Pinkertons: Policing labor in the American West

Written December 2, 2015


Policing in the American West began as corporate security in the mid-1800s. The philosophies that shaped that initial endeavor were a powerful force in American policing nationally, through the 19020s and into the early 30s. The first big businesses in the West were the railroads, crossing wildernesses that, for their European-American owners, had no preexisting social structures with which to impose order on their workers. The only authority available in those wild places, was the authority of the company. Investors in the railroads had taken a great financial risk, and their relative lack of control over the men building their railroad agitated their concerns. As Frank Morn noted, “By the mid-1850s a few businessmen saw the need for greater control over their employees; their solution was to sponsor a private detective system. In February 1855, Allan Pinkerton, after consulting with six mid-western railroads, created such and agency in Chicago.”[1] The Pinkertons became a successful means of company control that ran under the guise of creating law and order. Private security for corporations was a lucrative business, even when the agencies came under scrutiny from the public and from the government. The conflict between the public, the government, and the Pinkertons was no small thing. “The emergence of private police … profoundly undermined the American legal order and the public order generally. It underscored the political untouchability and irresponsibility of big business in America.”[2]

Private police forces began in Chicago with the railroads and the Pinkertons, moving first farther west, then east, and proliferating into other industries.[3] Railroads supported all facets of the economies of growing cities.[4] The practices of labor control in railroads naturally moved from one interconnected industry to the next, due the close economic ties between these industries and to the general proliferation of an industrial culture which valued production over quality of life.

The inception of private security for the railroads has sometimes been described as a way of curtailing risk-taking behaviors such as gambling and drinking,[5] but the primary motivation was suppressing labor movements. Organized labor had the potential to be disastrous to the companies’ bottom lines. It could lead to demands for higher wages or better working conditions; it could lead to work stoppages if negotiation was avoided, or to paying higher wages if negotiation was not avoided. Policing the workers leveraged force to prohibit workers from bargaining collectively, which kept labor costs artificially low. It also increased or maintained productivity by circumventing the labor negotiation process. The Pinkertons[6] quickly expanded beyond their original six investors, earning a reputation for effectiveness that relied on their ruthlessness and vigilantism. The corporations that hired the Pinkertons did so because they believed the agency “would go to virtually any length in satisfying the desires of its major business clientele.”[7] The belief was well-founded. An early case, involving the infamous Jesse James, showed investors that the Pinkertons would not hesitate over legality, such that even blatant assassinations were not out of the question.[8]

Shortly before the James assassination, the Pinkertons were hired to “destroy” the Molly Maguires “and perhaps unionism in the coal fields more generally.”[9] The Molly Maguires were a group of Irish revolutionaries-turned-unionists, working in the coal mines in Pennsylvania. The Pinkerton agent assigned to this case, a man named James McParlan, acted as “a classic agent provocateur,”[10] participating in acts of violence as his undercover persona, a member of the Molly Maguires. The violence associated with the group was largely the work of McParlan and others like him, rather than actual members of the group. Bruce Johnson, in his study of policing in America, noted that, “Most of the violence surrounding American labor history was instigated by elites, business or governmental,” and, “Most worker violence in the United States, and there has not been much of it, has been a desperate response to elite violence.”[11] However, the agents’ work laid the foundation of anti-labor perceptions which painted unions as violent and dangerous in the public mind.[12]

The acts of organizing labor – picketing, striking, even joining a union – were illegal until 1935, when New Deal legislation reformed labor laws.[13] After the Homestead strike, a Pennsylvania judge declared that the strike had been treasonous.[14] Yet none of the strikebreaking done by the Pinkertons, at Homestead or elsewhere, was in any way a form of law enforcement. Their methods included nothing resembling due process of the law; their aim was to enforce the will of the corporations, regardless of the coincidence of law. Still, some of the media’s post-Homestead complaints about the Pinkertons centered on the idea that the private detectives were doing the government’s job. The concern was less that strikes were being broken, and more that they were being broken by private armies rather than by the government.[15] Certainly, the government had stepped in to support the interests of business against labor before, in Chicago during the 1877  railroad strike, and 47 more times following that, the National Guard was deployed “to protect the interests of business against those of unionized (or unionizing) workers.”[16] During World War I, local police and the Department of Justice arrested hundreds of members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or “Wobblies”) across the nation.

For their part, government officials seemed relieved that someone else was taking care of the problem,[17] and encouraged the corporate practice of hiring private detectives to do ‘their work’ for them. The importance of improving communication and trade between the East and West coasts was such that the federal government contributed significantly to the financial success of the railroads.[18] Therefore the government, too, had a stake in the economic success of the railroads. The Pinkertons’ engagement in vigilantism removed fault from the government when anti-labor operations became violent or fell out of public favor in any way, while still increasing big business’ confidence. The government’s support of the Pinkertons was visible in the failure of government officials to fully investigate charges against the Pinkertons when charges were brought, or the failure to bring charges at all when the Pinkertons were found to have committed a crime.[19] Even the jeopardization of diplomatic relations with England by the Pinkertons resulted in zero government sanctions for the agency.[20] The implication is that because the elite social class of America included both corporate owners and elected officials, who might often be the same people, what benefitted big businesses would also benefit the individual elected officials, as well as the federal government as an entity.

