Saturday, April 13, 2013

More Pinkertons

Recently I finished reading both Pinkerton's Secret as well as the 1974 factual history The Pinkertons by Fred J. Cook, and I preferred the latter. Cook, while sometimes covering the same famous cases as Cleveland Moffett, has a fairly modern, balanced perspective which points out Allan Pinkerton's flaws as well has his strengths. I appreciated the post-Victorian view about the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, as well as facts about how and when William and Robert Pinkerton took over. Many names of other top Pinkerton agents like Timothy Webster and Hattie Lawton are mentioned along the way. Cook also discusses Adam Worth and the Gainsborough painting.

Cook's short book begins with the Baltimore assassination plot on Lincoln in 1861, before backtracking to give biographical information about Allan Pinkerton's life prior to being a detective. He was from a poor family in Scotland, and he apprenticed to become a cooper or barrelmaker, before the threat of arrest for his militant Chartist activities forced him to flee the country. He and his wife Joan emigrated to America, and he set up a prosperous cooperage outside of Chicago, then a frontier town. Allan unexpectedly cracked a case of counterfeiters hiding out on a nearby island and gained fame as a local celebrity. Soon he was called on to solve more cases, and finally he started his own agency in 1850. Then Cook covers the history of the agency, the Civil War espionage missions, famous Pinkerton cases like the Reno Gang and the Molly Maguires, and the changes once modern law enforcement arose and the agency became a corporation.

Like Jesse James in the Wild West, the Reno Gang robbed trains and terrorized people. The Reno brothers operated out of their hometown of Seymour, Indiana, and were able to put corrupt officials in place so they could get away with their crimes. Local citizens dared not testify against them, so Allan Pinkerton had to kidnap the gang's leader John Reno and take him into a different jurisdiction where he would be tried and convicted. Still the gang continued robbing under another brother's leadership, so the Pinkerton agency kept pursuing them throughout 1868, even when they split up to hide out in various places. (William also participated in the case, at the age of 22.) Eventually the Pinkertons captured most of the gang, but the bandits didn't make it to trial, because a vigilante committee hunted down the prisoners and lynched them. Cook estimates that there were 200 masked "night riders" working together and that railroad employees might have been helping. No one was ever arrested and prosecuted for the lynchings, though.

One fact I didn't know before is that Allan Pinkerton suffered a stroke in 1869 and was paralyzed for a year. His sons William and Robert downplayed his illness to make it seem like he was still in charge of the business, but Allan struggled to recover. They still had George Bangs to help them run things of course, but it must have been a glimpse of what they would have to do when they took over for good. By the time Allan came back in 1871, the Great Chicago Fire burned down their headquarters and much of their archives. They rebuilt and Allan continued to run the place until his death in July 1884. (Bangs died the year before, in 1883.)

When Cook tells the story of the Molly Maguires case, he explains the terrible working conditions of the miners and reveals that James McParland, the undercover Pinkerton agent, sympathized with them and complained to the boss, who didn't care and used other Pinkertons to protect his property and strikebreakers. McParland eventually testified against members of the Molly Maguires who killed certain people out of personal grudges that didn't have anything to do with labor politics. Then Cook's history continues onto post-Allan cases, such as a Mafia case in 1890 New Orleans and another case with McParland who was later promoted to Superintendent of the Denver office.

Meanwhile, Eric Lerner's Pinkerton's Secret novel was problematic and annoying. I suspect that almost none of the details about Kate Warne were factual, beginning with the hash the author made of the job interview; Lerner has Allan Pinkerton fighting with George Bangs and thinking that Kate Warne is a client, not a job applicant. It's an excuse for the author to mention Pinkerton's "general principles" which forbid the agency from taking domestic cases, i.e. adultery scandals and divorce cases, along with other categories mentioned later. Kate Warne is rather enigmatic and turns out to lie to Pinkerton later for inexplicable reasons. I think her character in the novel is just an excuse to write an anachronistic woman having too-modern banter with Allan Pinkerton. I'm not sure I believe that she was involved in Allan's secret abolitionist activities with the Underground Railroad and supporting John Brown's radical mayhem in Bleeding Kansas. In fact I'm not sure if it was Allan Pinkerton (unreliable narrator) or Eric Lerner (author) that claimed that Frederick Douglass somehow betrayed John Brown by not joining the Harper's Ferry raid.

I also think that the details about Allan Pinkerton's family life, especially his wife Joan and their son Robert, were much fictionalized. I mean, when Eric Lerner claims that Allan Pinkerton needed to fake a marriage license in order to wed his young bride Joan Carfrae, and that the age of consent was 18 in 1842 (which it wasn't and still isn't today in Scotland), I feel that he doesn't care enough to even be historically plausible. Lerner had an agenda in making Joan a lying shrew who forced Allan to leave Scotland for the supposedly criminal marriage, instead of the reality of his Chartist activities. Making Joan unsympathetic is presumably to make Kate Warne look better as the love of Allan's life, and to make their affair seem okay rather than hypocritical. I don't understand where the extreme hatred of Robert comes from either. Cook's historical book mentions that Allan Pinkerton in the 1860s was so stressed out that he would write angry letters to George Bangs and Robert Pinkerton (presumably about running the New York branch), but Ben Macintyre's book said that Allan would write complaining letters to William as well, so I don't see why there's favoritism among the sons in Lerner's book. I suspect Lerner is just setting up more dramatic conflict and tension.

In fact, Lerner distorts the end of the Reno case by compressing months of time into one dramatic night and mixing it with Allan Pinkerton's stroke a year later. All for an imaginary scene where Allan Pinkerton murderously attacks a fugitive in Canada, causes an diplomatic incident with a British official, almost drowns them all, and finally runs into his office and has a stroke. I mean, there's fictionalization, and there's making stuff up entirely. What's worse is that later Lerner tries to imply that Allan Pinkerton didn't approve of the agency taking anti-labor cases like against the Molly Maguires, and blames Allan's sons for betraying his general principles. Lerner would rather not recognize that Allan Pinkerton was the one who proposed the Molly Maguires case to railroad and coal mine owner Franklin Gowen in 1873. Allan Pinkerton was just a hypocrite, siding with big business and betraying his old Chartist sympathies for the common man. So you can see why I'm leery of trusting the depictions of history in the book.

I know, I know. It's just a novel, not a factual story. But I worry that people who read Lerner's book, but not any other history of the Pinkertons, will get the wrong impression of Allan as a principled guy, and his family being rotten stinkers who ruined everything.

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