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CHAPTER SIX

 

Once the Isabella was on the high high seas, the stowaways came out of hiding and began mingling with the steerage passengers who, on learning their story, decided to help them and aided them out of their meagre ration of goods. At no stage were they betrayed to the ship's officers. Ocean-going travel was still a hazardous business in those days and the northern route across the Atlantic often prone to savage seas. Pack-ice and icebergs themselves were, of course, among the hazards and it was at this time of year, seventy years on, that the most famous of all maritime diasters, the sinking of the Titanic was to take place. Nevertheless, the Isabella appears to have safely negotiated the ice only to run full-tilt into a roaring storm when nearing the coast of Nova Scotia. Under the lashing wind and rain and in immense seas, the Isabella appears to have struck against rocks and began to founder. Lifeboats were launched to be quickly scattered by the storm. In the end, the newly-weds along with Robbie Fergus and some of the other passengers in boats which had managed to remain fairly close together were rescued by Newfoundland fishermen and landed on the Canadian mainland.

They were fed and given temporary shelter by the poor fishermen but their plight was desperate; everything, all their money and clothes, had gone. In this situation, Robert Pinkerton's forceful personality and practical experience of coping with problems in open country and handling groups of people meant that everyone turned to him as the natural leader. He assembled both men and women into a compact work-group with differing skills and set about finding urgent work in the surrounding countryside that they could tackle on an individual or collective basis. They helped lonely dwellings or assisted somebody in an isolated collection of houses or even opened up roads or small tracks between lonely communities, all in return for food or bits of clothing.

Together they collected enough materials to build a number of carts and decided to push on across Canada towards Chicago, earning their living as best they could on the way. As most of the men had had experience working on canals and cutting new railway tracks, Robert decided to follow in the Pinkerton tradition and set himself up as a Contractor with Robbie Fergus acting as his business manager. The skills he had learned as a canal worker and, in a small way, as a Contractor back in Scotland and England, now stood him in good stead. He and his comrades managed to eke out a sparse living although there were no large-scale works available, such as during the canal-building boom in Britain, to provide them with a less precarious existence.

All the while, the little caravanserai steadily pushed West for Robbie Fergus had set his sights on Chicago where he planned to set up his own printing business with the help of other Chartist refugees. According to Robert's widow, the party eventually worked their way to "the shores of a big lake" which she always understood to be Lake Michigan. Here Robert unearthed the owner of a small sailing craft which was laid up in need of repairs. Like all the Pinkertons, Robert could turn his hand to almost any type of metal-working, having, like Allan, picked up the elements of coopering and other skills in the smithy in Muirhead Street. He volunteered to direct the repairs, to be carried out by the other craftsmen and workers who had accompanied him from Nova Scotia, in return for the passage across the lake of the entire party. A deal was struck and the work being completed within a month, the whole party then set sail for the burgeoning city of Chicago.

Once in that bustling, hustling, windy city, Robert quickly found lodgings for himself and his wife while the rest of the party split up and went their separate ways. Robbie also parted from the Pinkertons but only to pursue his plans to launch a business with typical Scottish vigour and, indeed, although their careers were to diverge to a marked degree, both Robert and Robbie - and later Allan when he established himself in Chicago - were to remain the closest of friends. Robbie, like the two Pinkertons, was to enjoy considerable success in the New World and the printing business which he established in Chicago was eventually to form the nucleus of the giant Hearst newspaper empire.

In this memoirs, Allan claimed that the Kent in which he and Joan and his mother crossed the Atlantic, was also wrecked off the coast of Nova Scotia - a tale which bears a striking resemblance to the misfortunes suffered by Robert and his wife. According to Allan, the Kent became entangled in ice off Sable Island, slipped her anchor, struck a rock and began to sink. Everybody took to the lifeboats and managed to row to safety, he and Joan being temporarily separated but happily reunited on shore. Within a short time, they managed to get taken aboard a coastal schooner which deposited them, some time in May 1842 in the St. Lawrence, first in Quebec and then in Montreal where Allan found some temporary work making barrels. There seems to have been a shortage of work of this nature, however, and Allan decided to make for Chicago, then a bustling frontier town of little more than 1,200 people. He bought a horse and wagon, dumped whatever possessions he had managed to salvage or amass under the driver's seat and jogged off towards Chicago, taking the journey in easy stages. His funds consisted of a quarter of a dollar which he and Joan took in turns to carry tied up in a handkerchief. They made a brief stopover in Warsaw, Illinois, where they were robbed of everything they had (except for the quarter dollar, apparently) but eventually made it to the rugged, noisy, cattle-lowing frontier capital where Allan was reunited with Robert and with Robbie Fergus. Fergus was already beginning to prosper and through his printing business had already made several good connections. One of these was the foreman in a local brewery and on the very first day that he arrived in Chicago, the almost destitute Allan found himself earning relatively good money.

