist in various forms to the present day and is now a division of the Swedish security company Securitas AB, operating as Pinkerton Consulting & Investigations, Inc., doing business as Pinkerton Corporate Risk Management. [11] The former Pinkerton Government Services division, PGS, now operates as Securitas Critical Infrastructure Services, Inc..[12]


In the 1850s, Allan Pinkerton, a Scottish immigrant, met Chicago attorney Edward Rucker in a local Masonic Hall. The two men formed the North-Western Police Agency, later known as the Pinkerton Agency.[13][14][15] Pinkerton used his skills in espionage to attract clients and begin growing the agency. Historian Frank Morn writes: "By the mid-1850s, a few businessmen saw the need for greater control over their employees; their solution was to sponsor a private detective system. In February 1855, Allan Pinkerton, after consulting with six midwestern railroads, created such an agency in Chicago."[16] The Pinkerton Agency began to hire women and minorities shortly after its founding because they were useful as spies, a practice uncommon at the time.[17]

Forerunners to the Secret Service[edit]

"We Never Sleep" logo

Among the business's early operations was to safely deliver the newly elected President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, to Washington, D.C., in light of an assassination threat. Pinkerton detective Kate Warne was assigned and successfully delivered Lincoln to the U.S. capital city through a series of disguises and related tactics that required her to stay awake throughout the entire long journey. As a result of the public notoriety of this success, the business adopted an open eye as its logo and the slogan, "We never sleep."[18] Allan Pinkerton around this time also served in the "Secret Service" intelligence division of what was then known as the U.S. War Department.

These actions preceded and laid the groundwork for the establishment of the United States Secret Service, which is tasked with serving current and former U.S. Presidents' security to this day. The official Secret Service was founded on July 5, 1865,[19] less than three months after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

U.S. government contractor[edit]

Pinkerton guards escort strikebreakers in Buchtel, Ohio, 1884

In 1871, Congress appropriated $50,000 (about equivalent to $1,272,000 in 2023) to the new Department of Justice to form a sub-organization devoted to "the detection and prosecution of those guilty of violating federal law." The amount was insufficient to form an internal investigating unit, so they contracted out the services to the Pinkerton National Detective Agency.[20]

However, as news leaked about the Pinkertons' involvement in strikebreaking, lawmakers began pushing against government contracts with the Pinkertons.[21] The Pinkertons reached their zenith in the 1870s and 80s, which saw them frequently engage in violent crackdowns against striking workers. The most notable example of this was the involvement of the Pinkertons in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. However, it was the confrontation in Homestead, Pennsylvania, in 1892 that led to a national outcry against the Pinkerton Detective Agency.[22] Following the strike, Congress took swift action against the Pinkertons and passed the Anti-Pinkerton Act in 1893, which severely curtailed the relationship between the federal government and the agency. The act states that "individuals employed by the Pinkerton Detective Agency, or similar organization, may not be employed by the government of the United States or the government of the District of Columbia."[23]

Molly Maguires[edit]

In the 1870s, Franklin B. Gowen, then president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, hired the agency to investigate the labor unions in the company's mines. A Pinkerton agent, James McParland, using the alias "James McKenna," infiltrated the Molly Maguires, a 19th-century secret society of mainly Irish-American coal miners, leading to the downfall of the organization.

The incident inspired Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes novel The Valley of Fear (1914–1915). A Pinkerton agent also appears in a small role in "The Adventure of the Red Circle," a 1911 Holmes story. A 1970 film, The Molly Maguires, was loosely based on the incident.

Homestead strike[edit]

Pinkerton men leaving a barge after their surrender during the Homestead Strike
Frick's letter describing the plans and munitions that will be on the barges when the Pinkertons arrive to confront the strikers in Homestead

On July 6, 1892, during the Homestead Strike, 300 Pinkerton agents from New York and Chicago were called in by Carnegie Steel's Henry Clay Frick to protect the Pittsburgh-area mill and act as strikebreakers. This resulted in a firefight and siege in which 16 men were killed and 23 others were wounded. Following the confrontation, the Governor of Pennsylvania, Robert E. Pattison, mobilized state law enforcement and the National Guard. Private and government forces broke the strike, and workers returned to the steel mill.[6]

The strike, dubbed "The Battle of Homestead" by local media, ignited a firestorm around the United States. [24] Americans were outraged at the conduct of the Pinkertons and how strikers were treated. The Homestead Strike of 1892 is regarded as a turning point in American labor history and prompted Congress to begin a crackdown on the Pinkertons.[25] As a legacy of the Pinkertons' involvement, a bridge connecting the nearby Pittsburgh suburbs of Munhall and Rankin was named Pinkerton's Landing Bridge.

