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BLOG: Pinkertons: the Plutocrats’ Bull Dogs

Welcome February!

It's hard to believe that in just over a month, West of Santillane will be available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. I'm delighted with the opportunities I'm being given during this exciting time--several interviews, local press, and lots of word-of-mouth from dear friends and readers. Please do help to spread the word!

This week, I'm pleased to present Michael Dunn's comprehensive blog on the Pinkerton organization, which was, and apparently may still be (according to Dunn's research) a rather frightening and heavy-handed entity here in the United States. Dunn has certainly done some digging and what a dark and underhanded piece of American History he's discovered.

If you like intrigue, his work may be calling your name. I'd like to welcome Michael to Brook's Journal, and I hope you'll benefit from his thought-provoking post.

Read ON, everyone!

Pinkertons: the Plutocrats’ Bull Dogs

The Pinkerton Detective Agency, created by Allan Pinkerton in 1850, plays a prominent role in my novels, particularly Anywhere But Schuylkill. The powerful Reading Railroad, which owned most of the Schuylkill County coalfields, hired them to keep their workers in line. The Pinkertons planted spies and agents provocateur in the miners’ union. Together with the Coal & Iron Police, which the Pinkertons created in 1867, they stoked sectarian violence between the ethnic groups that made up Pennsylvania’s mining workforce. And their agents provided the bogus evidence and perjured testimony that resulted in the executions of twenty innocent Irishmen in 1877. John Dos Passos portrayed the brutality of both the Pinkertons, and the Coal & Iron Police, in his USA Trilogy (see below).

 Knowing this sordid history, one would be forgiven for thinking that Allan Pinkerton was nothing but a one-dimensional bull dog for the plutocrats. But his history was much more complex, and interesting. Prior to his role as a union buster, he was friends with abolitionist John Brown, and helped several enslaved people escape into Canada. He was also friends with Abraham Lincoln. (below, right Pinkerton is at the left.)

During the Civil War, Pinkerton created the Secret Service. He also served as a Union spy, providing exaggerated troop numbers that undermined Union war efforts. And in his youth, Pinkerton was a vandal, arsonist, and armed insurrectionist, in Britain’s radical Chartist movement. In fact, the only reason he came to the U.S. was to avoid prison.


Pinkerton got his start in policing by accident, shortly after emigrating to the U.S., where he worked as a cooper in Dundee, Illinois. He was searching for wood, when he stumbled upon a gang of counterfeiters, which he helped apprehend. Impressed, the city of Chicago hired him as their first detective. There, he honed his craft and started his first private detective agency, the North-Western Police Agency, which later became the Pinkerton Detective Agency.


In 1856, Pinkerton hired Kate Warne (below), the nation’s first female detective, who helped him foil an alleged assassination attempt on President Lincoln (the Baltimore Plot, 1861).

Some believe that the plot was fabricated, or exaggerated, to rally support for Pinkerton’s private business. Regardless, Pinkerton’s popularity soared after exposing the plot, and business started to boom. The Pinkerton Detective Agency became the largest private law enforcement organization in the world, largely because of their reputation as an effective paramilitary force for Big Business. Pinkerton cultivated this reputation by publishing numerous detective books based on his cases, which were immensely popular with the public. They were also full of exaggerations, speculation and lies. And his youthful support for universal suffrage and abolition waned as he got older, or perhaps it was trumped by his desire for fame and fortune, as demonstrated by a contract he took in 1872, on behalf of the Spanish government, to suppress a Cuban revolution fighting to end slavery there.


The Pinkertons first big union busting campaign was their suppression of the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association (WBA), formed in 1867 to represent the coal miners of Pennsylvania. Mike Doyle, the protagonist in my novel Anywhere But Schuylkill, was a member of the WBA, which became one of the largest industrial unions of its day, thanks to the effective organizing of its leader, John Siney, and the brutal conditions in which the miners toiled, like the Avondale mine fire (also portrayed in my novel), which killed over 110 men and boys.


