In 1847, a Scottish-born cooper residing just outside Chicago stumbled upon a gang of counterfeiters while out cutting wood to use for his barrels. He surveilled the gang and assisted the authorities in their arrest, not seeking anything but to do right by his community. However, his derring-do became famed and quickly changed the course of his life. In short order, that cooper would become a sheriff, Chicago’s first police detective, America’s first “private eye” and a spy who founded an agency of detectives larger than the standing United States Army. That cooper was Allan Pinkerton and, over the next several decades, the exploits of Pinkerton's National Detective Agency became legendary.
The Private Eye Never Sleeps
Allan Pinkerton was born during the summer of 1819 in Glasgow, Scotland, the son of a police sergeant who died while Allan was a young boy. With the Pinkerton family left in poverty from his father’s death, young Allan soon found work as a cooper (a maker of barrels and casks). His joining of the workforce and coming of age coincided with an economic depression and the emergence of a rapidly expanding political movement called chartism, in which he had great interest and involvement.
Chartism was most active as a movement during the decade between 1838 and 1848, and sought to expand rights and influence for the working class - primarily through the right to vote for all men over the age of 21, an improved election process and reforming the requirements for elected members of parliament. The chartists’ support increased during peak years of depression as workers faced wage cuts, unemployment and near-starvation; often leading protests and strikes which sometimes led to rioting. Allan’s activities with the chartists eventually led to a warrant for his arrest which forced his emigration from Scotland to the United States in 1842, when he was just 23 years old.
Upon arriving in the United States, the Pinkertons first settled in Chicago, and the following year in the town of Dundee, Illinois where Allan opened a cooperage making barrels. While out one day in 1847, cutting wood on a previously deserted island in the Fox River, Allan stumbled upon a gang of counterfeiters whom he informally surveilled and reported to the police, assisting with the gang’s arrest. He was hailed a hero for his efforts and his fame helped get him elected deputy sheriff of Kane County. He later wrote, “the affair was in everybody’s mouth, and I suddenly found myself called upon from every quarter to undertake matters requiring detective skill.” Returning to Chicago a year later, he became a deputy sheriff of Cook County, Chicago’s first police detective and an agent for the United States Post Office.
In 1850, Allan resigned from Chicago’s police force and opened the first Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency office at 80 Washington Street. The motto of the new private detective agency was “We Never Sleep,” and their logo was an unblinking eye, which garnered their detectives, collectively called Pinkertons, the new nickname of “private eyes” - a term which would later come to be associated with all private or independent detectives. The Pinkertons also later pioneered another phrase and policing method, the “mug shot,” an early criminal database of photographs and descriptors to easily identify wanted criminals which, at the time, they called their “Rogue’s Gallery.”
The Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency first specialized in railway theft cases - guarding trains and apprehending robbers. In 1855, the agency signed its first contract to guard the Illinois Central Railway. In 1856, Allan Pinkerton hired the first female detective in his Chicago office, a 23-year-old widow named Kate Warne, who became one of the agency’s best investigators and a close friend of the Pinkerton family.
In early 1861, Allan Pinkerton traveled to Baltimore for the railroad, investigating reports that Southern sympathizers were planning to sabotage the rail lines to Washington, D.C. As part of his investigation, he reportedly uncovered a plot to assassinate president-elect Abraham Lincoln, then on the way to his inauguration, when he arrived in Baltimore. Allan, along with Kate Warne and other agents, located the president-elect and convinced him of the threat, thereby changing his itinerary to reroute him around Baltimore and possibly even disguising him as Warne’s invalid brother to deliver him safely to Washington, D.C., where he was sworn in as the nation’s 16th president on March 4th.
After the outbreak of the Civil War a month later, Union General George McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, hired Allan to organize a secret intelligence service which would spy on the seceded southern states for military information, and to infiltrate southern sympathizer groups in the north. Allan employed his detectives in this service and he, under the pseudonym Major E.J. Allen, traveled to Tennessee, Georgia and Mississippi performing his own investigative work.