Steunenberg murder and trial[edit]

Harry Orchard was arrested by the Idaho police and confessed to Pinkerton agent James McParland that he assassinated former Governor Frank Steunenberg of Idaho in 1905. Orchard testified (unsuccessfully), under threat of hanging,[26] against Western Federation of Miners president Big Bill Haywood, naming him as having hired the hit. With a stirring defense by Clarence Darrow, Haywood and the other defendants of the WFM were acquitted in a nationally publicized trial. Orchard received a death sentence, but it was commuted.[27]

Outlaws and competition[edit]

Pinkerton agents were hired to track western outlaws Jesse James, the Reno Gang, and the Wild Bunch (including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). On March 17, 1874, two Pinkerton detectives and a deputy sheriff, Edwin P. Daniels,[28] encountered the Younger brothers (associates of the James–Younger Gang); Daniels, John Younger, and one Pinkerton agent were killed. In Union, Missouri, a bank was robbed by George Collins, aka Fred Lewis, and Bill Randolph; Pinkerton Detective Chas Schumacher trailed them and was killed. Collins was hanged on March 26, 1904, and Randolph was hanged on May 8, 1905, in Union. Pinkertons were also hired to transport money and other high-quality merchandise between cities and towns, which made them vulnerable to outlaws. Pinkerton agents were usually well paid and well armed.

George Thiel, a former Pinkerton employee, established the Thiel Detective Service Company in St. Louis, Missouri, a competitor to the Pinkerton agency. Thiel's agency operated in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

Modern era[edit]

Due to its conflicts with labor unions, the word Pinkerton continues to be associated by labor organizers and union members with strikebreaking.[29] Pinkertons diversified from labor spying following revelations publicized by the La Follette Committee hearings in 1937,[30] and the firm's criminal detection work also suffered from the police modernization movement, which saw the rise of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the bolstering of detective branches and resources of the public police. With less of the labor and criminal investigation work on which Pinkertons thrived for decades, the company became increasingly involved in protection services, and in the 1960s, even the word "detective" disappeared from the agency's letterhead.[31] The company now focuses on threat intelligence, risk management, executive protection, and active shooter response.[32]

In 1999, the company was bought by Securitas AB, a Swedish security company, for $384 million,[33] followed by the acquisition of the William J. Burns Detective Agency (founded in 1910), a longtime Pinkerton rival, to create (as a division of the parent) Securitas Security Services USA. [citation needed] Today, the company's headquarters are located in Ann Arbor, Michigan.[34]

In December 2018, Securitas AB issued a cease and desist notice to video game company Take-Two Interactive over the use of the Pinkerton name and badge imagery in Red Dead Redemption 2. They demanded royalties for each copy of the game sold, or they would take legal action. Take-Two maintained that the Pinkerton name was strongly associated with the Wild West, and its use of the term did not infringe on the Pinkerton trademark.[35] By April 2019, Securitas AB had withdrawn its claim.[36]

In 2020, they were hired by Amazon to spy on warehouse workers for signs of union activity.[5] In 2022, it was reported that Starbucks had hired a former Pinkerton employee as part of their union busting efforts.[37][38]

In 2020, Matthew Dolloff, an unlicensed security guard contracted through Pinkerton, shot and killed Lee Keltner, a conservative protester, in Denver, Colorado. Dolloff had been contracted by Pinkerton to guard a camera crew working for 9News. The camera crew had been assigned to cover rival political groups protesting in Denver. Keltner had told a cameraman to stop filming him; Dolloff then approached Keltner. Keltner slapped Dolloff before spraying him with bear spray, and moments later as Dolloff shot Keltner. Dolloff was arrested, investigated for first-degree murder, and charged with second-degree murder. The charge was later dropped.[39][40][41]

