By Liz Stern
Do you love solving mysteries? Join us here on February 15 at 3 pm, for the interactive theatrical experience: The Pinkertonian Mystery. Families travel throughout the Museum, engaging with actors to solve a whodunit inspired by the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. This immersive theater experience was created and produced exclusively for our audience, so don’t miss out! Tickets are limited and can be purchased here for February 15, March 8, April 12, and April 26 performances.
Rule number one: “accept no bribes.” Rule number two: “Never compromise with criminals.” These are just two commandments of the famous Pinkerton Code that set the Pinkerton Detective Agency apart. However, the agency’s founders—brothers Allan and Robert—weren’t destine for a life of fighting crime.
The place: Chicago. The date: 1842. Allan Pinkerton, a Scottish immigrant, first arrived in the United States. Allan worked in a local factory as a cooper (a barrel-maker), but soon opened a workshop of his own outside of the Windy City. His brother, Robert, also left Scotland to find success in the U.S. as a railroad man.
Allan got his first taste of detective work while on a routine search for lumber for his booming barrel-making business. He stumbled upon what he suspected to be a gang’s hideout. After alerting authorities, Allan returned to the criminals’ lair along with the local sheriff. Together, they captured the bandits, and Allan was immediately hooked. His knack for bringing crooks to justice landed him the job of County Deputy Sheriff. And, in 1850, he became Chicago’s first Police Detective—his barrel company was history.
He and Robert joined forces the next year, establishing the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in Chicago. As the urban populations boomed, so did crime. Intricate and organized networks of criminals required professional police work. And the Pinkerton Detective Agency was just that. In its early years, the agency mostly provided security for railroad passengers, solving track-side stick-ups and uncovering counterfeiting operations. The Pinkertons commanded respect—striking fear into the hearts of outlaws. Soon, the agency expanded its services so that both businesses and government offices turned to the brothers for their crime-solving needs. At its peak, the agency would become the world’s largest private law enforcement organization and still remains today.
As historians, we are lucky. Allen Pinkerton was a prolific writer and recorded every detail of his company’s investigations in volumes of journals. He published books of his cases, sometimes embellishing them so that they read like detective stories. At the New-York Historical Society, we have a rich collection of Pinkerton’s accounts in our own library. So come watch the Pinkertons back in action during our live theatrical performance!
And be sure to check out our next installment of Pinkerton history when the brothers discover a plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln!