Against Lincoln the Democrats put up Peter Cartwright, a famous and rugged old-fashioned circuit rider, a storming evangelist, exhorter and Jackson Democrat. [Lincoln] went to a religious meeting where Cartwright in due time said, “All who desire to give their hearts to God, and go to heaven, will stand.” A sprinkling of men, women and children stood up. The preacher exhorted, “All who do not wish to go to hell will stand.” All stood up—except Lincoln. Then Cartwright in his gravest voice: “I observe that many responded to the first invitation to give their hearts to God and go to heaven. And I further observe that all of you save one indicated that you did not desire to go to hell. The sole exception is Mr. Lincoln, who did not respond to either invitation. May I inquire of you, Mr. Lincoln, where you are going?”
Lincoln slowly rose: “I came here as a respectful listener. I did not know that I was to be singled out by Brother Cartwright. I believe in treating religious matters with due solemnity. I admit that the questions propounded by Brother Cartwright are of great importance. I did not feel called upon to answer as the rest did. Brother Cartwright asks me directly where I am going. I desire to reply with equal directness: I am going to Congress.”
—CARL SANDBURG, on Lincoln’s 1846 congressional race
IN THE SPRING OF 1847, a letter appeared in the Western Citizen, a Kane County newspaper, accusing Allan Pinkerton of being an “unrepining atheist.” The denunciation appeared over the signature of M. L. Wisner, the pastor of the Dundee Baptist Church, and signaled that the town cooper had become persona non grata in the community.
Pinkerton was not a religious man. In Glasgow, he recalled, his parents had been “obliged to take their children to church to be baptized, but otherwise they never went to church; they were what is called Atheists.” Pinkerton, too, had taken his firstborn son to be baptized at Wisner’s church in Dundee, but he saw himself in much the same light as his parents. Nevertheless, for the sake of fitting in as a member of the community, he dutifully hitched up a farm wagon each week and drove with Joan to Sunday services.
Pastor Wisner’s sudden grievance against his parishioner appears to have had more to do with politics than with church doctrine. A few weeks earlier, Pinkerton had announced himself as a candidate for office in Kane County’s Abolitionist party, putting a public face on the clandestine activities he had long pursued with the Underground Railroad. There were many in Dundee who felt as Pinkerton did about slavery, but the young cooper’s open, unequivocal stance put him at odds with the village elders, reflecting a clash between factions of the church that would echo through the region.
When Pinkerton’s friends rallied to his side, publishing a letter of “collective protest” in the next issue of the Citizen, Wisner stepped up his attack. He now insisted that Pinkerton was both using and selling “ardent spirits,” placing him at the wrong end of the “moral thermometer” established by the American temperance movement. Pinkerton, a teetotaler, raised an energetic defense, gathering testimonials to the effect that no liquor had ever passed his lips and that spirits were not tolerated in his home. Wisner was unmoved. The pastor demanded a series of open trials at the church, where Pinkerton’s moral failings could be paraded in front of the congregation. In one session, Pinkerton was rebuked for circulating blasphemous materials, a charge he strenuously denied.
As the slander and finger-pointing escalated, Pinkerton withdrew from the congregation in disgust, along with a number of sympathetic friends. Pinkerton believed he had left with his honor intact, but the episode placed an uncomfortable strain on his daily life in the small community. Business at the cooperage tapered off, and neighbors looked away as he and Joan passed. Not surprisingly, he began to look for greener pastures.
Soon, his reputation as a rising lawman brought an offer from William Church, the sheriff of neighboring Cook County, to serve as his deputy. Though it meant selling the cooperage, Pinkerton didn’t hesitate. He was more than ready to put Dundee behind him and turn his volatile energies to better things. All his life, Pinkerton had been spoiling for a fight; a small man with big fists, he was cunning enough to channel his innate aggression into lofty causes, whether it was the Chartist rebellion of his homeland or the abolitionist movement of his adopted country. He had learned many lessons from John Craig, the wily counterfeiter, and had caught sight of possibilities beyond the banks of the Fox River.