It was extremely tough going all the same and at this stage, Allan did not foresee that he would eventually make a fortune. Indeed, his prospects in Chicago remained bleak and by early the next year, 1843, he was ready to move on to pastures new. Meantime, there was always the companionship of other Scots expatriates and musical evenings where he and the others could indulge in nostalgia for Scotland by listening to Scottish ballads. At this time, he and Joan were lodging with Robbie Fergus and in some recompense for his hospitality, the Pinkerton couple helped the printer get out a book of Scottish and country ballads - among the first ever printed in Chicago.

The Pinkerton brothers had, in their separate ways, arrived in Chicago while America, following the business panic of 1837 was still only slowly fighting its way out of a depression. But as one chronicler has put it, the depression "had stirred up the imagination and enterprise of Americans" and the whole scene was being rapidly transformed by the construction of railways (or railroads as they are called in the US).

In 1815 when John Stevens received the first state charter for the construction of a railway in the country, four-fifths of the United States" total population of 8,350,000 lived along the Atlantic seaboard, the remaining fifth residing in the Ohio valley with scattered settlements in the valley of the Mississippi. America gained immense benefit from the Napoleonic wars that helped to impoverish European prosperity and retard its progress, and the arrival of new waves of immigrants gave an added impetus to a burgeoning economy. As in England a generation earlier, the main brake upon trade was inadequate and costly transport. Following the English lead, a large number of canals were constructed and considerable use made of waterways but the system soon proved incapable of meeting the country's needs. Within ten days of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the only Catholic Irish-American among the signatories to the Declaration of Independence and, by this time, the sole survivor had formally initiated construction of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad on July 4 1828, bids were being received for the first twelve miles of track and the line itself had come into operation less than two years later. By 1835, a branch line had been extended to near Washington DC and soon afterwards the track was extended to the Ohio river, the Great Lakes, Chicago and St. Louis. Alongside the spread of the railroads but preceding the establishment of the major networks, was the "Express" business whose main exponents were Wells Fargo, a famous company now incorporated in the modern American Express company. In the depression that followed the panic of 1837, US postal rates remained prohibitively high and there was no parcel post of any kind. In such circumstances it was natural that entrepreneurs should jump in to take advantage of this deficiency. The business actually began with the drivers of stage coaches out of New York or Boston taking small parcels or carrying out various commissions on an ad hoc basis. When the railroads became operational, the same men, as conductors, continued to carry out these duties. Soon, parcels and packets were being carried in every conceivable form of transport - on stage railroad and steamboats plying out of New York and Boston harbours. Just three years before Robert and Allan Pinkerton arrived in Chicago, a frail young man called William Harnden announced in the newspapers that he or his agent would be travelling back and forth four times a week between New York and Boston "and would take charge of all small packages of goods, bundles etc., that may be entrusted to his care". Harnden used the word "express" to describe his new enterprise and the name rapidly stuck.

By 1840, the United States had only 2,818 miles of railway track. Indeed, some of the great aristocrats of American enterprise such as Vanderbilt and Drew had deliberately set their faces against railroads as "too risky and too primitive". Vanderbilt declared "I'm a competitor of these railroads - though I wish them well. I'm sticking to my steamboats". However, he did agree to give Harnden free transport for a period in return for useful publicity among the big merchants and bankers. Harnden could make no progress with Drew whose steamboats had a monopoly on transport to Albany, the state capital but eventually unearthed a big, broad-shouldered man called Henry Wells who knew Drew and was ultimately able to appoint him his agent for the express in Albany. The partnership prospered and, full of flair and imagination, Wells suggested that together they strike out for the West - "let's run our express West to Buffalo, then on to Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago!" Harnden thought that the idea was not feasible and left it to Wells to go it alone. As a result in 1841, Henry Wells struck out on his own - and thus Wells-Fargo was born.

