Robert Pinkerton

Robert Pinkerton (1848-1907) was the Co-Director of the famed US private security firm the Pinkerton National Detective Agency: a precursor of the Federal Bureau of Investigation established in 1850 by Robert’s father Allan Pinkerton. Allan Pinkerton was born in Glasgow and emigrated to Chicago, Illinois, where he established the largest private law enforcement organisation in the world. Pinkerton’s made its name apprehending a series of high profile train robbers in the 1850s and foiling an assassination attempt on the life of President elect Abraham Lincoln for which Allan Pinkerton was appointed the President’s personal security guard during the American Civil War.

Robert Pinkerton and his twin brother William joined Allan as Pinkerton agents in the late 1860s when the firm earned worldwide fame planting ‘Pink’ undercover agents into America’s powerful union movements in order to sabotage and break strike action that was holding the nation’s industries to ransom. In the 1870s, President of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company Franklin B. Gowen employed Pink agent James McParland to infiltrate the Molly Maguires (the railroad union); an incident that inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes adventure The Valley of Fear and a later film The Molly Maguires starring Richard Harris.

Pinkerton agents were employed by the US government to hunt and kill infamous Wild West outlaws such as Jessie James, the Reno Gang, the Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In 1895 the agency were responsible for bringing the first known American serial killer H. H. Holmes to the gallows for murdering the three Pietzel children. The Pinkerton National Detective Agency became a victim of its own success and as a consequence the US government formed the rival force the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Robert and William Pinkerton became co-directors of Pinkerton’s when their father Allan died in 1895. Allan Pinkerton allegedly fell on a Chicago street, bit his tongue and the wound became gangrenous thus ending the father of private detection’s life. Pinkerton Senior was masterminding a national criminal database when he died; a database now maintained by the FBI. While William Pinkerton took control of the Chicago office of the agency, Robert managed the East coast office in New York. Henry Poole &Co’s ledgers record Robert Pinkerton as a customer in 1905 listing his residence as 57 Broadway, New York. His residence in London was the Cecil hotel; a grand Victorian palace on the Strand next door to the Savoy since demolished.

Robert Pinkerton’s orders at Poole’s were limited to a single visit. He placed an order for a black frock coat and vest, a black dress suit and a black elastic cape with silk linings. The order was dispatched to New York and Henry Poole’s clerks pasted a newspaper obituary dated 1907 at the foot of his order that reads ‘Mr Robert Pinkerton, the chief of the famous American detective agency bearing his name, died on board the steamer Bremen, which arrived from New York at Plymouth on Saturday. Mr Pinkerton’s death, which occurred on the 12th, was due to fatty degeneration of the heart’. A successive two generations of the Pinkerton family headed the family firm but in 2003 Pinkerton’s was bought out by Swedish security company Securitas AB and merged. It now has the head office in London and employs over 230,000 people worldwide.

(c) James Sherwood

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