An immigrant from Scotland, Allan Pinkerton founded, in Chicago, what became the world's most famous private detective agency. Private security as we know it today has its origins in the Pinkerton National Detective Agency (PNDA). Major controversies about civil liberties and surveillance arose from the agency's activities. The dramas associated with Pinkerton and his agency have been an enduring source of fascination and have inspired a great number of books, articles, congressional reports, and movies. Yet, the story needs to be refreshed. Previous studies have been factually misguided and have typically veered between the hagiographic and the censorious. My aim is to tell a tale that is more authoritative and balanced, while still a gripping yarn.
Some anticipates features of the book:
• According to the standard narrative, Allan Pinkerton participated in the Newport Rising of 1839, the last attempt at social revolution in the UK. That is groundless propaganda.
• Before he arrived in the United States, Pinkerton was likely an informer in Scotland.
• Pinkerton was wise to protect Lincoln from the threat of assassination in 1861 but was a liability as a Union spy.
• Pinkerton was a tribune of private enterprise who left an enduring legacy.
• Pinkerton detectives rigged the 1886 trial of the ‘Haymarket martyrs’ but some of the accused may have been guilty anyway.
• The Pinkerton dynasty lost its public opinion war with Jesse James, the Sundance Kid, and Homestead strikers.
• The hitherto neglected Anti-Pinkerton law of 1893 triggered a century-long civil liberties debate about surveillance and the security industry.
• Federal and municipal detectives have been better at fighting crime than the Pinkertons and their private imitators.
• The Pinkerton agency faded from the scene after the excoriating La Follette hearings of the 1930s, but Pinkertonism led, by the present century, to the widespread privatization of security.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones was born in Wales and received his higher education in Aberystwyth (BA, Alun Lewis Memorial Prize), Michigan, Harvard and Cambridge (PhD). He held post doctoral fellowships at Harvard, Free University Berlin and Toronto. Founder and now honorary president of the Scottish Association for the Study of America, he is emeritus professor of history at the University of Edinburgh. His books have appeared in several languages. They include In Spies We Trust: The Story of Western Intelligence (OUP, 2013) and The American Left: Its Impact on Politics and Society since 1900 (Edi...
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