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CHAPTER SEVEN

 

Right from the inception of the Agency, Robert and Allan did not entirely see eye to eye about certain matters - although the differences of opinion were never permitted to go beyond fraternal limits.

Foremost among the railroad executives who had promised employment and contracts to the infant business were John F. Tracy of the Rock Island Railway and H. F. Hammond of the Galena and Chicago Union - two companies, in fact, which had already employed Robert as a railway detective. The Illinois Central also promised business although at this stage, neither Ambrose E. Burnside nor George B. McClellan, both later to be enthusiastic supporters of the Pinkertons, had yet come into the picture. There seems little doubt that certain funds were made available to the new Agency but these appear to have been of a modest nature and the real strength of the support lay in the promises to employ Pinkertons on a regular basis. In effect, of course, this was largely no more than a reaffirmation of the existing link with Robert.

The differences of approach to all this backing (along with further suggestions made by influential magnates) does not signify any major split between the brothers. The opposing views derived entirely from the nature of their respective ambitions. There is no question but that Allan loved politics and his ambitions were sharpened by his contracts with influential figures in the Chicago community. Robert, of course, had lost none of his reforming Chartist zeal, either, but had decided to channel his efforts in another and less individually-ambitious direction, the campaign for the abolition of slavery. Allan, fired by the prospects of personal success which America offered him, was prepared to take any and every short-cut that offered itself. He was quite prepared to listen to and even enjoy the blandishments offered him by the influential voices that now gathered round both him and Robert. Robert, however, did not like what he saw. If Pinkerton and Company were to accept as partners all the backers who now came forward, it seemed to him that these men, proposing only to be sleeping partners would be sitting back enjoying their share of whatever profits accrued from the business while he and Allan had to do all the hard work. He argued with Allan that they should go it alone and, in addition, made it plain that he would carry on on his own without these "smart-alecs" if Allan wanted it that way.

Faced with Robert's adamantine opposition, the caucus of politicians and businessmen who foresaw the fat profits that did indeed eventually accrue to Pinkerton & Co., now suggested to Allan that he should drop his brother and go it alone. They would put up enough money for him to open his own premises in New York.

The brothers' wives, however, shared Robert's view and Joan, in particular, thought her husband ought to consider the step very carefully. Whatever else might be said of Allan, of course, he was anything but a fool and had already grasped the good sense of his brother's arguments. In the end, he pulled out. I believe that matters went so far that the company actually got registered - or was on the verge of it - and there was even some stationery printed. But once Allan indicated that he did not wish to proceed with the arrangement, the whole Idea fell apart. What I have not been able to determine with any certainty is whether or not, in fact, this was the "company" in which the young Chicago attorney, who was at one time Clerk of the Cook County Court, Edward Rucker, was supposed to be a partner.

Considerable doubt has always been thrown on Rucker's part in any such company and it is certainly true that he very soon disappeared from the scene altogether. This, and the fact that the Company was initially called the North-Western Police Agency (although Allan was soon appropriating the name Pinkerton & Co. - possibly after Rucker had departed the scene) lends some credence to this view.

There is little doubt that Allan, by this time, had begun to show traits of character which had so far lain dormant. Both he and Robert could not forget that they had had to flee Great Britain with a possible trial for treason hanging over their heads and it had occurred to Allan that one way of ensuring that some day he would be able to return to his homeland, was to become an important political figure in America. This plus his natural ambitions and inclinations brought to the surface a ruthlessness of purpose and a certain unscrupulousness which saw a champion of the downtrodden and oppressed eventually become a symbol of reaction and even, by virtue of those with whom he allied himself, a representative of the oppressed.

By contrast, the other members of his family - his brother Robert, and Robert's wife and his own wife, Joan - did not share in these ambitions. The Pinkerton clan were prospering and life was looking good. All three felt that Pinkerton engagement in politics had done nothing to advance either happiness or good fortune. Robert's attitude was summed up in his advice to Allan, "Look, we've got wives and families now and we're doing very well. I think it's better to let sleeping dogs lie and stop worrying about a treason charge. Anyway, there are plenty of other things to occupy our minds - and to do".

