Allan Pinkerton led a unique life that gave him perspectives from all sides of law enforcement. He was born in Scotland, the son of a retired policeman in that country. As a member of the Chartist political movement in Scotland, Pinkerton got a taste of the law from the perspective of a political fugitive. The government placed a bounty on his head, and he fled the country with his wife. He entered Canada in 1842. He slipped across the border to the United States, and attempted to take up his profession as a cooper (barrel-maker) for a brewery in a Scottish-American community.
Fortune, and Pinkerton’s integrity combined for his next encounter with law enforcement. While in the woods seeking material for his work, he encountered a team of counterfeiters. He reported them to the local sheriffs, and participated in their arrests. Pinkerton took a job as a “lookout” for counterfeiters in the village of Dundee, Ill. After being the victim of local politics, he moved back to Chicago and developed a reputation as a scourge of criminals by identifying counterfeiters and solving an abduction of two young girls.
After working full-time at the Cook-County Sheriff’s department, Pinkerton formed his own private detective agency, the first of its kind. Pinkerton soon became involved in high levels of government law enforcement. Attached to then-Senator Abraham Lincoln, Pinkerton became his personal bodyguard, and, after foiling an assassination attempt on the way to Lincoln’s inauguration, Pinkerton organized federal law enforcement that became the roots of the United States Secret Service, the FBI, and other federal agencies.
After serving in the Civil War, Pinkerton returned to his agency with his sons and brought the battle against crime to the American West. His agency was responsible for the fall of numerous infamous gangs and characters, such as the Reno brothers, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and the James Brothers. Pinkerton’s detective agency modeled behavior that was atypical of law enforcement at the time. His company focused on research, thoroughness and toughness, developing a reputation for crime solving that outshone regular law enforcement.
Among other innovations later adopted as standard by most police agencies was the practice of keeping extensive files on known criminals. The Pinkerton Agency was also the first to utilize a “most wanted” type list, and significantly, was the first to routinely use photographs as part of the criminal dossiers. Pinkerton’s philosophy and the activities of his company put public policing agencies to shame, and they quickly began emulating his more successful policies.
Among Pinkerton’s contributions to modern police procedure was the “mug” shot, a photographic document of a suspect routinely taken when the suspect entered custody. Additionally, Pinkerton’s use of trends in criminology to allocate resources and anticipate needs have also been used by modern police forces. One of the most valuable assets of the Pinkerton Agency that is emulated by modern police is the notion of integrity and incorruptibility that surrounded his agents.
Used to the corruption of the urban political machines, criminals were hard-pressed to deal with massive waves of Pinkerton detectives who were immune to bribery or other forms of corruption. With the exception of one incident in 1875, when the Pinkerton’s group attacked a household of the James family, mistakenly believing that Jesse was there, the Pinkerton Agency rarely had negative press of any kind. Once modern municipal law enforcement saw the effectiveness of such a reputation, it too strove to gain a reputation as incorruptible.
A final trait that the Pinkerton Agency emulated to modern law enforcement was a respect for criminals who consistently kept their own code of conduct. While continuing to pursue these criminals, the agency institutionalized a healthy respect for their determination, organization and intelligence. Modern police attempt to do the same thing, acknowledging that, while the modern criminal may be violent, amoral and avaricious, he or she may not necessarily be stupid.