Allan Pinkerton: The Original Private Eye

JJosephsonPhoto1_crop2Judith Pinkerton Josephson loves to dig into the past. She believes that behind every person, every relationship, there lies a story. Her award-winning biographies, history books, and picture books include fiction and nonfiction for children.  She has also written for adults. In this column, she blogs about the reissue of her biography of detective Allan Pinkerton as an ebook.

Allan Pinkerton: The Original Private Eye

More than one hundred fifty years ago, when the Midwest was still young and rugged, a tough, burly Scottish immigrant named Allan Pinkerton founded the first detective agency in America. The Pinkerton Detective Agency vowed to catch criminals, recover stolen property, gather information, and investigate fraud. The agency’s motto was “We Never Sleep,” its logo a wide-open eye.

When I was a child, friends asked me if my family was related to this famous detective. That sounded exciting, but we were not relatives. Still my curiosity led me to write a biography of him, now newly reissued as an ebook. My research for the print book from Lerner Publications took me to Van Nuys, California, then the headquarters of the modern agency. I spent the day there poring over stacks of documents, letters, and photos. The methods Pinkerton used were simple, but in 1850, they broke new ground. Facts and codes were recorded in small black notebooks. His agents worked undercover, sometimes in disguises their own mothers wouldn’t recognize. I held Pinkerton’s codebook in my hands, gazed at the memorabilia in glass cases, and marveled at the massive Diebold safe that stood in the lobby. Much of what I saw came from a time when there were no armored trucks, no huge bank vaults, no safe places to keep money, no computers! A time when the first Pinkerton operatives chased railroad and bank robbers by train, horseback, or on foot.

SB_Allan Pinkerton_v3In the revised and updated ebook, I give details about how Pinkerton got into detective work, his work on the Underground Railroad, the famous outlaws and bandits he chased, such as the Jesse James and Reno gangs, and the formation of the first female detective department within his agency. Because of his friendship with Abraham Lincoln, Pinkerton and his agents protected Lincoln on the way to his first inauguration. I also wrote about Pinkerton the man—his habits, challenges, and his penchant for practical jokes, such as upending a fishing boat filled with his guests at his Illinois estate, the Larches.

The research for this book fascinated me. After the print book was published, public interest went beyond my target audience to older students and adults.  This enabled me to appear on the A & E Biography and Discovery television programs. (My fifteen minutes of fame!) View clips of those appearances on YouTube: Judith Pinkerton Josephson, Author.

The Pinkerton Detective Agency made history. Its story began with a maverick Scotsman who helped shape the meaning of the word “detective” for decades to come. Located in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the modern agency is in full swing today. The Library of Congress now houses Allan Pinkerton’s hundreds of letters, records, and photos. The words in these archives bring to life one of the most colorful men of the 19th century.

Check out the ebook on Amazon at  Allan Pinkerton: The Original Private Eye (for readers middle grade and up, plus older readers)

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(The agency is now located in Ann Arbor, Michigan.)— I pored over stacks of documents and actually held Pinkerton’s code book in my hand.


Today in the United States and other countries, a myriad of law enforcement and surveillance agencies exist. But it wasn’t always so. He didn’t start out to be a detective.  As a young man back in Scotland in the 1830s, he was part of a resistance movement called the Chartists fighting against British control over working people’s lives.  “I wasn’t on the side of the law then.”

When authorities put a price on Pinkerton’s head, he left Scotland for America with his young bride Joan. Back then, he was a cooper, a maker of barrels to hold grains, beef, beer, wine, and other goods. But in Dundee, Illinois, when he cracked a counterfeit ring making phony money, the local sheriff started asked him to solve other crimes. At the same time, Allan and Joan began operating as a safe house for runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad. Because he believed slavery was wrong, he justified breaking the law.

After Allan and his family moved to the fast-growing city of Chicago, he became its first private detective, a move that led to his founding his own agency in 1850. At that time, few detective agencies existed in the United States. Pinkerton decided Pinkerton’s central office looked like a backstage theater wardrobe room. Big trunks held hats, boots, suits, and other clothing. On a specific case, a detective might have to act the part of a bartender, a horse car conductor, a watchmaker, or a gambler. His agents were called operatives and each had a code name. Soon railroads began hiring him and his agents to catch train bandits; banks asked him to tackle gangs of bank robbers.


Because of Allan Pinkerton’s friendship with Abraham Lincoln,. Because of the initial publication of this biography, I had the opportunity to appear on the A & E Biography and Discovery programs on television.


The Pinkertons made history. Their story began with a maverick Scotsman who founded the first detective bureau in the United States and helped shape the meaning of the word “detective” for decades to come. The Library of Congress now houses Allan Pinkerton’s hundreds of letters, records, and photos.

The words in these archives and Allan Pinkerton’s legacy bring to life one of the most colorful men of the nineteenth century.

Check out the ebook at : (add bitly link)




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