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What Was the Pinkerton Detective Agency?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Pinkerton Detective Agency was a detective and private security agency founded in 1850 by Allan Pinkerton, a Scottish immigrant to the United States. At its peak, the Pinkerton Agency had so many employees that it actually exceeded the standing army of the United States in size. Employees of the Agency were known as “Pinkertons” and were widely feared, especially among the working classes, due to their links with union busting efforts in the 1800s and early 1900s.

Initially, Pinkerton founded the agency in a response to growing labor unrest. Many business owners wanted muscular enforcers available at mines and factories to keep an eye on their employees. The detective arm of the Pinkerton Agency investigated union agitators and labor rights activists outside the workplace. In addition to intimidating employees, the Pinkertons also protected strike breakers when they crossed picket lines. During the course of its employment in the workplace, the Pinkerton Agency was involved with many worker riots. Some workers were killed by Pinkertons in tense riot situations.

The Pinkerton Agency also tracked outlaws such as Jesse James and the Wild Bunch, and was employed by the Federal Government of the United States. The government recognized the need for interstate detective investigation, but lacked the funding to establish an agency for that purpose. In 1871, the Pinkertons were hired to assist the government. They also played a role in providing security for Presidents and state officials, when other government security agents were not available.

In the mid 1900s, the focus of the agency began to change. Government investigations into Pinkerton involvement in labor relations led to a drastic reduction of union busting and intimidation on the part of the agency. The government also successfully established and funded agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Pinkertons lost their government contracts. The agency began to focus more primarily on providing security, and in 2003 the Pinkerton Detective Agency was acquired by Securitas, an international private security giant.

The motto of the Pinkerton Agency was “We Never Sleep,” and the logo included a large glaring eye. In addition to building confidence in the agency among prospective employers, this probably led to the slang term “private eye” for a detective. Since the Pinkertons dominated the security and detective world for decades, they often appear in popular fiction, films, and songs, usually with an undertone of menace.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Feryll — On Nov 25, 2014

I watched "Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid," when I was little. In that movie, the Pinkerton Detectives were seen as almost super human. They were relentless and much more dangerous and capable than the average lawmen. After watching the film, I was always a Pinkerton when my brother and I played cowboys, even though I wasn't exactly sure who they were.

By Sporkasia — On Nov 25, 2014

@Drentel - This article mentions how the Pinkerton security men worked with companies to help break strikes and protect replacement workers. I saw a program on public television about how they participated in one particular strike. It may have been steel workers who were striking in protest of harsh working conditions and no time off. I can't remember for certain, but the workers had erected a barricade on the grounds of the plant.

As I say, I think this was the steel workers who were striking, but regardless of who they were, there was a strike and the workers started to throw rocks at the Pinkerton detectives from behind the barricade.

The detectives opened fire with their guns and several workers were killed and others were injured. The company and the detectives were vilified in the newspapers and people as a whole saw them as heartless guns for hire. I think this is the reputation that has stuck with the Pinkerton Detective Agency in large part..

By Drentel — On Nov 24, 2014

You would think that a detective agency that was around during the days of the wild west would be seen in a more positive light than the Pinkerton Detective Agency seems to be. In most, if not all, of the westerns I have seen on TV where the Pinkerton Agency was involved, the detectives were the bad guys. I realize this is only TV and not necessarily based on what really went on, but I still find it strange that the agency is portrayed in this way.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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