The railroads still had to creep West at this time and what track there was was often extremely primitive - the rails being simply strap rails or flat iron belts spoked insecurely to the sleepers. Spokes would often loosen and allow the rails to curve up and rip through the bottom of cars and sometimes, through the passengers as well.

Robert Pinkerton appears to have turned his hand to almost any occupation he could find upon his arrival in Chicago and, for a while, worked as a cooper in order to sustain himself and Isabella. At this stage, he was a strong and vigorous young man with plenty of that Pinkerton drive and flair which was later to be associated with his younger brother Allan. His experience as a embryonic canal contractor in England plus his experiences as the leader of the small band of Scots shipwreck victims had fired his ambitions, however, and shortly after his arrival (the exact date is not known) he founded a business called Pinkerton & Co., describing the enterprise as "railway contractors". It was, of course, largely a one-man business, his idea being to hire bands of labourers, usually Scottish expatriates like himself to carry out the actual work; he had the image of old John Pinkerton in mind, of course.

It cannot be said that the business prospered immediately; indeed, the idea of being a railway contractor on anything like the scale earlier Pinkertons had achieved on the English and Scottish canals, soon vanished in face of the fierce competition among Yankee entrepreneurs who had ready access to large sums of capital. Robert appears to have settled for sporadic employment, often being forced to take a labouring job himself to make ends meet. At this stage of course he was away from home a great deal. His wife Alice Isabella remained behind in Chicago to look after their young son Andrew who had been born in England in 1841 (the family grew rapidly of course and within the next few years there were to be five more children - George, William, James, Robert junior and Peter). As the railroads spread Westward, however, he managed to obtain contracts and worked on the later stages of the Erie railroad which connected the Atlantic seaboard with the great lakes.

The further West the Wells Fargo Express and the railroads pushed, the more lawless became the environment. Robert's idea was perhaps, a natural enough progression but nevertheless gives proof of his flair and imagination. He may have been helped too by the memory of his father's employment as a member of the Gorbals Watch and stories of the apprehension of criminals. Certainly by the end of 1842 or the early part of 1843, Pinkerton & Co. had changed its status - they (that is, Robert) called themselves "railroad detectives".

Pinkerton Railroad Detective button
Pinkerton Railroad Detective button

Robbery, theft, simple pilfering - they affected both the infant railways and the Express enterprises themselves. Long before Allan Pinkerton entered the detective business, therefore, Robert had successfully founded a business which was eventually to grow into the world's most famous private detective agency. It was a small and modest beginning and it cannot be said that Robert carried off any great coups; his, on the other hand, was an operation designed to secure the safety of goods and parcels in transit and, so far as possible, prevent pilfering by staff or criminals.

Robert Pinkerton was to die a comparatively young man and at a time when the Pinkerton agency was struggling to keep itself financially afloat. So far as I know, he left no diary and, whatever papers he had collected were destroyed in the great fire of 1871 - in the view of his branch of the family, quite deliberately. Much of the early history of the Pinkerton Agency, therefore, depends almost entirely upon the diaries and memoirs of Allan Pinkerton, written much later in life and when he had become a millionaire and a world-famous personage who had every interest in attaching the entire glory of the Pinkerton enterprise to himself.

Indeed, even while Robert was forging ahead with contracts which brought him work on the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy railroad and the Galena, Rock Island and Illinois railroad and other business with that great entrepreneur Alvin Adams, whose Adams Express became the arch rival of Wells and Fargo, Livingstone and Butterfield and the other founders of a business now largely represented by the worldwide American Express Company, Allan had other ideas. He had, in fact, found the going in Chicago relatively tough and hearing of a small settlement established by some Scottish people on the Fox river, some fifty miles from the city, he decided to seek his fortune there. He appears to have been attracted to the idea largely because of the name of the settlement - Dundee - and because he knew he would find himself among his own countrymen. Leaving his wife Joan behind in Chicago, Allan set out "to make barrels, churns and tubs" for the populace of Dundee.

His instincts proved admirable and he quickly found plenty of work available for a cooper in Dundee. He chose a strategic spot to build a cabin and shed and set up his sign, "Allan Pinkerton, Cooperage". Although he had the example of his brother before him, Allan Pinkerton at this stage, anyway, had no thoughts of setting himself up as a detective. For the next four years, indeed, he persevered with his new enterprise and as Chicago and the whole mid-West expanded in population and flourished in trade, Allan grew only modestly prosperous. Soon he was employing some eight people.