After the Civil War, Allan resumed management of his detective agency and expanded to New York City in 1865 and Philadelphia in 1866. He also published true crime stories about the agency’s cases to draw attention to their work. During the westward expansion of post-Civil War America, the Pinkertons were often hired by railroads and express companies as guards and bounty hunters in the Wild West. In 1866, the Pinkertons solved the first train robbery on record, the theft of $700,000 from an Adams Express Car on the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad. Later that same year, the infamous Reno Gang carried out their first robbery of another Adams Express Car on the Ohio & Mississippi Railroad; the Pinkertons soon infiltrated the gang and apprehended the robbers. The agency went on to tangle with more of the infamous and notorious, including Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch gang, and the Jesse James gang throughout the 1870s.
Allan Pinkerton died on July 1, 1884 due to a freak accident wherein he slipped on a Chicago street, biting his tongue when his head hit the pavement. The cut from the bite was not tended and became gangrenous, eventually claiming his life.
Towards the end of his life and after his death, the Pinkerton Agency had often been hired by wealthy industrialists to provide intelligence on union-organizing efforts within their companies and to act as guards during disputes. The Pinkertons gained notoriety as strikebreakers and a paramilitary force - a far cry from the ideals of Allan’s youth which had led him to flee Scotland. The Pinkertons were involved in the 1886 Haymarket Riot and the 1892 Homestead Strikes, which resulted in standoffs, violence, the deaths of workers, and notoriety for the agency. This led 26 states to ban corporations from bringing private guards into labor disputes.
Despite the notoriety, the company flourished under the direction of Allan’s sons, William and Robert, less as a detective firm (whose roles were eventually absorbed by police forces and the FBI) and more as a security company. By 1900, there were over 20 Pinkerton offices across the country and they boasted 2,000 detectives and 30,000 reserves, which was more than the strength of the standing United States Army at the time. Interestingly, the State of Ohio took notice of this alarming number and outlawed the Pinkertons altogether for fear they would be hired as a mercenary army. The agency still operates today as the global security firm Pinkerton.
A large percentage of our Danish ancestors traveled to America via the fleet of ships of the Scandinavian-American Line. This presentation will explore the history of the ships and the experiences our ancestors likely lived.
The Role of Criminal Records in Genealogical Research
Embarking on a journey into family history, genealogists often encounter tales of migration, struggle, and triumph. However, nestled within these stories, one might stumble upon an unexpected twist - a criminal record. Far from being a source of discomfort, these records open up a window into the lives of our ancestors, painting a more complete, vivid picture of their times and trials.
In delving into criminal records, it's crucial to understand the societal norms of the past. Many behaviors deemed criminal then would barely raise an eyebrow today. Debt, vagrancy, and minor thefts often led to incarceration. This context reshapes our perception of these so-called 'black sheep' in the family tree, reminding us that their 'crimes' were often a reflection of the times.
One of the first records often found, which indicate likely criminal activity, are census records, where individuals may be listed as inmates, providing a starting point for further exploration. Court records, including dockets, minutes, and case files, offer a detailed narrative of the crime, the trial, and the judgment passed. These documents are repositories of rich, often overlooked, family stories. Many federal records can be found through PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records), which is a service of the federal Judiciary. Through PACER, over a billion documents, filed in more than 200 federal courts, are accessible to the public, for a minimal fee. FamilySearch is also a great source for court records, both federal and by state.
Another common source which initiates the journey into an ancestor’s criminal past are newspapers. Their vivid accounts of crimes and trials, serve as a window into the public perception and media portrayal of these events. They add color and context to the black-and-white facts found in official records. In addition, specialized websites like Black Sheep Ancestors and databases like the Homicide in Chicago project, which includes over 11,000 homicide reports encompassing the years of 1870-1930, provide focused insights into specific types of criminal records.
The Court, Governmental & Criminal Records found on Ancestry.com include various federal and state prison records, as well as local jail records, in addition to deceased criminal identification files from the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation), among others. These records can be rich in genealogical and biographical detail and in addition to details on criminal activity and sentencing, may also include details such as birth date and location, as well as immigration facts.
Mug shots and photographic records, pioneered by the Pinkertons in the 19th century, offer a more personal glimpse into the lives of these ancestors. These images, coupled with physical descriptions and conviction details, bring a human face to the names etched in court documents. Pinkerton's records, held by the Library of Congress, include wanted posters, police and prison records, just to name a few.
