Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Secret Societies: The Pinkerton National Detective Agency
The Pinkertons! It is not your usual thought when secret societies come to mind but, when talking about secret societies it is important to realize that some societies are so secret that their very existence is brought to question, others rely on keeping membership rolls secret, but most were organizations that simply kept some of their activities or inner workings secret. The Pinkerton National Detective Agency qualifies on several fronts as a secret society.
Allen Pinkerton didn’t create an ordinary detective agency. His agents were spies for the Union Army. The Pinkertons were the first Secret Service, charged with protecting the president. After the war, many employees of Pinkerton's National Detective Agency were hired to protect businesses. It is easy to see why the identities of Pinkerton’s operatives required secrecy and why they kept so many of their activities secret. If an agent’s identity were known it could very well cost his or her life.
Yes, I said her life. In my Nessa Donnelly mysteries I draw on the real life history of the women Pinkertons who risked everything to preserve the Union. The intrepid lady detectives of the Pinkerton National Security Agency worked under dangerous, difficult circumstances. The job they did was critical to the agency and to the security of the nation. Throughout his life Allen Pinkerton defended his decision to hire women, and argued the necessity of lady detectives in collecting information inaccessible to men. It was a battle he was unable to win.
Once his sons took over the agency, they got rid of the women agents. They also took the company in a different and more controversial direction. Pinkertons were primarily used as the muscle behind big business. Pinkertons were charged with infiltrating and bringing down the labor unions, protecting non-union laborers, and stopping labor violence (by force if necessary).
Branching out into pseudo-military and police work also raised the level of secrecy and the number of agents needed. At one time there were more Pinkerton agents in the United States than there were soldiers in the United States Army. These agents were responsible for the massacre of union strikers and the assassinations of labor leaders. Behind the scenes, the Pinkerton agents were hired for their brains, but in the coal camps and factories, the face of Pinkerton was often a thug.
The secret, military, brutish nature of the Pinkerton agency was worrisome to government officials. Pinkerton's private police force in Pennsylvania created a labor incident that cost the lives of 16 men and required the state militia to be called out to restore order.
Ohio banned them from working in the state for many years because they feared the company might move to take over state government.
Other states placed restrictions on how many agents could work in the state and began to require that all private detectives apply for a state license. States also began to pass laws restricting the activities of agents and protecting the rights of laborers.
When your PI gets into trouble with the law or has his license suspended, just remember if it hadn’t been for the secret activities of the Pinkerton agents, today’s PI’s might not need a license.