Allan Pinkerton, a deputy-sheriff in Chicago, formed the Pinkerton Detective Agency in 1852. The first detective agency in the United States, it solved a series of train robberies. In 1861 the agency was given the task of guarding Abraham Lincoln. While in Baltimore, while on the way to the inauguration, Pinkerton foiled a plot to assassinate the president.
Pinkerton became head of the American secret service during the Civil War and in 1875 used an agent, James McParland, to infiltrate the secret organization, the Molly Maguires. McParlan's evidence in court resulted in the execution of twenty of its members.
The Pinkerton Detective Agency was a great success. On the facade of his three-story Chicago headquarters was the company slogan, "We Never Sleep". Above this was a huge, black and white eye. The Pinkerton logo was the origin of the term private eye.
In 1873 Franklin B. Gowen, president of the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad, had a meeting with Allan Pinkerton of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Gowen had considerable investments in the coal-mines of Schuylkill County and feared that the trade union activities of John Siney and the Workingmen's Benevolent Association would result in lower profits.
Allan Pinkerton decided to send James McParland to Schuylkill County. Assuming the alias of James McKenna, he found work as a labourer in Shenandoah. Soon afterwards he joined the Workingmen's Benevolent Association and the Shenandoah branch of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), an organisation for Irish immigrants run by the Roman Catholic clergy.
After a few months of investigations McParland reported back to Allan Pinkerton that some members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians were also active in the secret organization, the Molly Maguires. McParland estimated that the group had about 3,000 members. Each county was governed by a bodymaster who recruited members and gave out orders to commit crimes. These bodymasters were usually ex-miners who now worked as saloon keepers.
Over a two year period James McParland collected evidence about the criminal activities of the Molly Maguires. This included the murder of around fifty men in Schuylkill County. Many of these men were the managers of coal mines in the region.
John Kehoe, one of the leaders of the Molly Maguires became suspicious of McParland and began to investigate his past. McParland was tipped off that Kehoe was planning to murder him so he fled from the area.
In 1876 and 1877 James McParland was the star witness for the prosecution of John Kehoe and the Molly Maguires. Twenty members were found guilty of murder and were executed. This included Kehoe, a former union leader who was convicted of a murder that had taken place fourteen years previously.
After Allan Pinkerton died in 1884, the Pinkerton Detective Agency was run by his two sons, Robert Pinkerton and William Pinkerton. The brothers opened their fourth office in Denver. They appointed James McParland and Charlie Siringo to run the Pinkerton's western division.
The Pinkerton Detective Agency often supplied men to break strikes. In 1892 the Amalgamated Iron and Steel Workers Union called out its members at the Homestead plant owned by Andrew Carnegie and Henry Frick. The men were brought in on armed barges down the Monongahela River. The strikers were waiting for them and a day long battle took place. Seven Pinkerton agents and nine workers were killed and created a great deal of bad publicity for the agency.
In 1906 James McParland was called in to investigate the murder of Frank Steunenberg, the governor of Idaho. McParland was convinced from the beginning that the leaders of the Western Federation of Miners had arranged the killing of Steunenberg. McParland arrested Harry Orchard, a stranger who had been staying at a local hotel. In his room they found dynamite and some wire.
McParland helped Orchard to write a confession that he had been a contract killer for the WFM, assuring him this would help him get a reduced sentence for the crime. In his statement, Orchard named William Hayward (general secretary of WFM) and Charles Moyer (president of WFM). He also claimed that a union member from Caldwell, George Pettibone, had also been involved in the plot. These three men were arrested and were charged with the murder of Steunenberg.
Charles Darrow, a man who specialized in defending trade union leaders, was employed to defend Hayward, Moyer and Pettibone. The trial took place in Boise, the state capital. It emerged that Orchard already had a motive for killing Steunenberg, blaming the governor of Idaho, for destroying his chances of making a fortune from a business he had started in the mining industry.
During the three month trial, the prosecutor was unable to present any information against Hayward, Moyer and Pettibone except for the testimony of Orchard. William Hayward, Charles Moyer and George Pettibone were all acquitted. Orchard, because he had provided evidence against the other men, received life imprisonment rather than the death penalty.
In 1912 Charlie Siringo published a book, A Cowboy Detective: A True Story of Twenty-Two Years With A World-Famous Detective Agency, where he claimed that James McParland had ordering him to commit voter fraud in the re-election attempt of Colorado Governor James Peabody. This view is supported by historian Mary Joy Martin who argued in The Corpse On Boomerang Road (2004): "McParland would stop at nothing to take down (unions such as the Western Federation of Miners) because he believed his authority came from "Divine Providence." To carry out God's Will meant he was free to break laws and lie until every man he judged evil was hanging on the gallows. Since his days in Pennsylvania he was comfortable lying under oath. In the Haywood trial and the Adams trials, he lied frequently, even claiming he never joined the Ancient Order of Hibernians. Documents showed he had."
Charlie Siringo, who had worked for more than twenty years under James McParland in the Pinkerton's western division based in Denver, claimed that the agency had been guilty of "jury tampering, fabricated confessions, false witnesses, bribery, intimidation, and hiring killers for its clients... Documents and time sustained many of his assertions."
In the summer of 1917, Frank Little was helping organize workers in the metal mines of Montana. This included leading a strike of miners working for the Anaconda Company. In the early hours of 1st August, 1917, six masked men broke into Little's hotel room in Butte. He was beaten up, tied by the rope to a car, and dragged out of town, where he was lynched. A note: "First and last warning" was pinned to his chest. No serious attempt was made by the police to catch Little's murderers. It is not known if he was killed for his anti-war views or his trade union activities.
The lawyer representing the Anaconda Company said a few days later: "These Wobblies, snarling their blasphemies in filthy and profane language; they advocate disobedience of the law, insults to our flag, disregard of all property rights and destruction of the principles and institutions which are the safeguards of society.... Why, Little, the man who was hanged in Butte, prefaced his seditious and treasonable speeches with the remark that he expected to be arrested for what he was going to say... The Wobblies... have invariably shown themselves to be bullies, anarchists and terrorists. These things they do openly and boldly."
Lillian Hellman claimed in Scoundrel Time (1976) that Dashiell Hammett, while working for the Pinkerton Detective Agency in Montana, turned down an offer of $5,000 to "do away with" Frank Little. Hellman recalled: "Through the years he was to repeat that bribe offer (to kill Frank Little) so many times, that I came to believe, knowing him now, that it was a kind of key to his life. He had given a man the right to think he would murder, and the fact that Frank Little was lynched with three other men in what was known as the Everett Massacre must have been, for Hammett, an abiding horror. I think I can date Hammett's belief that he was living in a corrupt society from Little's murder."