In 2023, Wizards of the Coast hired Pinkerton to seize products from the March of the Machine: The Aftermath card set for the trading card game Magic: The Gathering from YouTuber Dan Cannon of oldschoolmtg who had received them in an order from a local game store.[42] Cannon published a video showing his contents on YouTube ahead of the release. Pinkerton used intimidation and legal servings to force compliance.[42] According to Wizards of the Coast, this was done after several attempts had been made to contact the individual in private, with no response.[43]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ TM Becker (1974). "The place of private police in society: An area of research for the Social Sciences". Social Problems. 21 (3): 438–453. doi:10.2307/799910. JSTOR 799910.
  2. ^ "Pinkerton Government Services, Inc.: Private Company Information – Businessweek". investing.businessweek.com. Archived from the original on July 28, 2013. Retrieved September 25, 2012.
  3. ^ Green, James (2006). Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement, and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America. Pantheon Books. ISBN 0-375-42237-4. p. 43
  4. ^ "Today in History – August 25". Library of Congress. Retrieved April 21, 2022.
  5. ^ a b Katie Canales (2020). "Amazon is using union-busting Pinkerton spies to track warehouse workers and labor movements at the company, according to a new report". Business Insider.
  6. ^ a b "The Strike at Homestead Mill". www.pbs.org. Retrieved April 20, 2022.
  7. ^ "Strike at Homestead Mill". Public Broadcasting System. Archived from the original on April 8, 2000. Retrieved June 27, 2015.
  8. ^ Krause, Paul (1992). The Battle for Homestead, 1890–1892: Politics, Culture, and Steel. University of Pittsburgh Press. ISBN 0-8229-5466-4. pp. 20–21
  9. ^ Krause, Paul; Krause, Paul; Paul Avrich Collection (Library of Congress) DLC (1992). The battle for Homestead, 1880–1892: politics, culture, and steel. Internet Archive. Pittsburgh : University of Pittsburgh Press.
  10. ^ "This Infamous Anti-Labor Company Is Still Targeting Workers". Teen Vogue. December 3, 2020. Retrieved November 25, 2022.
  11. ^ "Press Kit" (PDF). Justia Law. 2018. Retrieved February 9, 2021.
  12. ^ LinkedIn
  13. ^ Foner, Eric; Garraty, John Arthur, eds. (1991). The Reader's Companion to American History. Houghton Mifflin Books. ISBN 0-395-51372-3. p. 842
  14. ^ Robinson, Charles M (2005). American Frontier Lawmen 1850–1930. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 1-84176-575-9.p. 63
  15. ^ Horan, James David; Howard Swiggett (1951). The Pinkerton Story. Putnam. p. 202
  16. ^ Morn, Frank (1982). The Eye That Never Sleeps: A History of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-32086-0. p. 18
  17. ^ Seiple, Samantha (2015). Lincoln's spymaster: Allan Pinkerton, America's first private eye. New York: Scholastic Press. ISBN 978-0-545-70901-9. OCLC 922643750.
  18. ^ O'Reilly, Terry. "How a detective used a disguise to save the life of a president". Under the Influence. CBC. Retrieved January 22, 2021.
  19. ^ "Those Other Secret Services". secretservice.gov. United States Secret Service. Retrieved April 28, 2023.
  20. ^ Churchill, Ward (Spring 2004). "From the Pinkertons to the PATRIOT Act: The Trajectory of Political Policing in the United States, 1870 to the Present". The New Centennial Review. 4 (1): 1–72. doi:10.1353/ncr.2004.0016. JSTOR 41949420. S2CID 145098109.
  21. ^ Bilansky, Alan (2018). "Pinkerton's National Detective Agency and the Information Work of the Nineteenth-Century Surveillance State". Information & Culture. 53 (1): 67–84. doi:10.7560/IC53104. hdl:2142/97810. ISSN 2164-8034. S2CID 159007191.
  22. ^ Antkowiak, Bruce (2011). "The Pinkerton Problem". heinonline.org. Retrieved April 21, 2022.
