Allan Pinkerton lived from 25 August 1819 to 1 July 1884. Born in Glasgow, he emigrated to the United States at the age of 23. He went on to be appointed as a detective in Chicago, before founding the Pinkerton Detective Agency. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Pinkerton was born in Glasgow's Gorbals district in 1819, the son of a policeman forced to retire from the force after being injured on duty. After the death of his father, Pinkerton left school to support the family and became an apprentice barrel maker in the McCauley Cooperage Works. While still young, Pinkerton became very active in the reforming Chartist Movement.
Pinkerton married a woman from Edinburgh, Joan Carfrae in 1842. As their marriage ceremony was concluded he heard word that he was about to be arrested by the authorities for his Chartist activities, and with his new bride immediately boarded a ship in Glasgow bound for the New World. The ship ran aground and was wrecked on the shore of Nova Scotia and Pinkerton and his new wife made their way, penniless, to the immigrant town of Dundee, near Chicago. Here he established a cooperage business and became an active anti-slavery campaigner: with his business forming part of the "underground railroad" helping escaped slaves to reach freedom in Canada.
While in Dundee, Pinkerton helped catch a gang of counterfeiters whose hideout he had stumbled upon. As a result he was appointed deputy sheriff of Kane County, and then, in 1849, he became Chicago's first full-time detective. Pinkerton found himself to be naturally gifted in this very under-developed area of work, and in 1850 he founded the National Detective Agency in Chicago. The slogan used by the Agency was "We Never Sleep" and its logo was a large unblinking eye: giving rise to the phrase Private Eye. The Agency was the first to formalise a series of techniques now used by detectives across the world, including shadowing and surveillance of suspects, and using undercover agents to infiltrate criminal gangs. The Agency quickly achieved a reputation for toughness and effectiveness, and came to prominence after tracking down a number of train robbers during the 1850s.
In March 1861, Pinkerton's work on a railway robbery brought to light a plot to kill Abraham Lincoln at Baltimore en route to his Presidential inauguration, which was foiled as a result. After the outbreak of the American Civil War later that year, Lincoln appointed Pinkerton as head of the Union Intelligence Service. His agents often worked undercover as Confederates to gather intelligence, and Pinkerton himself undertook a number of missions posing as a Confederate Army Major.
After the war, Pinkerton returned to running his Agency, which made its name in a number of high-profile cases, including that of Frank and Jessie James. By the 1870s, the agency had the world's largest collection of photographs of criminals and suspects. During this period, the Pinkerton Agency became known for some extremely aggressive tactics, which included the death of a child in an attack on the home of Jessie James' mother. There were also cases of their being employed to break labour strikes and keep watch on union members. All a very far cry from Allan Pinkerton's origins as a member of the Chartist Movement in Scotland.
Pinkerton himself became increasingly occupied writing detective stories, leaving the running of the Agency to his two sons. In late June 1884 he slipped on a pavement in Chicago, biting his tongue as he did so. He didn't seek treatment and the tongue became infected, leading to Allan Pinkerton's death on 1 July 1884. Pinkerton's legacy has lived on. The Union Intelligence Service he founded became the forerunner of the US Secret Service, while in 2003 the Pinkerton Agency became part of the international security company "Securitas", originally founded in Sweden.