Pinkerton remained on the force for about five years. He claimed he resigned because of "political interference," which may have been the case since the city's Democratic mayor did not take kindly to officers like Pinkerton who advocated the abolition of slavery. Pinkerton also may have left the Cook County position to pursue more lucrative detective work. The U.S. Post Office gave him a job as a mail agent to probe a rash of mail thefts plaguing the city. He posed as a mail clerk and found that the nephew of the Chicago postmaster, who had been given a sorter's job with the service, was stealing bank drafts and money orders from envelopes.
Needing more money for his growing family, Pinkerton around 1855, or perhaps earlier, formed with a lawyer named Edward Rucker the North-West Detective Agency and set up a tiny office at 89 Washington Street. Rucker, always a silent partner in the venture, dropped out of the arrangement the next year. Before resigning from official police work, Pinkerton had polled railroad executives on whether he should form a private detective firm. They thought it was an excellent idea. Crime plagued the region and no state or federal law enforcement agency existed. Local police forces often were filled with incompetent or corrupt officers their citizens considered no better than accomplices for the criminal class. Businessmen, who distrusted local cops even more, needed some type of protection and crime detection organization to guard their companies. The agency Pinkerton was forming would be the closest thing to a national investigative organization—his trademark soon becoming "We Never Sleep," under a drawing of an eye. He adopted the expression "private eye," which eventually became the nickname for detectives.
From his Chartist background, Pinkerton showed a genius for organizing and attention to detail—but often becoming an iron-fisted micromanager and not delegating. He perfected policing and detection techniques sophisticated for the time, such as employing undercover disguises, exploiting the latest technology like the telegraph and photography, and compiling a vast picture gallery of criminals (Pinkerton's became the largest in the world). He paid his detectives $3 a day, a supervisor cost a client $8 a day, and Pinkerton charged $12 a day for his services. For the comfortable salaries they received, Pinkerton expected his operatives to abide by high ethical standards—an innovation at the time when the public considered most private detectives little different from the criminals they hunted. Pinkerton did not allow his employees to drink, smoke, play cards, or frequent "low dives." They had to wear "somber dress," could not cash in on their exploits with newspaper or magazine stories, and were forbidden from accepting rewards for the criminals they caught. That last prohibition helped Pinkerton maintain good relations with police forces throughout the Midwest.
The first man Pinkerton hired for his agency was the talented and patrician George Bangs, who had started out as a reporter and then drifted into police work before Pinkerton spotted him. A tall and handsome man with a commanding presence, Bangs was an efficient business manager as well as a skilled detective and quickly became Pinkerton's general superintendent. Other men were recruited, like Adam Roche (a pipe-smoking German who had worked on a lumber barge), John White (whom Pinkerton thought adept at catching con men because he looked like one), and John Fox (a talkative New Englander who had
been a watchmaker).
Kate Warne, slender, brown-haired, and a widow at twenty-three, barged into Pinkerton's office one day and announced she wanted to be a detective, arguing that a woman could worm her way into situations males couldn't and glean valuable information. A startled Pinkerton had never considered a female for detective work, but after mulling it over for a day he decided to hire this graceful and self-assured woman. Warne proved to be a courageous and trusted operative. Men found her fascinating. She became expert at playing roles to entice suspects to divulge their secrets, posing once as a clairvoyant with costume and makeup to convince a superstitious woman to admit to poisoning her brother. Soon Warne headed Pinkerton's "Female Department," composed of several women. Some family members suspected that in later years Pinkerton and Warne had an affair.
He took all kinds of cases at the outset—except for divorce and infidelity investigations. He considered them undignified. But Pinkerton was not shy about unconventional methods, such as braying into the night like an angry ghost near the bed of a suspect to scare him into confessing. A Chicago newspaper questioned a $700 bill Pinkerton submitted to the city, which included $139 the paper considered a staggering amount for arresting what must have been a "multitude" of pickpockets. Within a short time Pinkerton had branch offices in neighboring states with agents investigating murders, counterfeiters, and mail thieves. He also started a uniformed guard service to protect Chicago meatpackers. As his reputation spread he began taking on more complicated interstate cases, infiltrating spies to protect companies from their enemies: robbers, thieving employees, and organized labor (he set aside the idealism of his Chartist days to become a well-paid tool of business interests).
This excerpt ends on page 14 of the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book ONE DAY: THE EXTRAORDINARY STORY OF AN ORDINARY 24 HOURS IN AMERICA by Gene Weingarten.