Robert and Allan Pinkerton came into the detective business by entirely separate routes. Robert's business grew rapidly from his experience and employment as a railroad detective; Allan got pitchforked into it through sheer chance.

Running short of lumber for his cooperage business, he learned that there was a ready supply of suitable timber available on a small island in the Fox river only a short distance from Dundee. Poling himself out to the island on a raft, he selected the various woods he needed but also noticed the remains of a cooking fire. This aroused his suspicions because it was unlikely that the fire had been caused by picknickers - in the circumstances of the time and place, mid-Westerners had no time for such leisure pursuits. He returned to the island on several occasions and finally one night saw a number of men row ashore and set up what looked like a camp beside a fire. Next day Allan told the Sheriff of Kane County about these goings-on and as a result a raid was carried out and a gang of counterfeiters arrested by the posse. As a result the island hereafter became known as Bogus Island.

Pinkerton's "prowess" as a "detective" spread quickly throughout the surrounding region and to the Glaswegian's surprise, he was approached by two local businessmen who asked for his help in uncovering other counterfeiters operating in the district. In this case, scrip issued by the Wisconsin Marine and Fire Insurance Company, widely accepted as legal tender along the frontier, was being counterfeited, including bills of a large denomination (for those days) worth ten dollars. One of the distributors of the forged scrip was a man called Crane who lived in nearby Lake County. Crane's place had been raided and searched several times by the sheriff but nothing had ever been found. Nevertheless, most people were convinced of his guilt, A chance to break up the racket stubbornly failed to materialise, however, until one day a slick-looking stranger rode into town and asked for directions to Crane's place. The businessmen were convinced that the stranger was behind the counterfeit scrip and asked Allan if he would try to uncover the rogue. Pinkerton was at first astonished by the request but eventually decided to undertake the job.

Still wearing his cooper's overalls, Allan managed to strike up a conversation with the slick stranger who turned out to be a farmer from Vermont called John Craig. Allan managed to worm his way into Craig's confidence and eventually gave him to understand that he was not above earning a dollar or two on the side, even if the deal were not altogether legitimate. In the end, Craig finally agreed to sell Pinkerton a number of counterfeit bills at a considerable discount and a meeting was arranged where the forged notes would be handed over. Pinkerton returned to Dundee to pick up enough genuine scrip to pay for the discounted forgeries and duly attended the meeting where he handed over the genuine money. At this stage Allan knew enough about the law to know that he had to nab Craig in actual possession of the forged bills but the latter was too wily for him and left the stuff under a rock. Allan, in fact, had to make another attempt and this time succeeded in Chicago, in finding Craig with the forged notes on him and Craig was duly arrested.

This "case" spread Allan's reputation far and wide and Allan himself evidently found the work congenial for although he continued to run his cooperage business, he eventually accepted an offer to work as deputy sheriff of Kane County.

Robert and Allan had managed to keep in touch throughout this time and it appears that along with visits from Robbie Fergus, Allan also played host to his older brother and his wife Alice. The two brothers still shared the ideals that had made them prominent members of the Glasgow Chartist movement and with vivid memories of their own bitter and deprived childhood, were determined to see justice done wherever and whenever it lay in their power.

Fergus soon put Robert in touch with a group of Chicago abolitionists and although as yet he was far from being a rich man, Robert found the anti-slavery cause a more than satisfactory substitute for his involvement with social change back in Scotland and soon became deeply immersed in the stratagems and tactics of such men as Philo Carpenter and Elisha Dyer, leaders of the Chicago group. Indeed, at a very early stage, Robert took advantage of his freedom of movement, a freedom afforded him by the nature of his job which involved considerable travel, to play a part in the so-called Underground Railroad from the south to Canada. This, in fact, was an "escape route" for negro slaves who had run away from their southern masters and wanted to reach freedom in Canada; it was a system paralleled in may respects by members of resistance groups in Europe during the second World War who aided Allied airmen or escaped POW's to reach safety.