Robert's part in the founding of the famous detective agency has not only tended to be overlooked by chroniclers of the firm's fortunes but even, to some extent, repressed or denied altogether. There are sometimes fleeting references to him but in general those writing about the Pinkerton Agency have always been happy to accept the view - and even the best intentioned faced considerable trouble in view of the difficulty with documentary evidence - that Robert was a rather insignificant and unimportant figure. I would not deny the greater flamboyance that belonged to Allan; even while the two brothers were still living in Glasgow and still immersed in the Chartist cause, it was the younger sibling who earned himself most of the publicity. Yet Robert and Allan were cast of the same mould and their energies and characteristics were not all that different. Nor is it a question of one brother possessing vision and the other, perhaps lacking it. Neither brother ever envisaged the enormous success that eventually accrued to the Pinkerton agency but it was Robert who first spotted and, indeed, exploited, the opportunities for security work, first with the new railroads and then with such stage-coach lines as Wells Fargo operating farther West. Admittedly, Robert's work was more in the nature of a transport police operation and initially involved little or no detective work in the sense that Pinkerton's later developed it. At this stage, however, the idea of "detective" work was still in its infancy, even in Europe. Indeed, it was not until 1829 when the great French detective and founder of the Surete, Eugene Francois Vidocq published his memoirs in France, that the world became conscious of any such occupation.

There had been an early attempt in St Louis by an Irishman called McDonough to found a firm of private detectives but though McDonough and his partner were extremely successful in "ferreting out rogues", they seemed to have been satisfied with the status of "independent police" or "specials". Robert Pinkerton certainly appears to have been operating along these lines before he was joined in the business by Allan who, inspired perhaps by the lurid tales of the adventures of detectives in the "penny dreadfuls" of the time, themselves almost wholly based upon the Vidocq concept, laid the emphasis of the business on "detective" work.

It would be wrong, at any rate, to envisage Robert Pinkerton as being quite happy to stand still, even in business affairs, or to see his as somebody who, in appreciation of increasing prosperity had become totally complacent and, more particularly, lost his sense of idealism. Although in Allan's case, the charge of self-interest can be laid against him when his Chartist activities are contrasted with his attitudes and activities after he had become a wealthy man, it is clear that Robert remained something of an idealist to the end of his life. Indeed, it was idealism that, in the end, cost him his health and life.

In his various memoirs, and largely based on them, the several biographies that have been written about Allan Pinkerton, much has been made of his involvement with John Brown and the Abolitionist cause. The neglect of Robert in this respect has been striking.

In fact, while Allan was still running his business as a cooper in Dundee Falls, Robert had already become involved with the Abolitionist cause in Chicago. There is no doubt but that in later years, a strong bond of friendship existed between John Brown and Allan Pinkerton. When Allan moved to a large clapboard family house in Adam Street, between Fifth and Franklin Streets which, for a time, he shared with Robert and his wife, the residence served as an important stopping place on the "underground railroad" - that escape route for slaves set up by John Brown which I have already referred to.

All historian and biographers are agreed that from as early as 1854, the big house on Adams Street was a major stopping-place or "safe house" for the runaway slaves. The sisters-in-law Joan and Bella Pinkerton happily did their best for the unfortunate negroes and very often every empty space in the house, such as attic or cellar, was filled with the desperate souls. At this period, Robert had already been in touch with the Great John Brown himself, along with Frederick Douglass and had found a friend in the free negro leader, John Jones who became a frequent visitor to Adams Street. In due course, Brown himself, along with John Kagi and Aaron Dwight Stevens who were to die on the gallows with him became habitues of the Pinkerton home. We have, alas, no documentary evidence of how Robert Pinkerton felt about slavery but there can be no doubt but that he shared his brother's attitude wholeheartedly and Allan himself, who lived to write fulsomely about his adventures, went on record to declare "I detest slavery...... it is the curse of America". To Americans, used to discerning matters in terms of absolute right and wrong, it later seemed that the Pinkertons were somehow "peculiar" and hard to fathom in that on the one hand they were pledged to uphold the law and defend it - on the other, they were actively employed defying that law and even in cahoots with a wild "fanatic" like John Brown.

