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'Pinks'--a Colorful Part of U.S. History

December 22, 1987|JAMES F. PELTZ | Times Staff Writer

Pinkerton's, probably the nation's best-known security firm, is also its oldest. It was founded 137 years ago by a bearded Scotsman named Allan Pinkerton.

The firm started out as a detective agency and gained fame in the 19th Century for its relentless pursuit of such outlaws as the Reno Gang of train robbers and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In the film portrait of that pair's exploits, Paul Newman repeatedly asks Robert Redford, "Who are those guys?" The pursuers were Pinkerton's agents.

For decades "the Pinks," as Pinkerton's officers were dubbed, were famous for their motto, "We Never Sleep." The motto remains apt, even though Pinkerton's has evolved from an investigative firm into mostly a provider of guards and security services.

Ironically, Allan Pinkerton moved to the Chicago area from his native Glasgow, Scotland, in 1842 to escape the law. He was wanted for his radical views on reforming England's Parliament. Once in the United States, he worked as a barrel maker but sooned turned his innate curiosity toward detective work.

In the late-1840s, he helped capture a currency counterfeiter, thus establishing his reputation as a sleuth. In 1850, he started his detective agency and later was appointed Chicago's first detective. The next year he was named U.S. special mail agent there.

Meanwhile, his security firm grew. In 1855, it was hired to provide protection for railroads, thus setting the stage for its duels with infamous train robbers.

In 1861, Pinkerton claimed to have uncovered a plot to assassinate President-elect Abraham Lincoln. Critics accused Pinkerton of fabricating the story for his own publicity. But others agreed with Pinkerton's decision to have Lincoln take extra precautions as he rode the train into Washington for his inauguration.

Pinkerton also headed the secret service for the Union Army. After the Civil War, he concentrated on running his firm and died in Chicago on July 1, 1884, at age 65. His sons, William and Robert, also worked for the company.

But Pinkerton's continued to prosper in this century. In the late-1910s, one of its gumshoes was Dashiell Hammett, who used his experiences tracking cases in San Francisco as the inspiration for the famous detective novels he would write, such as "The Maltese Falcon" and "The Thin Man," as well as creating the private eye character Sam Spade.

Diane Johnson, a Hammett biographer, said Hammett once described how he followed suspects for Pinkerton's: "You simply saunter along somewhere within sight of your subject and, barring bad breaks, the only thing that can make you lose him is overanxiety on your part. Even a clever criminal may be shadowed for weeks without suspecting it."

In Hammett's time, Pinkerton's dominated the security industry. That position has since been pared by increased competition from such firms as Burns, Wackenhut and CPP Security--but Pinkerton's fame remains intact.

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