It is not known exactly when Robert, as guide, took part in the first of these "runs" but according to my family tradition, he was already taking part long before Allan decided to move to Chicago. Indeed, it was Robert who arranged for Allan to become the Chicago Abolitionists' "agent" in Dundee and it was because of him that Allan's house became an important "stop" on the Underground Railroad.

Robert was to pay a heavy price for this involvement - but all this belongs to a later part of this story.

By the early part of 1843, Robert Pinkerton was beginning to make the Pinkerton name a well-known one among both the railroad men and the "express" companies. Early in that year, Henry Wells decided to push his service still further West. There were no railroads beyond Buffalo, but Wells discovered a rugged, energetic agent who did not intend to allow such a trifling inconvenience to deter him - a man called William George Fargo, an energetic, bearded young man still in his early twenties who happily took on the job of launching an "Express" to Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, Chicago and St. Louis. The conditions were rough of course - it frequently took "eight days and nights to travel from Buffalo to Detroit" alone. But the bankers and merchants of the East and the growing mid-West were only too happy to pay for this service (at fourteen dollars per 100 lbs of freight).

Robert Pinkerton owed much of his subsequent good-fortune (and the establishment of the famous Pinkerton detective agency itself) to this decision by Wells and Fargo to push West. Robert saw his chance and set out to secure a contract with the company to provide guards on stage coaches. His business grew so rapidly, indeed, that he was forced to hire staff and soon had a core of railroad and coach detectives or guards working for him - the first Pinkerton agents. All this took place almost eight years before Allan ever heard of the railroad detective business - and certainly long before he moved into the city from Dundee.

Pinkerton Agents
Three unknown Pinkerton Agents

In 1846, Henry Wells withdrew to New York to pursue his lucrative business in the East, leaving Fargo along with a new partner, William Livingstone, to handle the business in the mid-West. By this time, the enterprise had multiplied a hundredfold and for the next few years, this company enjoyed a veritable monopoly. It was not until the end of the decade, in fact, in late 1849, that John Butterfield, himself an old stage-coach driver and now the owner of nearly all the stages running in Western New York State, decided to enter the fray. However, it soon became clear that the resulting competition would provide neither Wells, Fargo nor Butterfield with any profits and in March 1850, an amalgamation was forged, resulting in a new company called American Express.

From 1850 onwards, as the US railroads crawled West - the Michigan Central, the Illinois Central and the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy - breaking into the American heartland, the express business and in particular that of American Express, continued to flourish. Pinkertons worked for both American Express and its great rival, Adams Express with whom Robert Pinkerton had signed an early contract. In the early 1850s, the two great organisations signed a pact together undertaking not to violate each other's "territories" and it was this agreement that enabled the Pinkerton men to work for both companies without fear or favour. In October 1853, however, Adams Express went bankrupt when a private bank with which it was associated had to close its doors.

This left the field clear for Wells Fargo, a subsidiary of American Express with whose name many of the romantic legends of the Wild West have come to be associated.

Adams Express, of course, with whom Robert Pinkerton had one of his earliest contracts, had established a virtual monopoly of the express trade in the Californian goldfields. Adams Express, in fact, were in at the very beginning of the Wild West epoch and like Wells Fargo later, became the centrepiece of many a stirring tale of derring-do, with gold shipment and hold-up men and brave messengers and Pinkerton men riding shotgun, of Indians and pell-mell races through rocky gorges.

In the sense that he, too, personally took part in many of these runs as well as supplying Pinkerton executives for other stage coach lines, Robert Pinkerton indeed, played a significant part in the legend of the West and in opening up the new frontiers of America.

* * * *

Throughout this early period, therefore, when the railroads, preceded by and then in tandem with the great Express companies, particularly the famed Wells Fargo for whom Robert Pinkerton was soon working full-time, spread westwards, opening up the great interior of the North American continent, Allan Pinkerton remained happily running his small cooperage business in the backwoods town of Dundee. He had emerged as a pillar of the community, and in the Spring of 1847 even ran as a candidate for an important local office, understood to be that of sheriff.

Still a strong idealist, he ran as the Abolitionist candidate and this appears to have brought him into conflict with the elders of the local Baptist Church. Allan, who never drank, found himself accused of taking spirits and even of circulating a book which claimed that Christ was an illegitimate child. All sorts of absurd charges were levelled at him and it rapidly became clear that the cause of Abolition was splitting the small congregation and community in a mirror image of what was happening in the rest of America.