Such an attitude would certainly have been inexplicable, perhaps, had not the two Pinkerton brothers still retained vivid memories of their poverty-stricken childhood and the social evils which had been part and parcel of the life of the underdog in a teeming city like Glasgow. Both Robert and Allan, even in an age when Britons tended to think of themselves as more than a cut above other breeds, had no difficulty in identifying with and empathising with negro slaves whom they saw as brothers battling against the same sort of injustice. It is a point worth remembering about the Pinkertons when, in later years, Allan in particular came to be identified with the wealthy and powerful classes in America and as an enemy of the great army of worker-employees.

By 1855, John Brown had become a national figure in America if only because of the "massacre" in which he and his followers had disposed of five proslavery farmers as a retaliatory action for the earlier slaying of five Abolitionists. His name had come to spell turbulence and violence around the issue of slavery and in August 1855, he and a small band of followers fought a pitched and bloody battle with pro-slavery supporters at Osawatomie. Four years later, the Pinkerton brothers became intimately involved with Brown in one of the most remarkable episodes in his history. In that year Brown, calling himself Shubel Morgan, led two bands of followers on a liberation raid into Missouri - what he described as carrying "the war into Africa". Regrettably, not all his supporters on this occasion measured up to the high ideals which motivated most Abolitionists - several of the raiders appear to have been mere adventurers who went along to see what they could plunder. The two bands split up once they had crossed the Missouri border, Brown leading one party, a man called Stevens the other. Certainly, a number of negro slaves were liberated but so were many goods and possessions, such as watches and jewelry and horses of many of the farmers who were attacked. Worse, during the raid, Stevens killed a well-known local farmer, adding insult to injury by driving off his horses and waggons.

The whole reckless affair sent shock waves of indignation along the frontier and both Brown and Stevens were execrated in the newspapers. In the end, President Buchanan placed a reward on their heads as did the legislature of Missouri.

President James Buchanan
President James Buchanan

At some date prior to January 1859 (his diaries and papers having been destroyed by Allan in the great Chicago fire, the precise date has therefore been lost but believed to have been in the late Autumn of 1858) Robert Pinkerton undertook yet another journey as "guide" to a group of Brown's escaping slaves. The date was shortly before Brown's Missouri raid and before the activities of the great zealot had increased the perils of the undertaking. Not everyone favoured the Abolitionist cause and the danger of personal attacks was inherent in any journey, even before the excesses of the Missouri affair had roused widespread disenchantment. But there had always been real and physical periods of a more general nature involved; much of the United States and certainly parts of Canada were still raw lands composed of immense wildernesses and distances and subject to dangers from wild animals and lethal weather and even, on occasions maurauding Indians. Although most people living in the mid-West were tough and hardy people who had already survived incredible journeys by land and sea to get there, there were periods during the year when even the most robust consitutions had to bow before reality.

Weather, however, was not a consideration that deterred an almost equally elemental force like John Brown. He turned up in late Autumn in Chicago with a small group of slaves with whom he had run the gauntlet up from "Africa". Brown had already set up his "Provisional Constitution and Ordinances for the People of the United States" in Canada with a body of white and negro supporters who looked after all newcomers who escaped to the freedom of the British constitution. Although the most perilous part of all journeys from the south were in the earlier stages, the writ of slavery ran from Chicago itself right up to the Canadian border and slave-masters pursuing their runaway property had every right to apprehend their negroes if they could catch up with them before that. Great care, therefore, had to be exercised even in the final stages of the "run" and a number of "trails" had been worked out to ensure the maximum safety. Robert Pinkerton had more than once guided small parties to Chatham in Canada where Brown's "Provisional Constitution" had its HQ.