The new position marked a considerable increase in status, as Cook County encompassed Chicago, and with it fully half the population of Illinois. Joan accepted the move stoically, though not without a note of regret. She would never again hear the fondly remembered “rat-tat-tat” of the cooper’s hammer as it kept time with her singing. “They were bonnie days,” she said of their time in Dundee, “but Allan was a restless one.”
With his wife and one-year-old son at his side, Pinkerton and his horse-drawn wagon rolled into Chicago in the fall of 1847. The city was in the midst of a robust expansion—“growth is much too slow a word,” one visitor exclaimed—and the population had nearly tripled since Pinkerton’s days at the Lill & Diversey brewery. The family settled on Adams Street, between Fifth and Franklin, in one of the thriving neighborhood’s two-room “balloon” houses—so named for the speedy manner in which they sprang up.
Pinkerton’s family was also expanding rapidly. Twins, Joan and Robert, were born within a year. Pinkerton often spoke of the “unbroken sunshine” his children brought to the house, but storm clouds soon appeared. Another daughter, Mary, would die a few years later at the age of two, and seven-year-old Joan would be carried off by fever soon afterward. Two more daughters followed in time; one of whom, known as Belle, would suffer from poor health all her life, requiring near-constant care.
Professionally, Pinkerton made a fast rise through the ranks. After a year as a deputy sheriff, he won an appointment from Chicago’s mayor to serve as the city’s first—and, for some time, only—official detective. Already, Pinkerton had carved out a reputation for strength and daring; now, as an official detective, he added a rigid, incorruptible code of ethics to his tough-guy image, setting a pattern for future generations of “untouchable” lawmen. Pinkerton, it was said, could not be bought.
At a time when Chicago still retained much of the character of a frontier town, a lawman’s effectiveness could be measured in the number and vehemence of his enemies. By that standard, Pinkerton had no equal. One night in September 1853, as he walked up Clark Street toward home, a gunman stepped out of the darkness and fired a pistol into his back. “The pistol was of large caliber,” reported the Daily Democratic Press, “heavily loaded and discharged so near that Mr. Pinkerton’s coat was put on fire.” His survival was largely a matter of luck; he had developed a habit of walking with his left arm tucked behind his back, as if to add ballast to his top-heavy, loping stride. As the gunman fired from behind, Pinkerton’s arm caught the full force of the shots, probably sparing his life. “Two slugs shattered the bone five inches from the wrist and passed along the bone to the elbow,” according to the Press, “where they were cut out by a surgeon, together with pieces of his coat.” By the time he returned to duty, Pinkerton’s reputation had taken on a mythic dimension: Even bullets couldn’t stop him.
Soon, Pinkerton took a position as a special mail agent with the United States Postal Service, where he became embroiled in a sensational, high-profile robbery. At the time, the Chicago post office was all but overwhelmed with complaints from local businessmen about bank drafts and postal orders—representing huge sums of money—that routinely went missing in the mail. Post office officials, fearing legal reprisals, assigned Pinkerton to investigate.
Pinkerton went undercover to get a firsthand look at the situation, an approach he would use again and again in years to come. Posing as a mail sorter, or “piler,” he spent several weeks pulling shifts at Chicago’s main postal depot. While hauling mailbags and working the sorting table, Pinkerton managed to ingratiate himself with a coworker named Theodore Dennison, praising the “swift and nimble” manner in which his new friend handled letters and packages. Dennison warmed to the flattery, boasting that his fingers were “so sensitive that he knew when a letter contained a penny or a dollar.” The remark struck Pinkerton as notably suspicious. Soon, he observed the nimble-fingered clerk slipping envelopes into his pockets.
Dennison, Pinkerton learned, had a brother who had previously been arrested for mail theft. These “familial associations,” together with several more incidents of pilfering, led Pinkerton to believe that he’d gathered all the evidence he needed. On the following Saturday morning, he brought a Cook County deputy to the sorting office to make the arrest as Dennison left the building. The postal clerk tried to flee as the deputy moved in, but he soon found himself sprawled facedown in the dirt—“as pale as ashes”—with Pinkerton pinning his arms behind his back.