Had he been allowed to continue his even-tenored way and to take his rightful place in the community as one of its most solid and energetic citizens, the likelihood is that Allan would have happily ended his days in the pleasant, indeed beautiful, surroundings of Dundee. His cooperage business was thriving and he now also had a son, William, to take care of as well as his wife Joan. He was, of course, of a restless, ambitious nature and the glowing tales of life in Chicago which he heard from both Robert and from Robbie Fergus whose business was rapidly growing (and was to become the biggest printing and publishing business in the mid-West) made him depressed with his lot and he increasingly gave way to black moods. When the sheriff of Cook County, William L. Church, offered him a deputy-ship, therefore, Allan accepted with alacrity and with all his household goods packed on a wagon, set out for Chicago.

This city had blossomed like a mushroom. The railroads were constantly expanding and Chicago had become a bustle of new hotels, new theatres and new churches. Throngs of people crowded the muddy streets and over two hundred covered-waggons rolled in each day loaded with wheat to be stored in the great elevators along the lake side. Ships of all sizes and types lined the lake shore.

There were lumberyards, abattoirs, warehouses, shipyards everywhere and the town was extraordinarily noisy as men hammered and shouted as they erected new building. Already, Chicago's goods and products were being dispatched all over the United States and even back across the Atlantic to London. With a population of more than sixteen thousand, the demand was for quickly-erected housing and there seems little doubt but that Allan Pinkerton with his cooperage skills would have prospered.

According to my family tradition, Allan and his family first moved in with Robert as was natural. But conditions were cramped and as Robbie Fergus was much the most prosperous of the three Gorbals friends who had sought their fortune in the New World - if as much out of disillusionment with conditions back in Scotland, as with the desire to make money - it was no surprise when he invited Allan and his family to move in with him.

Allan Pinkerton proved an able deputy-sheriff and when C. P. Bradley took over from Church, he kept Allan on as one of his deputies. Around about 1849, Mayor Boone actually appointed him Chicago's first official detective and Allan seems to have performed his duties very satisfactorily. He was a tough, vigorous and intensely ambitious young man and like all the Pinkertons, ready to fight his corner, with his fists if necessary. He certainly had charm and personality and a flamboyance which Robert who was of a more sober disposition, was never able to match. Indeed, Allan quickly made a large number of enemies and it was hardly a surprise in the terms of the raucous frontier life of Chicago when one of these enemies took a pot shot at him. This happened in Clark Street but fortunately the bullet lodged in his wrist although it set fire to his coat in the process.

Allan remained Chicago's "first detective" for about a year before resigning - he later gave his reasons as "political interference". He was then hired by the postal authorities to "investigate" a series of postal thefts and robberies and as a Special United States Mail Agent arranged to work as a clerk in Chicago's main post office. He finally discovered that a young clerk called Dennison, nephew of the Postmaster General, was stealing money from sealed postal packages and arranged with a Cook County Deputy to arrest him. There was some difficulty obtaining evidence - it was Allan's word alone that he had seen the young man stealing the money - but a search of the thief's home eventually revealed a cache of stolen money, several bills being hidden behind pictures.

The early history of the Pinkerton detective agency, it has to be said, is beset even now with considerable controversy. According to a history of the Agency, compiled with some assistance from the organisation's archives, the writer James D. Horan says of its inception: "The Agency insists the date (of the founding) was 1850 but that date is debatable". As Allan had all the original documents relating to the foundation destroyed in the great Chicago fire, it is a point that must always elude the historian who is forced to rely on documentary evidence to sustain a fact.

However, the Agency's insistence on 1850 - and this in the absence of any documentary evidence - in itself provides strong circumstantial evidence that the tradition handed down through my branch of the family is accurate. There is no doubt that Robert Pinkerton was operating a company of railroad and express detectives under the title "Pinkerton & Co" from as early as 1843.

Robert's family have always insisted that Allan's right to this title for his business descended to him through his association with Robert.