In the late 1860s, the WBA won a minimum wage, which kept miners’ income above starvation, as well as a sliding scale, linking wage increases to rising coal prices. These victories did not sit well with Franklin Gowen, president of the Reading Railroad, who hired Allan Pinkerton to destroy the union. They accused the WBA of being infiltrated with Irish terrorists known as Molly Maguires. However, there is no compelling evidence that an organization called the Molly Maguires ever existed in the U.S. The most damning evidence against the men was provided by a Pinkerton spy, James McParland (below right),

who also provided the plans and weapons the men purportedly used in their crimes. And nearly everything people “know” today about the Molly Maguires comes from Allan Pinkerton’s own work of fiction, The Molly Maguires and the Detectives (1877), which he marketed as nonfiction. His heavily biased book was the primary source for dozens of academic works, and for several pieces of fiction, including Arthur Conan Doyle’s final Sherlock Holmes novel, Valley of Fear (1915), and the 1970 Sean Connery film, Molly Maguires.


The Pinkertons went on to disrupt numerous other unions using the same tactics they developed against the WBA. They also provided scabs, or strikebreakers, as well as goons and thugs to intimidate and sometimes murder union members. In the period leading up to the Great Upheaval (Great Train Strike of 1877), Gowen used the Pinkertons to disrupt the railroad union. But an effective wildcat strike broke out, in spite of Pinkerton’s efforts. In July, 1877, the trainmen of Reading, Pennsylvania, revolted against the authorities, taking over the town and halting all transport. Ten were killed when the militia tried to restore order. Dozens were arrested. Gowen led the prosecution against the workers, like he did with the Molly Maguires, again using intelligence from Mr. Pinkerton. Only this time, he failed to secure a single conviction. (For more on the Mollies, please read my guest blog on the Historical Fiction Blog, February 21, 2024.)


Allan Pinkerton died in 1884. However, his sons took over management, and the company continued its violent union busting. Its agents were present at the 1886 demonstration for the eight-hour day, held in Chicago’s Haymarket Square (below), where somebody threw a bomb that killed several cops.

No one knows who threw the bomb. However, seven anarchists were arrested and convicted of murder, though all were innocent. Four were executed. A Pinkerton detective testified against them at their trial. Seven years later, the governor of Illinois pardoned all seven men, determining that neither the police, nor the Pinkertons, were reliable witnesses.


In 1892, Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick hired Pinkertons to protect their scabs during the Homestead steel strike. The steelworkers were well-organized and militant, patrolling the Monongahela River with 52 steam boats, and stationing 1,000 men around the mill and river banks, to prevent any strikebreakers from reaching it. Many were armed. The Pinkertons sent 300 agents by boat. They were armed, too, with Winchester rifles. However, many were just regular working stiffs, picked up at boarding houses and promised wages, with no police training, and no idea of what they were getting into. By the time they arrived, there were 10,000 strikers and supporters present. A twelve-hour gun battle ensued. Many Pinkertons mutinied. Twenty Pinkertons were shot; seven died. Forty strikers were shot and nine of them died. The battle was covered by the international press. The song, “Father was killed by the Pinkerton men,” became an overnight hit.


In the wake of this brutality, Alexander Berkman, an anarchist, and lover of Emma Goldman, attempted to assassinate Frick for his role in the workers’ deaths. Frick survived and Berkman was sentenced to 22 years in prison. The violence of this strike also led to the Anti-Pinkerton Act (1893), which limited the federal government’s ability to use private police and mercenaries, like the Pinkertons, but did nothing to stop private business from continuing to do so.


The next major U.S. labor struggle occurred in 1894, when Eugene Debs and the American Railway Union launched a strike against the Pullman company, which manufactured passenger cars for the railroad industry. At its height, 250,000 workers participated in the strike and boycott, halting all rail service west of Detroit. Up to 70 men were killed, mostly by National Guards. However, Pinkertons also helped suppress the strike. When it was over, President Cleveland signed legislation creating Labor Day, as a bone to organized labor, but also to undermine the much more popular, and radical, May 1st International Workers Day, which commemorated the execution of the Haymarket martyrs and the fight for the eight-hour workday.


A few years later, another big strike erupted, this time in the mines of Colorado, over working conditions, pay, and the eight-hour day. Scholars have said "there is no episode in American labor history in which violence was as systematically used by employers as in the Colorado labor wars of 1903 and 1904." The governor tried to prohibit Mother Jones from entering the state, but she snuck in anyway, taunting him by saying he “didn’t own the state.” The Pinkertons were one of several private detective agencies behind that violence, along with the state militias and the national guard. James McParland, the same guy who set up twenty innocent Pennsylvania miners for execution in 1877, was now running the Denver Pinkerton office, where he directed the activities of dozens of spies that he had placed within the Western Federation of Miners (WFM). Tactics included beatings, jail, and forced deportations, while their spies within the union sabotaged relief efforts for starving families.


