Today in labor history: The strange case of Allan Pinkerton

On August 25, 1819, Allan Pinkerton was born in Glasgow, Scotland.  As a young man he was active in the Chartist Movement, considered a mass working-class movement. He left Scotland in 1842 and emigrated to the United States.

A cooper by trade he moved to Dundee, Illinois, and started a cooperage there.  Two years later in 1844 he worked for Chicago Abolitionist leaders and his house was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

In 1849 Pinkerton was appointed as the first detective in Chicago. In 1850, he partnered with Chicago attorney Edward Rucker in forming the North-Western Police Agency that later became Pinkerton National Detective Agency.

As the United States continued to colonize the west, Pinkerton’s agency became involved in solving train robberies in the 1850s. This is where Pinkerton came in contact with Abraham Lincoln who was the lawyer for Illinois Central Railroad. Pinkerton when on to serve as the head of the Union Intelligence Service during the civil war. 

After the war had ended he continue to investigate and pursue train robbers. The last train robber his agency tried to track down was Jesse James, which was unsuccessful and cost him his contract with the rail company.

But despite his earlier involvement in the progressive movements, Allan Pinkerton was strongly opposed to labor unions.

After his death in 1884, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency became notorious for its activities against the labor movement. They were involved in suppressing historic strikes such as the Homestead Strike and Pullman Strike. Pinkerton became a slang term for private eye. It would also become a term used in the labor movement for  people that sided with management.

On August 1, 1917, Frank Little, one of the greatest figures in American labor history, was dragged by six masked men from his Butte, Montana, hotel room and hung from the Milwaukee Railroad trestle. It was after organizing a strike of metal miners against the Anaconda Company (Anaconda Copper Mining Company was one of the largest trusts of the early 20th century.)

Years later, writer Dashiell Hammett would recall his early days as a Pinkerton detective agency operative and recount how a mine company representative offered him $5,000 to kill Little. Hammett says he quit the business that night.

Photo: Wikipedia, public domain.



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