There is one other salient point: It is admitted by Allan's successors that sometime "in the early 1850's", Allan decided to open his own private detective agency - note the lack of a specific date. The first documentary evidence of any company being formed by Allan relates to a firm (date not established but believed to be much later than 1850) set up between Allan and a young Chicago attorney called Edward A. Rucker which, rather significantly, Allan called "The North-Western Police Agency". A later letterhead does state that "Allan Pinkerton and Edward A. Rucker, under the style of Pinkerton & Co., have established an agency in Chicago, Illinois, for the purpose of transacting a General Detective Police business in Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana ..." but the advent of Rucker and his part in the success of Pinkerton & Co. remains a shadowy mystery. Rucker, in fact, was a Clerk of Cook County Court and may have been of help to the Pinkerton brothers in advising them on certain legal aspects of the business. His name on the letterhead appears to have had no more significance than the name of a Duke or Marquess often does on the letterheads of English companies - put there mainly for effect. Certainly, Rucker appears to have played no important part in the business and his association with the Pinkertons did not extend beyond a year although his name occasionally surfaced much later on old letterheads, presumably because nobody had bothered to take it off.

Old Pinkertons National Detective Agency letterhead
Old Pinkertons National Detective Agency letterhead

The truth is that at this time, Allan already had a partner - Robert. The exact date of this partnership is no longer known; all we know for certain is that sometime in 1850, Robert invited his brother to join him in the infant company called Pinkerton & Co. which he had set up seven years before. It is not clear why Robert's partnership was not mentioned in whatever documentation has survived from the early days of the Pinkerton Agency and following the destruction by George Banks of the relevant papers, the reason must remain something of a mystery, as Allan obviously intended it to be.

As my family understands it, however, Robert did take objection to the appropriation of the company name by Allan but was satisfied that with the partnership with his younger brother established beyond doubt, his interests were unlikely to suffer. For the fact was that he and his brother did continue to work together and when the Agency opened a small office on the second floor of 89 Washington Street, Robert took over the administrative side of the business and helped to open up branch offices in Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin.

The two brothers after all, had always been close friends and allies and were to remain on good personal terms for the rest of their lives, although Robert later was to argue vehemently against some of what he regarded as Allan's "excesses" and also his political ambitions which while he understood them and Allan's continuing interest in all things political, he saw as deleterious to the financial success of the business, which, indeed, was tottering on the verge of bankruptcy when he, Robert, died several years later; it must, therefore, be regarded as not unnatural or surprising that he may have permitted a certain ambiguity to arise with reference to the ownership of the Agency on the grounds that it was a family business, anyhow. We know, too, that his interests were protected by his earlier deed of partnership with his brother.

In fact, any such niggles must have appeared somewhat academic to both brothers at that particular time. There was plenty of work for both of them, either as a partnership or individually. Chicago was now the gateway to the West. The Illinois Central and Rock Island railroad had spread its tentacles Westwards from the city with the effect of making it the focal point for almost every commercial activity to the West of the great lakes. Enormous grain silos had risen everywhere; herds of steers along with pigs and other animals occupied what had become probably the largest animal pens in the world. Houses, offices and shops were being run up at a breakneck speed by labourers and craftsmen. Chicago was in the grip of a mighty boom.

As with all money honeypots, however, criminals had already descended on Chicago in droves. Crime was rife and the law-enforcement agencies either weak or corrupt. Goods were safe nowhere - warehouses were looted, railcars carrying merchandise and valuables broken into and robbed, outlaws openly held up stage coaches and even forced the great iron horses of the railroads to thunder to a stop so that passengers and goods could be raided. It was a moment of extraordinary opportunity for honest men, particularly those who had some inkling of how police forces worked and some knowledge of the mentality and working methods of criminals.

Private detective agencies, of course, had already been set up in Europe but at this stage, only a few tentative efforts to establish a similar service in the United States had been attempted in fact, the American ground was more fruitful for this kind of enterprise than anything pertaining in Europe. Europe, at that time, was a much better organised, efficient and stable society than that available in most of the United States, particularly in its rawer areas. This was reflected in the state of its law enforcement agencies, the law, indeed, being enforced by a ramshackle structure of bounty hunters, sheer entrepreneurs, officers called Marshals and almost casually hired and fired Sheriffs. There was no proper system and there was a great deal of corruption. To make matters worse, even efficient police forces were hampered by jurisdictional problems, having no writ to pursue criminals across county or state lines. There was in fact, a crying need for an organisation like the FBI - and in its absence, Robert and Allan Pinkerton were to perform a notable service in establishing law and order and social stability across a wide area of the then almost lawless United States.

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Updated 8 Nov 1999