Last updated: July 31, 2020
Allan Pinkerton was a cooper, abolitionist, and founder of the North-Western Police Agency, predecessor of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Forced to emigrate from Scotland in 1842 because of his radical, populist views, Pinkerton first established himself as a cooper in Dundee, Illinois but soon gravitated to police work. He was appointed deputy sheriff of Kane County, Illinois in 1846, then deputy sheriff of Cook County, then special agent for the U.S. Post Office in Chicago. Around 1850, he organized America's first private detective agency specializing in railway thefts. Its motto was "We never sleep" and its logo - a prominent, unblinking eye - came to be associated with all future "private eyes."
His agency protected President-elect Abraham Lincoln during his journey from Springfield to Washington in February 1861, and when war erupted, Pinkerton was appointed chief of intelligence for Union army commander George McClellan. In the early months of the Civil War, McClellan's cautious nature was often reinforced by Pinkerton's inflated estimates of Confederate troop strength.
After the war, the Pinkerton Agency continued to expand. It helped bring to justice a number of prominent railway express robbers but failed to apprehend the nation's most notorious: the James Gang. Ironically, given Pinkerton's early pro-labor views, the Pinkerton Agency became involved in suppressing labor organizing activity and strikes in the 1870s. The violence it helped foment during the 1892 Homestead Mill strike led to laws in 26 states that banned private guards from participating in labor disputes.
In the early 20th century, as public police forces became more professional and the public became less tolerant of the sometimes ruthless tactics employed by private police forces, the Pinkerton Agency gravitated away from detective work and toward security. The Pinkerton National Detective Agency lives on today as Pinkerton Consulting and Investigations, a division of the Swedish security company Securitas AB.