The exploration of criminal records in family history is not just about uncovering a past misdemeanor or felony. These rich records offer insights into the struggles and realities faced by our ancestors. As we piece together these stories, we gain a deeper understanding of our roots, recognizing that these chapters, though hidden, are integral to the complex story of our family history.
Do you have an ancestor who sometimes flew too close to the sun? That could mean that he or she fell from grace at the peak of power because of excessive risk taking, or was simply wayward and wanton in other ways. Perhaps your ancestors were not wicked or wanton, but simply in bad circumstances through no fault of their own - Read more about Finding the Wayward and the Wanton here.
1930 U.S. census, Ada County, Idaho, population schedule, Idaho State Penitentiary, Precinct 22, ED 1-22, p. 1-A (penned), dwelling [?], family [?], Columbus Anderson, database with images, Ancestry.com (https://ancestry.com : accessed 20 November 2023), citing NARA microfilm publication T626, roll 395.
“California, U.S., Prison and Correctional Records, 1851-1950,” database with images, Ancestry.com (https://ancestry.com : accessed 20 November 2023), Eddie Daly, register no. 12483, 1923, Folsom; citing, “Department of Corrections. Folsom State Prison Records, 1879–1949,.” California State Archives, Record Collection R136, Sacramento.
Encyclopedia Britannica (http://britannica.com : accessed 20 November 2023), “Allan Pinkerton.”
Evan Andrews, History (http://history.com : accessed 20 November 2023), “10 Things You May Not Know About the Pinkertons.”
Joseph Geringer, Crime Library (http://crimelibrary.org : accessed 20 November 2023), “Allan Pinkerton and His Detective Agency: We Never Sleep.”
Library of Congress (https://loc.gov : accessed 20 November 2023), “Today in History - August 25,” “The Pinkertons.”
Library of Congress (https://loc.gov : accessed 20 November 2023), “Today in History - October 6,” “Of Rails and Robbers.”
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, digital images, Library of Congress (https://loc.gov : accessed 20 November 2023), digital image from original photograph, “[Allan Pinkerton and Joan Carfrae Pinkerton],” ca. 1865-1880, Digital ID: ds 07127 //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ds.07127.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, digital images, Library of Congress (https://loc.gov : accessed 20 November 2023), digital image from original photograph, “Antietam, Md. Allan Pinkerton, President Lincoln, and Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand],” ca. September-October 1862, Digital ID: cwpb 04339 https://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cwpb.04339.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, digital images, Library of Congress (https://loc.gov : accessed 20 November 2023), digital image from original photograph, “[Laura Bullion, member of the Wild Bunch gang, head-and-shoulders portrait],” 1893, Digital ID: ppmsca 10777 //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.10777.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, digital images, Library of Congress (https://loc.gov : accessed 20 November 2023), digital image from original photograph, “[Robert LeRoy Parker, alias Butch Cassidy, head-and-shoulders portrait],” 1893, Digital ID: ppmsca 10772 //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.10772.
National Archives of the United Kingdom (http://nationalarchives.gov.uk : accessed 20 November 2023), “What was Chartism?”
National Park Service (http://nps.gov : accessed 20 November 2023), “Allan Pinkerton.”
PBS American Experience (http://pbs.org : accessed 20 November 2023), “Allan Pinkerton’s Detective Agency.”
Pinkerton (http://pinkerton.com : accessed 20 November 2023), “Our Story.”
University of North Texas, Dallas Police Department Collection, digital images, The Portal to Texas History (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ : accessed 20 November 2023), digital image from original b&w photograph taken by Dallas (Tex.) Police Department, “[Clyde Champion Barrow Mug Shot - Dallas 6048],” date uknown, Digital ID: ark:/67531/metapth78911.
Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pinkerton%27s_National_Detective_Agency_-_"We_Never_Sleep."_%287976724155%29.jpg : accessed 20 November 2023), digital image of document, 1878, “File:Pinkerton's National Detective Agency - "We Never Sleep." (7976724155).jpg;” image uploaded by user Fæ.
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