To Pinkerton’s distress, Dennison’s familial associations extended upward as well as down. When the suspect was formally charged, it emerged that his uncle was no less a figure than the postmaster of Chicago, who tersely informed Pinkerton that he had better produce some fairly hard evidence to back up his claims. This proved difficult, as no bank drafts or money orders had been found on Dennison’s person at the time of his arrest. Pinkerton, it appeared, had fingered the wrong man.
With his future at stake, Pinkerton took two deputies to search the clerk’s room at a nearby boardinghouse. The three men spent several hours rummaging through “every stitch and stick,” even rolling back the carpet and prying up floorboards, but no evidence surfaced to substantiate Pinkerton’s accusation. On the point of despair, Pinkerton took down a picture from the wall and flipped it back to front. There, he found the first of several incriminating bank drafts cunningly folded into the frame. A search of the other pictures in the room produced additional drafts, totaling nearly four thousand dollars. One newspaper offered a giddy tally of the distribution of the sums: “Behind a picture of the Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception: $1,503. The Highland Lovers: $900. The Indian Warrior: $1,000. A framed Daguerreotype of his mother: $300.”
Chicago took notice. “To Allan Pinkerton is due all the credit for the detection,” reported the Chicago Press. “For three weeks Mr. Pinkerton scarcely has had repose in the devotion with which he has followed up the criminal … until body and brain were nearly exhausted. As a detective police officer, Mr. Pinkerton has no superior, and we doubt if he has any equal in the country. There is danger of expecting too much of his peculiar talent and force, for we suppose there are some impossibilities in the detection of villainy, even for him.”
Buoyed by this sudden burst of notoriety, Pinkerton decided to leave the city payroll and strike out on his own. He found a small second-floor suite of rooms at the corner of Dearborn and Washington streets, a few steps from the city courthouse, and set up an office dedicated to the “modern science of thief-taking,” soon to be more commonly known as a private detective agency.
It was perhaps inevitable that the only and original cooper of Dundee should become the only and original private detective of Chicago. His friend Robert Fergus, a fellow immigrant, had made the most of Chicago’s many opportunities, parlaying a menial printer’s job into a successful publishing concern. With his success in the Dennison case, Pinkerton saw a chance to follow Fergus’s path to success, leverage his growing fame, and once again become his own master.
Initially, Pinkerton partnered with a local lawyer named Edward Rucker and set up operations as the North-Western Police Agency, but Rucker soon faded from view and the operation continued as the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Pinkerton would always list the year of the agency’s founding as 1850, but it is possible that he fudged the date to create the illusion of longer experience, as the accounts of his post office exploit did not appear until 1855. An early statement of purpose echoed the effusions of the Chicago Press story, and offered a broad, somewhat scattershot menu of the fledgling agency’s services. Potential clients were informed that Pinkerton’s agency would “attend to the investigation and depredation [sic], frauds and criminal offenses; the detection of offenders, procuring arrests and convictions, apprehension or return of fugitives from justice, or bail; recovering lost or stolen property, obtaining information, etc.”
Pinkerton’s agency was not, as many have claimed, the first of its kind, but it would soon eclipse all others. Though this success had much to do with Pinkerton’s cunning and his relentless drive, he also benefited from having set up shop in the right place at the right time. Chicago’s headlong expansion continued through the 1850s as railroad lines and shipping traffic converged to form what one newspaper called “a hub of industry that, however noisy and malodorous, is undeniably thriving.” The new prosperity brought a new type of crime: train robbery. As the nation’s disparate railroad lines expanded—covering more and more territory, although not yet linked up under a single authority—they presented an ideal target for opportunistic criminals who preyed on baggage cars and bonded messengers before disappearing into the empty spaces between regional jurisdictions.
Pinkerton, in Chicago, was ideally positioned to combat this new class of criminals. The authority he claimed for himself wasn’t bound by county or state lines. With its handpicked operatives and dogged, systematic methods of pursuit, Pinkerton’s agency could push into territories where overmatched and undertrained local authorities could not follow, marking the transition between frontier justice and a national authority. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, created to oversee interstate law enforcement, would not come into being for several decades, and the United States Secret Service, originally designed to combat counterfeiting, would not be created until 1865—Abraham Lincoln would sign the legislation on April 14, the date of his assassination. In the absence of federal authority, Pinkerton made up the rules as he went along. He literally designed his own badge.