  23. ^ 5 U.S. Code 3108; Public Law 89-554, 80 Stat. 416 (1966); ch. 208 (5th par. under "Public Buildings"), 27 Stat. 591 (1893). The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in U.S. ex rel. Weinberger v. Equifax, 557 F.2d 456 (5th Cir. 1977), cert. denied, 434 U.S. 1035 (1978), held that "the purpose of the Act and the legislative history reveal that an organization was 'similar' to the Pinkerton Detective Agency only if it offered for hire mercenary, quasi-military forces as strikebreakers and armed guards. It had the secondary effect of deterring any other organization from providing such services lest it be branded a 'similar organization.'" 557 F.2d at 462; see also "GAO Decision B-298370; B-298490, Brian X. Scott (Aug. 18, 2006)". Archived from the original on March 4, 2016.
  24. ^ "The Battle of Homestead". Rivers of Steel. Retrieved April 28, 2022.
  25. ^ "1892 Homestead Strike". aflcio.org. Retrieved April 28, 2022.
  26. ^ Peter Carlson, Roughneck: The Life and Times of Big Bill Haywood, W.W. Norton & Company, 1983, p. 90 [ISBN missing]
  27. ^ Peter Carlson, Roughneck: The Life and Times of Big Bill Haywood, W.W. Norton & Company, 1983, p. 140
  28. ^ "Deputy Sheriff Edwin P. Daniels". The Officer Down Memorial Page (ODMP).
  29. ^ Williams, David Ricardo (1998). Call in Pinkerton's: American Detectives at Work for Canada. Toronto: Dundurn Press. ISBN 1-550023-06-3.
  30. ^ Morn, Frank (1982). The Eye That Never Sleeps: A History of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. pp. 188–189. ISBN 0-253-32086-0.
  31. ^ Morn, Frank (1982). The Eye That Never Sleeps: A History of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. p. 192. ISBN 0-253-32086-0.
  32. ^ Kevin Doss, Charles Shepard (2015) Active Shooter: Preparing for and Responding to a Growing Threat Oxford, United Kingdom. ISBN 9780128027844
  33. ^ Jones, Sarah (March 23, 2018) "The Pinkertons Still Never Sleep". The New Republic
  34. ^ About Securitas USA (company site)
  35. ^ Handrahan, Matthew (January 15, 2019). "Rockstar threatened with legal action over Red Dead 2's Pinkerton agents". GamesIndustry.biz. Gamer Network. Archived from the original on January 15, 2019. Retrieved June 23, 2021.
  36. ^ Valentine, Rebekah (April 11, 2019). "Take-Two, Rockstar dismiss complaint against Pinkerton". GamesIndustry.biz. Gamer Network. Archived from the original on April 11, 2019. Retrieved April 11, 2019.
  37. ^ Katie Halper: Starbucks Hires Ex-Pinkerton, CIA Officer To Wokeify Union-Busting, retrieved September 13, 2022
  38. ^ Puterski, Steve (April 4, 2023). "County records show Fletcher's Pinkerton security detail cost $2M". The Coast News. Retrieved May 7, 2024. Starbucks, the subject of a federal investigation into union busting, is alleged to have hired a former CIA officer and Pinkerton employee to monitor unionizing employees, according to media reports.
  39. ^ D'Angelo, Bob (October 11, 2020). "Security guard being investigated for 1st-degree murder after gunfire erupts near Denver protests". KIRO7. Retrieved March 10, 2023.
  40. ^ Schmelzer, Elise (March 10, 2022). "Denver DA to drop murder charge against unlicensed security guard who shot man at protest". The Denver Post. Retrieved March 10, 2023.
  41. ^ Schmelzer, Elise (October 18, 2020). "No statewide regulation of Colorado security guards creates patchwork of standards, lack of transparency". The Denver Post. Retrieved March 10, 2023.
  42. ^ a b Jiang, Sisi (April 25, 2023). "Magic: The Gathering YouTuber Says Pinkertons Threatened Him With $200k Fines, Jail". Kotaku. Retrieved May 8, 2023.
  43. ^ Hall, Charlie (April 24, 2023). "Magic publishers sent Pinkerton agents to a YouTuber's house to retrieve leaked cards". Polygon. Retrieved April 25, 2023.
  • Doss, Kevin; Shepard, Charles (2015). Active Shooter: Preparing for and Responding to a Growing Threat. Oxford, UK: Butterworth-Heinemann. ISBN 9780128027844.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: date and year (link)

Further reading

External links[edit]