Earlier, Brown had set up a stronghold for runaway slaves in Virginia where they could gather and defend themselves, if only on a delaying basis, against their slave-master pursuers. This followed his fund-raising Activities in the mid-West and Eastern States where he garnered support for the violent conflict between "free-state" (Abolitionists) and pro-slavery settlers which was eventually to lead, by way of Harper's Ferry to the noose for the great reformer. I understand that the group that turned up that early winter had come up from Virginia.

Robert's inclination was to leave well alone and he suggested that the small body of slaves should, as was normal in these circumstances, be housed in whatever spare space there was in Adams Street and in the nearby houses of other Abolitionist sympathisers; it was, he pointed out, far too late in the year to risk the journey to Canada. The weather had turned sour and although the really severe winter conditions normal to the region had yet to transpire, the odds were that the party could run into trouble.

We do not know what arguments were used to change Robert's mind; all we do know Is that he reluctantly agreed to take the men. A small wagon train was hurriedly assembled and the long trek to Chatham began. There were, fortunately, no untoward incidents on the way and Robert delivered his charges safely. On the return journey, however, exactly what he had feared happened. Blizzards swept down from the north-west and soon the landscape was an endless white sea. Caught in the open, Robert constructed what rough shelter he could in the lea of his waggon but eventually lost consciousness. He would have perished in the wilderness had not a small party of Indians chanced upon him. By this time, Robert was suffering from pneumonia. The Indians, who apparently knew him, strapped him on a sled and took him back to their village where they nursed him as best they could. When he had recovered sufficiently to travel again, they took him into Chicago and deposited him in the back yard of the Adams house. Although he lived, Robert Pinkerton never fully recovered from the horrors of that terrible journey. He had suffered frostbite in addition to pneumonia and it was some time before he had recovered sufficiently to be able to play a role in the affairs of the Pinkerton Agency again. Within a few years, indeed, he would be dead.

Brown was back again in March 1859 with another eleven runaways. Setting out in January, with a small body of armed followers to lend him some protection, Brown had led the slaves across the frozen prairies in the bitterest of weather. Brown's shoes fell apart and his hands were frozen.

It was a classic journey of hardship - swollen rivers and creeks had to be swum in icy conditions; posses lying in wait for them had to be circumvented. In Iowa City they narrowly escaped a lynch-mob; even towns which had been previously sympathetic to Brown now turned against him following the excesses of the Missouri raid.

In the end, Brown and his companions managed to load their groups of slaves aboard a boxcar which was hooked on to the Chicago train without the approval of the railroad authorities and early in the morning of March 11, 1859, the whole party having arrived safely in the mid-West capital, literally banged on the Pinkerton door at Adams Street.

Once the negroes had been distributed in "safe" houses, John Brown admitted to the Pinkertons that he had run out of money and did not know how he was going to manage to get the slaves to Canada. Under normal circumstances, Robert Pinkerton would almost certainly have volunteered to lead the party and along with other Chicago Abolitionists have contributed sufficient funds for the journey. With his health in ruins, however, Robert's participation in such enterprises was now at an end. With his usual flair for the melodramatic, however, Allan stepped in to raise the necessary funds (although at this time, in fact, there is no reason to suppose he could not have met the expense out of his own resources). Allan promised Brown that he would attend a meeting of the Democratic party to be held that day in Chicago and persuade them to put up the necessary monies.

Allan's account (and there Is no reason to suppose that substantially, it is not true) recounts how he first visited Colonel C. G. Hammond, supervisor of Illinois Central railroad who agreed to have a waggon or rail-car ready at 4.45 pm but added that Allan himself would have to supply whatever provisions were needed. Next Pinkerton betook himself to the Convention hall where, after some delay, he mounted the platform with his "subscription list" in his hand and announced to the delegates that John Brown had arrived in the city with a group of negro men, women and children. He demanded "substantial aid" at once and then issued this dire warning: "I am ready and willing to leave this meeting if I get this money; if not, I will bring John Brown to this meeting and if any United States marshal dare lay a hand on him he must take the consequences. I am determined to do this or have the money".

