The Eye that Never Sleeps: A History of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency

By Frank Morn | Go to book overview

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It is a rare organization that is insensitive to its own past. Present day profits, of course, are of upmost concern, but in time, all businesses ponder their own history. Generally, these are not intellectual exercises, and the records are carefully screened and sifted to present the proper picture. Many such "company histories" are chronicles lacking any unifying theme, historical perspective, or critical analysis. History, in short, becomes a public relations technique. Businesses are record keeping, record analyzing enterprises, and information is abundant. Some businesses, like Pinkerton's, have archives so that visitors may view the artifacts of an illustrious past.

The Pinkerton archives in New York is rich in materials. Over one hundred binders, bound according to the criminal case or criminal character, are available. These materials, plus those manuscripts at the Library of Congress and the Chicago Historical Society, are the major resources for this book. They constitute a major part of other books as well, especially the information I call "defensible data." This trace-and-chase material makes up the popular histories of Richard Rowan ( The Pinkertons: A Detective Dynasty, 1931) and James D. Horan, ( The Pinkertons: The Detective Dynasty that Made History, 1968). The True Detective Magazine literature mentioned in the epilogue was based on this readily available material.

Another set of information in the Pinkerton archives I call "managerial data." In Pinkerton's it ranks from the mysterious to the mundane. The operatives' reports to the supervisor and clients are filled with the day-today activities of the detective. Unlike the "defensible data," these reports are not meant for the scholar's eyes. In fact, much of the work of the private detective is secret. In 1924 a London private detective, Herbert Marshall, touched on this when he drew distinctions between the public and private detective

Most of my work has never before been made public and I think that this is where the chief difference between the police and the private detective lies. The work of the former is the detection of criminals, the bringing of them to justice, and thus to public notice, while in most cases the object of the latter is so to unravel twisted skins that certain individuals may resume the even tenor of their life without the public even knowing that it was disturbed.

Such secrecy might protect the innocent and the guilty, but it hampers the historian. Some of the operatives' reports are in the Pinkerton archives, but most are tucked away in the various collections of the client company. The Burlington Railroad manuscripts at Chicago's Newberry Library is one example.

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