From his first day in business, Pinkerton took extraordinary measures to stand apart from other lawmen. The bitter lessons of his early years—John Craig’s bribing his way out jail; Theodore Dennison’s operating under the protection of his powerful uncle—opened Pinkerton’s eyes to the realities of official corruption. In response, he worked hard to establish a reputation for honesty and probity, and codified it as a business policy. In the early years of the agency, he hammered out a series of “General Principles,” which he hoped would serve as watertight ethical guidelines for his employees:
The Agency will not represent a defendant in a criminal case except with the knowledge and consent of the prosecutor, they will not shadow jurors or investigate public officials in the performance of their duties, or trade-union officers or members in their lawful union activities; they will not accept employment from one political party against another; they will not report union meetings unless the meetings are open to the public without restriction; they will not work for vice crusaders; they will not accept contingent fees, gratuities or rewards. The Agency will never investigate the morals of a woman unless in connection with another crime, nor will it handle cases of divorce or of a scandalous nature.
Pinkerton also expounded on the character traits—both moral and intellectual—that would be necessary on the mean streets of Chicago and beyond:
The role of a detective is a high and honorable calling. Few professions excel it. He is an officer of justice and must himself be pure and above reproach.… Criminals are powerful of mind and strong of will, who if they had devoted themselves to honest pursuits would undoubtedly have become members of honorable society. The detectives who have to gather the evidence and arrest these criminals must be men of high order of mind and must possess clean, honest, comprehensive understanding, force of will and vigor of body.… Criminals must eventually reveal their secrets and a detective must have the necessary experience and judgment of human nature to know the criminal in his weakest moment and force from him, through sympathy and confidence, the secret which devours him.
These principles formed a template for Pinkerton’s first generation of “operatives,” the term he used to distinguish his employees from common police detectives. Along with his Chartist ideals, Pinkerton also drew on a robust strain of derring-do that he likely gleaned from Eugène-François Vidocq, the legendary French detective. A criminal in his youth, Vidocq later turned his talents to law enforcement, helping to create the Sûreté, the detective bureau of the French police, in 1811. The French detective, whose story would serve as inspiration for the character of Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, was still active in Paris when Pinkerton opened his doors in Chicago. Widely credited as the first investigator to bring scientific rigor to the detection of crime, Vidocq introduced such innovations as rudimentary ballistics, plaster of paris molds of footprints, and a centralized criminal database. At the same time, he pioneered the use of disguises and cover identities, a technique that Pinkerton would employ in nearly every major operation of his career. Vidocq’s dramatic, often fanciful memoir had been a publishing phenomenon both in Europe and the United States, and Pinkerton seems to have studied it closely. Pinkerton would have been especially amused by a chapter in which Vidocq matched wits with a duplicitous cooper from Livry, who was suspected of stealing a fortune in jewels. Posing as a fellow thief, Vidocq plied the cooper with alcohol and eventually wormed his way into the suspect’s confidence.
Pinkerton, for his part, advised his operatives against coercing statements by means of alcohol, as these tended to “shake the strength of evidence” when brought into court. The example of Vidocq, however, gave him a firm belief in the possibility of redemption for even the most hardened criminals. Pinkerton believed that lawbreakers were “capable of moral reform and elevation” if treated properly, and he advised his men to “do all in their power” in the interests of rehabilitation. “Unfortunately,” he noted, “under our present system, this is too little thought of.” If these views were progressive, other aspects of Pinkerton’s philosophy reached back to the ancients by way of Machiavelli. Again and again, Pinkerton insisted that “the ends justify the means, if the ends are for the accomplishment of Justice.” He understood, however, that this was not a universal view. “Moralists may question whether this is strictly right,” he said, “but it is a necessity in the detection of crime.”