Witnesses describe how there was along moment of silence before a well known local politician, John Wilson, approached the platform and held out a fifty-dollar bill. Allan took off his hat and within a few minutes, other delegates had come up to him and deposited somewhere in the region of six hundred dollars in it.

At four o'clock that afternoon, armed with a pistol hidden under his coat, Allan Pinkerton, accompanied by some friends, rounded up most of the slaves from the "safe" houses and saw them aboard a railcar. His final port of call was at the house of the free Negro, John Jones where Brown himself had been hiding. As they shook hands in farewell, Brown issued a warning that they should all lay in tobacco, cotton and sugar - "because I intend to raise the prices". This was the first intimation anybody had of Brown's great raid at Harper's Ferry.

Brown and his party were finally escorted safely aboard the special railcar and with blinds drawn, the train pulled away.

Allan is supposed to have remarked to his son William who was present, "Look well upon that man, Willie. He is greater than Napoleon and just as great as George Washington". It is one of those remarks that may owe a great deal to hindsight or romantic imagination.

There seems no reason, however, to doubt Allan's word that he listened with intense interest to the tales of life under slave masters related to him by some of Brown's little group on this occasion and that this helped him to become even more bitter against the South when the Pinkerton Agency began to play its part as an intelligence operation during the Civil War. Not that either brother really needed any impetus so far as hatred of slavery was concerned. Their attitude towards injustice and exploitation of man by man had long ago been shaped by their life and experiences in the Gorbals.

Neither Robert nor Allan were ever to see John Brown again - although a legend to the effect that they did did flourish for a time. Indeed, although there is no evidence that either of the brothers ever went near Harper's Ferry, they both played a part in trying to effect Brown's release from prison.

Brown had got his little party safely to Canada - after an epic journey of eighty-two days altogether, carried out in the depths of a most severe winter. The next year he was back in the United States using his memories of that terrible odyssey to lecture audiences and raise funds. He had already formed the idea of attacking the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, of course but that did not prevent him trying to raise ever larger funds for his cause, arousing the whole of Kansas and indeed, the whole of the United States, to the cause of anti-slavery.

With only twenty-two men in support but all armed and with funds contributed by his associates, Theodore Parker, George L. Stearns, T. W. Higginson, and F. B. Sanborn, all of Boston (who were not in on his plans) Brown moved to a farm near Harper's Ferry. Then on the night of October 16, 1859, with only eighteen men in support (five of them negro) he stormed the federal arsenal which, not expecting an attack, was easily taken. Some sixty of the town's citizens were then held as hostages.

On the following morning, however, the authorities reacted with an immediate attack and with a small body of marines under Colonel Robert E. Lee arrived on the morning of the 18th, Brown and his party were easily overpowered. Brown himself was seriously wounded (and after he had surrendered, at that). Of the 22 men who had taken part in the raid, ten were killed, seven taken prisoner and five escaped. Brown was imprisoned at Charlestown and on October 31 was convicted of treason and murder in the first degree. On December 2, he was hanged and later buried at North Elba, New York.

The story that Brown stopped off in Chicago to see the Pinkerton brothers before the raid on Harper's Ferry has long been discounted by serious American historians who see the legend as a matter of confusion relating to the earlier visit. There is no doubt, however, that both Robert and Allan toyed with the idea of instituting some form of rescue attempt of their friend. The record shows that Allan raised funds to try and obtain Brown's release and enlisted the help of many of America's most prominent men, including General McClellan, in a bid to have the Abolitionist "martyr" freed.

Many years later, Allan declared that he had been prepared to go further than merely campaign for Brown's freedom; that, in fact, had it not been for the close and heavy guard on the great man, he might have led or supported a physical attempt to ensure his escape.

Although Robert lent all his sympathy to the cause, he would not have taken any part in any such rescue attempt; by now he was a sick and ailing man.

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Updated 8 Nov 1999