The Pinkerton Army Values

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As the Industrial Revolution gained momentum in the United States, factory workers became disgruntled with the poor treatment they were receiving by their employers. The factories were unsafe, wages were cut, and the standard of living plummeted as machines and profit took priority over people at the workplace. Workers joined together in an attempt to create unions that would give them fair treatment at their place of employment. To maintain order and control, employers hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to act as spies by joining workers in the workplace then reporting their findings back to the employers. The Pinkertons would play a major, infamous role in the union strikes that followed as tension continued to grow.

Pinkerton National Detective Agency was developed by 23-year-old Allan Pinkerton in 1850. He was born in Glasgow, Scotland and fathered by a retired policeman. Before arriving in America, Allan and his wife fled Scotland due to his involvement in the Chartist working class movement. (Allan Pinkerton: Biography on Undiscovered Scotland, 2007). He became an antislavery campaigner and assisted slaves using the underground railroad by helping them escape to Canada. In a random turn of events, he happened to establish himself as a detective after uncovering a counterfeit coin operation. Not long after this, he created the prelude to what is now known as the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Their company slogan “We Never Sleep” was paired with the well-known All Seeing-Eye image and eventually coined the term Private Eye. The Pinkertons received many applicants; however, Allan did not hire detective school graduates. Instead, he hired messenger boys, bank clerks, insurance salesmen, waiters, and elevator operators. He claimed these men were polite, alert, intelligent, hard-working, and not obsessed by the scientific tools taught by the detective schools. If the agency wanted to hire someone for a specific detective job, sometimes they would run an ad for men with sales experience. (Jarman, 1948a). Within the first twenty years, the business successfully employed 2,000 active agents and 30,000 reserve agents.

The first instance of the Pinkerton’s involvement with labor work was in September of 1866. The agency’s guards were sent to protect mining properties during a coal strike in Braidwood, Illinois. Between 1866 and 1892, the agency was involved in 70 union strikes facing approximately 125,000 union strikers. They were referred to as the “Private Army of Capitalism” that protected the rich. “Founder Allan Pinkerton used the media of the time to paint his detectives as symbols of order in the lawless West, but his work for the owners of the mines and mills evolved into providing a de facto private army to quell strikers. As Pinkerton agents were often deputized by local law enforcement, they acted as agents of the government while being employed by private interests, a dangerous combination” (O’Hara, 2016).

July 6, 1892 was a doomsday for both sides of this ongoing battle. The Pinkertons were hired by the owner of Carnegie Steel Company. Andrew Carnegie’s assistant Henry Clay Flick was left in charge and tried breaking up the Amalgamated Association union by firing its members. This led to a four-month strike. A few hundred agents were loaded onto barges. They headed from Pittsburgh toward Homestead, Pennsylvania. As they arrived, they were met by union strikers and onlooking citizens. They were unable to come ashore and remained on the barges during the twelve-hour stand-off. Both sides used every weapon they had at their disposal. Two Civil War cannons were loaded with scrap iron resulting in the decapitation of one striker. In return, strikers oiled a raft, set a sixty-foot fire, and attempted to burn the barges. By the end of the day, 20,000 opposed the presence of the agents and they were forced to surrender. Nine strikers and seven agents were killed during the Homestead strike. (Wilson, 2004). As the Pinkerton men came to shore by government escort, they were beaten relentlessly as they were led on their way out of town. The result for the strikers was also a major loss. Strikebreakers were hired to replace them, and they gained nothing. In conclusion, “The Homestead affair not only discouraged the Pinkertons from further strike-guard work, but it killed unionism in the steel industry for almost fifty years.”

By August 1892, the Anti-Pinkerton Act was passed limiting the government from hiring private armies. Later, in 1935, the Wagner Act was also passed preventing employers from oppressing their workers’ attempts to unionize. Even more, a resolution was passed in 1937 stating, “that the so-called industrial spy system breeds fear, suspicion, and animosity and tends to cause strikes and industrial warfare and is contrary to sound public policy.“ Allan’s great-grandson Robert Pinkerton II, the company owner at the time, then ended the firm’s antiunion operations with this statement, “Our agency has always felt that employers had a right to know what their employees were doing, but if the sentiment throughout the country is such as to bring before Congress the resolution that has been passed, it looks like we are on the wrong side of the fence. Times have changed, and we are out of step.” (Jarman, 1984b)

The Pinkerton Detective Agency annual revenue greatly depended on union strikes. In the 1920s, $1,023,776 of their $1,922,910 profit was solely from this kind of labor work. Robert Pinkerton II managed to keep the company afloat by offering various services. Sign service allowed a business to buy a sign stating that the premises was protected by the Pinkertons. To have one of these signs, the business paid a yearly fee. In return, Pinkerton agents spent a certain amount of days working for them for authenticity. Questionable ethics came into play when there was no criminal activity. In this scenario, owners could use the agents to check on their employees and their efficiency. This was not the first time the Pinkertons used questionable or outright illegal methods. In the past, agents often used entrapment. A common sting was bribing conductors to let them ride the train without purchasing a ticket. They would then file a report against the conductor leading to termination. While doing surveillance, it is reported that agents would go so far as to rent a room above a young woman and drill a hole into her ceiling to prove her fraudulent disability. This is not the only example of their unethical spying.

Since Allan Pinkerton’s death in 1884, several family members have kept the company alive. Today, it is a subsidiary of a large Swedish company named Securitas. The contradiction of Allan’s ethics remains confusing, at the least, if not hypocritical. He was a man known to stand for several human rights causes despite the legality, yet he went on to provide a service that silenced and prosecuted protesters. It also makes us question what privacy employees deserve from their employers. What do employers deserve to know? On an even broader scale, what privacy are citizens entitled from their government? In a surveillance everyone is guilty of something. Pinkerton had all the tools to assist the union strikers and make the statement of equality he failed to make in Scotland, but sometimes by detecting and focusing on all the small wrong doings, we often miss the bigger wrongs along with the bigger picture. To quote Allan Pinkerton, “There seem to be three things that are the ambition of a great class of people who are either in need of employment or who are dissatisfied with the employment they have. They wish to go upon the stage, or become an author, or turn detective. It is about an equal chance which way they will go.”

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The Pinkerton Army Values. (2022, May 26). Retrieved February 23, 2024 , from

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