During his first year of business Pinkerton spent much of his time assembling and training a core team of operatives. From the start, he demonstrated a strong eye for talent, beginning with his first employee, twenty-five-year-old George H. Bangs, a former newspaper reporter, who became Pinkerton’s right-hand man. Tall and reserved, Bangs traced his lineage to the Mayflower and could mix easily with the rich and powerful. Bangs proved “very able and efficient” as a detective, according to Pinkerton, and even more talented as a businessman. As general superintendent, Bangs oversaw the agency’s finances and rapid growth, leaving Pinkerton to concentrate on detective work.
With Bangs minding the store in Chicago, Pinkerton was free to travel wherever his latest case happened to take him. In 1853, when an investigation took him to New York City, Pinkerton spotted a man he felt would make an outstanding addition to the team. Pinkerton, who had never been to New York before, had carved out some time to take in the spectacle of America’s first world’s fair. Characteristically, he was less interested in the soaring Crystal Palace exhibition than in the special police force detailed to guard it. Pinkerton was particularly struck by the efficient and courteous manner of a young police sergeant on duty inside the main hall. His name, Pinkerton learned, was Timothy Webster; a thirty-two-year-old native of England, he had emigrated with his family as a boy. Webster had set his sights on a career as a New York policeman, but his advancement had been thwarted, he believed, because he had no political connections. Pinkerton, acting on impulse, offered him a job on the spot and handed him train fare to Chicago.
Timothy Webster soon became Pinkerton’s best and most resourceful detective. “He was a man of great physical strength and endurance,” Pinkerton said, “skilled in all athletic sports, and a good shot.” Above all, in Pinkerton’s view, Webster possessed “a strong will and a courage that knew no fear.” Two other Englishmen, Pryce Lewis and John Scully, soon followed. Pinkerton also brought on a “shrewd hand” named John H. White, who had the useful manner and appearance, in Pinkerton’s estimation, of a con man rather than a detective. White completed a core team of eight employees—five detectives, two clerks, and a secretary. Apart from Webster, none of Pinkerton’s original operatives came from a law-enforcement background, but each had a quality that Pinkerton felt could be turned to his advantage. The men trained on the job, learning how to shadow suspects and gain the confidence of otherwise tight-lipped criminals. Like Vidocq, Pinkerton encouraged his men to adopt whatever persona would be useful for the task at hand, as he himself had done at the Chicago post office, and to inhabit that identity as fully as possible—“acting it out to the life,” as he described it. One account of the Pinkerton operation describes the Chicago office as resembling the backstage of a theater, complete with a large closet full of disguises so that the men could easily transform themselves into bartenders, gamblers, horse-car conductors, or newly arrived “greenhorns” fresh off the boat from the old country.
In another corner of the office, Pinkerton pinned up sketches and daguerreotypes of wanted men, the rudimentary beginnings of what would become a storied “rogue’s gallery” of hunted criminals. Over time, Pinkerton refined his record keeping to take account of a criminal’s modus operandi, distinguishing characteristics, handwriting samples, and known associates. He cultivated an extensive correspondence with police captains and county sheriffs across the country, transforming the Chicago office into a national hub of criminal data. It was a project that would absorb him to the end of his life.
The ever-vigilant Pinkerton “Private Eye.”
In time, the soon-to-be famous Pinkerton logo—a stern, unblinking eye—made its appearance on the agency’s correspondence and legal documents. For Pinkerton, this aptly chosen symbol expressed the rigid work ethic and eternal vigilance he demanded from a prospective agent: “At an instant’s warning, he must be ready to go wherever he may be ordered. Sometimes, for weeks, he may have little or no rest; and he may be called upon to endure hardships and dangers which few men have the courage to face.”
Only a few years earlier, a scheming criminal had delivered a stinging rebuke to Pinkerton: “Old John Craig is never caught napping, young man.” Now, as he took his place at the head of a rapidly expanding detective empire, Pinkerton turned these words into a statement of purpose, and he had the boldly lettered line placed beneath the image of the watchful, all-seeing eye. He had boiled it down to three simple words: “We Never Sleep.”