Photo by Nick Seliverstov on Unsplash

Private investigators and the history of private investigating occupy a special place in pop culture. However, most people are unaware of just how vital they have been in America. The term “private eye” most commonly conjures noir images of 1920s private investigators getting to the bottom of a case the police can’t crack. However, what most people don’t know is that many of the foundational pieces of modern policing trace back to PIs.

Eugène François Vidocq

Before focusing on the incredible success and importance of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, we have to mention Eugène François Vidocq. Considered by many to be the father of criminology, Vidocq pioneered record-keeping, criminology, and even ballistics in investigative work in France in the mid-1800s. Vidocq also gets credit for the practice of taking plaster molds of shoe prints. While local police distrusted his “Office of Intelligence” due to its tradition of hiring ex-convicts, Vidocq saw a great deal of success, and some of his practices are still in use today by French PIs and police.

The Pinkerton National Detective Agency

Allan Pinkerton immigrated to America from Scotland in 1842. Within five years, he joined the Chicago Police Department and in 1849 became the squad’s first detective. The 1850s saw the founding and opening of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency and with it the birth of private investigating in the United States. By 1853, Pinkerton’s was working with law enforcement to arrest criminals across the country. Pinkerton even developed a particular knack for protecting railroad shipments. They also hired the first female detective, Kate Warne, in 1856.

The 1860s brought great unrest in the United States, and in April of 1861, the Civil War broke out. The Pinkerton National Detective Agency served as the head of the Union Intelligence Service, and in doing so, discovered and disrupted an assassination plot on Abraham Lincoln. During this time, Allan Pinkerton recruited John Scobell, the first African-American Union Intelligence Agent. Pinkerton’s is considered to be the forerunner for the U.S. Secret Service.

The 1870s and 1880s saw unprecedented growth for Pinkerton’s. Chief among their claims to fame was their pursuit of Western outlaws like Jesse James, the Younger Gang, the Dalton Brothers, and Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch. In 1890, a Pinkerton attack was credited with breaking up Cassidy’s crew.

The 1900s saw incredible growth for Pinkerton’s from 20 offices in 1906 to 45 offices in 1960 when the company was in its fourth generation of leadership. Pinkerton’s has been instrumental in the development and legitimization of private investigators and remains an essential piece of the history of private investigating.

The Evolution of Private Investigating

The history of Pinkerton’s also illustrates the growth and evolution of private investigating. Private investigation firms have blossomed into full-service security organizations as the profession has grown over the last 150 years. Many private investigators, like All Private Investigations, have offerings including Executive Protection, Litigation Support, Subpoena Services, Asset Searches, Debugging Services, and Counter Surveillance. Sometimes it can be hard to get the information you need to make the best decisions, especially in times of duress. Hiring a private eye is a great way to get the best information and peace of mind.