McParland’s reign of terror continued into 1905, with the assassination of former Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg, which he tried to pin on another innocent labor organizer, William Dudley (Big Bill) Haywood. The murder was actually committed by a former Pinkerton agent, Harry Orchard, who may have killed sixteen other people, including many miners, on behalf of the mine owners, during the Colorado Labor Wars. Orchard testified that the Steunenberg hit had been ordered by Big Bill HaywoodCharles Moyer, and George Pettibone, all leaders of the WFM. And McParland promoted this fabrication. But Clarence Darrow, who defended the WFM defendants, got them all acquitted.


Legal expenses for the WFM defense were paid by another union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), founded in 1905, by Big Bill Haywood, Mother Jones, Lucy Parsons (an African American anarchist, and widow of one of the Haymarket martyrs), Daniel De Leon (founder of the Socialist Labor Party), Eugene Debs, and several others. The IWW became one of the most radical labor unions in U.S. history, seeking to abolish the wage system and overthrow capitalism. They organized all workers, regardless of race or gender. They were the first U.S. union known to engage in a sit-down strike (against General Electric, in Schenectady, NY, in 1906). Not surprisingly, they were the target of numerous Pinkerton campaigns.


In 1917, the Pinkertons offered Dashiell Hammett $5,000 to assassinate Native American IWW organizer, Frank Little. Hammett was working at the time as a Pinkerton, during the Anaconda strike, in Butte, Montana, where company guards opened fire on striking workers, killing one and injuring sixteen. Hammett refused to take the hit, and soon quit the agency. But not long after, vigilantes kidnapped Little, and brutally tortured and murdered him. Hammett’s first novel, Red Harvest (below), was based on his experiences during the Anaconda strike.

In 1918, in Everett, Washington, Sheriff McRae and a drunken vigilante posse of business owners and deputies, gunned down twelve IWW members. The IWW had come to support striking shingle makers. The sheriff had been tipped off about their arrival by a Pinkerton agent who had infiltrated the Seattle branch of the IWW. This event is also portrayed in Dos Passos’s USA Trilogy. The Ludlow Massacre (1914), was one of the bloodiest

attacks on organized labor. (Massacre aftermath at right) Pinkertons joined the National Guards, and Baldwin-Felts detectives, in the slaughter of sixty-six people, including women and children, who were sleeping at a mining camp near Trinidad, Colorado. In the aftermath, the United Mine Workers issued guns to its members, who began a guerilla war against the mine guards. At least 50 more people died in the ten days of fighting that followed. In retaliation for the worker massacre, Alexander Berkman plotted another assassination, this time against John D. Rockefeller, owner of the Ludlow mine. Upton Sinclair loosely based his novel, King Coal (1917), on this strike. It is also referenced in Thomas Pynchon’s novel, Against the Day (2006).


Pinkertons continued to operate throughout the 20th century, and even today, supporting many contemporary plutocrats, like Jeff Bezos, who uses them to surveil his Amazon employees. In 2018, Frontier Communications, in West Virginia, used them to disrupt organizing by Communication Workers of America. And Google, Apple, and Facebook have all used Pinkertons recently to spy on their employees and “monitor for leaks.”


You can read my satirical biography of Pinkerton here:

All about the Book

In 1877, twenty Irish coal miners hanged for a terrorist conspiracy that never occurred. Anywhere But Schuylkill is the story of one who escaped, Mike Doyle, a teenager trying to keep his family alive during the worst depression the nation has ever faced. Banks and railroads are going under. Children are dying of hunger. The Reading Railroad has slashed wages and hired Pinkerton spies to infiltrate the miners’ union. And there is a sectarian war between rival gangs. But none of this compares with the threat at home.

All about Michael Dunn

Michael Dunn writes Working-Class Fiction from the Not So Gilded Age. Anywhere But Schuylkill is the first in his Great Upheaval trilogy. A lifelong union activist, he has always been drawn to stories of the past, particularly those of regular working people, struggling to make a better life for themselves and their families.


Stories most people do not know, or have forgotten, because history is written by the victors, the robber barons and plutocrats, not the workers and immigrants. Yet their stories are among the most compelling in America. They resonate today because they are the stories of our own ancestors, because their passions and desires, struggles and tragedies, were so similar to our own.


When Michael Dunn is not writing historical fiction, he teaches high school, and writes about labor history and culture.

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1 Comment

Feb 02

Wow! I didn't know the Pinkertons were still around!

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