Weird History

How The Pinkerton Agency Saved Abraham Lincoln And Laid The Foundation For The Modern FBI And CIA  

Melissa Sartore
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If you're interested in knowing about the origins of government agencies like the FBI, the Secret Service, and the CIA, look no further than Pinkerton Agency history. It may seem like the vestige of a bygone era, but it's still around.

The Pinkerton National Detective Agency, founded by Allan Pinkerton, established itself as a surveillance and intelligence body during the second half of the 19th century. The agency created the foundation for the "alphabet soup" of US security existing today.

During the Civil War, the men who were Pinkerton detectives helped protect the President of the United States, as well as gathered vital information to use against the Confederacy. They worked for private entities, too, and in the Wild West, they tried to establish law and order - albeit with corporate interests in mind.

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Photo: Alexander Gardner/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
The Agency Foiled A Plot To Assassinate Abraham Lincoln In 1861

The Pinkerton Agency built up its reputation by hunting down thieves and other criminals for railroad companies. After Abraham Lincoln became president in 1860, the agency impressed him, too. In 1861, Allan Pinkerton's agents - including Kate Warne, the agency's first female private detective - discovered a plan to kill Lincoln, which would take place while the president-elect visited Baltimore, MD, on the way to Washington, DC.

The would-be assassins, Captain Fernandina, accompanied by the Palmetto Guards, openly discussed plans in front of a disguised Pinkerton. Fernandina boasted about how with his "first shot the chief traitor, Lincoln, will die, then all Maryland will be with us, and the South will be forever free."

After hearing this, Pinkerton arranged for Lincoln to travel by secret train to escape the threat. In a plan developed in large part by the female Pinkerton detective, Lincoln assumed the disguise of Warne's invalid brother to avoid notice. The president-elect made it to Washington safely. Thanks to the detective agency's success, Lincoln hired the Pinkertons as a "secret service" of sorts during the Civil War.

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Photo: Gibson/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
The Pinkertons Hired Their First Female Detective In 1856

When the Pinkerton Agency hired Kate Warne in 1856, it was because she was a woman, not in spite of it. The Pinkertons were well-known for tracking down thieves and infiltrating criminal groups, but Warne had a way for the detectives to increase their efficacy.

Warne walked into the Pinkerton office in Chicago, IL, and told Allan Pinkerton about her particular skills to acquire information in a way men couldn't replicate. Pinkerton, who figured Warne wanted to apply for a receptionist position, was resistant at first, but also pragmatic enough to give her a try.

Warne's skills weren't limited to stereotypical feminine wiles. During her first big case, she befriended a train robber's wife and obtained information about the location of his money stash. Pinkerton took hiring women one step further, building a full "female bureau" of agents to work for the agency.

Purportedly, there are no pictures of Warne because she was that good at her job. 

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Photo: Brady's National photographic Galleries/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Allan Pinkerton Was A Scottish Fugitive Who Stumbled Into Law Enforcement

Allan Pinkerton - born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1819 - was a political and social activist. Pinkerton was enough of an agitator to earn himself an arrest warrant in 1842. Consequently, he and his wife, Joan, fled to America. They made their way to the Chicago area, where Pinkerton was a cooper (building and repairing barrels and casks), a trade he previously practiced in Scotland.

The Pinkertons settled in Dundee, IL, where Pinkerton set up a cooper shop. One day while he was out chopping wood, he happened upon a group of counterfeiters. He captured them and turned them in, an event significantly increasing his popularity in the community.

People began asking him to investigate local crimes; in his memoir, Pinkerton recalled he was "suddenly called upon, from every quarter, to undertake matters requiring the detective skill.” He was adept enough to attain the role of Kane County's deputy sheriff in 1846. A few years later, in 1849, he became the first police detective in Chicago.

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Photo: Nova Scotia Archives/Wikimedia Commons/No Restrictions
The Term "Private Eye" Comes From The Pinkerton Logo

The Pinkerton Agency's logo was a large eye with the motto "We Never Sleep." As the ranks of the agency swelled during the late 19th century, the individual detectives became known as "private eyes" - in which the "I" for "investigator" aligned well with the agency's logo. Eventually, fiction writers and other popular culture picked up the term during the early 20th century. The abbreviation "PI" still exists today, although the romanticized image it evoked waned over time