The large gap between the classes – that is, between the corporate and government elite and the working class – was emphasized by a physical distance between those who were in charge and those who were doing the work.[21] That distance influenced the elites’ tendency to think of the workers in terms of their productivity as a group, rather than as individual people, making the Pinkertons a tools for the mechanisms of labor.

The Pinkertons’ own social distance from the workers of any given factory or railroad made them particularly useful. They, too, had no personal ties to the workers. The agency was hired for specific situations, brought agents from other locations, and did not encourage long-term retention of their agents in the given locale beyond their usefulness to the contracted task. Pinkerton agents’ status as social outsiders in their region of operation made them less likely to be recognized in their undercover operations. It also made the agents less likely to develop sympathy for the unions’ causes – a boon to the corporations in a time when public opinion often swung toward the plight of the unions.

In places where local police forces already existed, the corporations couldn’t always count on their support. For the 1894 Pullman Strike in Chicago[22] and the 1892 Homestead Strike in Pennsylvania, local police were unwilling to act as strikebreakers, and the companies involved hired the Pinkertons. Other strikes did not have so much local support; those organized by the International Workers of the World (IWW, or “Wobblies”) during World War I often aroused suspicions of treason,[23] and failed to garner local support. In those case, the public could be rallied, by and with Pinkertons, as ‘citizen deputies’ to literally remove the strikers from the town. Pinkertons were involved in at least 15 such events between 1912 and 1919.[24] Many more such deportations happened without the Pinkertons’ involvement.[25]

Local support or lack thereof influenced the manner in which corporate security was carried out, but not whether that security was designed and executed in the service of corporations. In every case, big business won, and labor lost. With rare exceptions, Harold Aurand’s analysis of the Molly Maguire case holds true for the war between labor and labor bosses: it was “one of the most astounding surrenders of sovereignty in American history. A private corporation initiated the investigation through a private detective agency; a private police force arrested the offenders; the … company attorneys prosecuted them. The state provided only the courtroom and the hangman.”[26]




Bailey, William F. “The Story of the Central Pacific,” The Pacific Monthly (January and February 1908).

Byrkit, James W. Forging the Copper Collar: Arizona’s Labor-Management War 1901-1921. Tucson, Arizona: The University of Arizona Press, 1982.

Cronon, William. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.

Painter, Nell Irvin. Standing at Armageddon: A Grassroots History of the Progressive Era. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008.

Seven Wonders of the Industrial World. “The Line.” Episode 6. YouTube, 8:20,, (accessed November 12, 2015).

Weiss Robert P. “Private Detective Agencies and Labour Discipline in the United States, 1855-1946.” The Historical Journal 29, no. 1 (March 1986).



[1] As quoted in Ward Churchill, “From the Pinkertons to the PATRIOT Act: The Trajectory of Political Policing in the United States, 1870 to Present,” The New Centennial Review 4, no. 1 (Spring 2004): 5.

[2] Bruce C. Johnson, “Taking Care of Labor: The Police in American Politics,” Theory and Society 3, no. 1 (Spring 1976): 95.

[3] Johnson, 94.

[4] William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991), 312.

[5] Seven Wonders of the Industrial World, “The Line,” episode 6, YouTube, 8:20,, (accessed November 12, 2015).

[6] The Pinkerton Detective Agency was not the only private detective agency in operation at the time, but it was the most famous and is still the best documented. I will focus on the actions of the Pinkertons as representative of private police activities, as the relatively minute differences between the Pinkertons and their contemporaries is beyond the scope of this paper.

[7] Churchill, 6.

[8] While legends often depict Jesse James as being pursued by lawmen, in fact James was pursued by Pinkertons, who finally arranged for his assassination in 1882; Ibid., 11.

[9] Ibid., 13.

[10] Ibid., 14.

[11] Johnson, 96.

[12] Churchill, 16.

[13] Robert P. Weiss, “Private Detective Agencies and Labour Discipline in the United States, 1855-1946,” The Historical Journal 29, no. 1 (March 1986): 93; Johnson, 92, 96, 100.

[14] Weiss, 93.

[15] Ibid., 94

[16] Churchill, 16.

[17] Ibid., 8.

[18] William F. Bailey, “The Story of the Central Pacific,” The Pacific Monthly (January and February 1908).

[19] Churchill, 23.

[20] Ibid., 8.

[21] The men who ran the railroads in Chicago did so because “they had better access … to eastern capital.” Cronon, 66. Chicago produced almost “a quarter of a billion dollars’ worth of goods” in 1880. Cronon, 311. Although Chicago was generating these goods, much of that wealth and the industrial wealth produced nationally originated with eastern industry and the federal government. Investors were generally located far from the western frontier, where the railroad would actually be constructed.

[22] Johnson, 99.

[23] High levels of patriotism during American involvement with WWI made it easier to rally towns – especially company towns – against unions that were seen to have high ‘foreign’ memberships because patriotism was intensely linked with xenophobia and racism. During WWI, productivity was also linked to patriotism, and any slow in productivity was compared to treason. Nell Irvin Painter, Standing at Armageddon: A Grassroots History of the Progressive Era (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008), 23-24.

[24] Churchill, 31-37.

[25] The most famous of these was the Bisbee Deportation of 1917, in which approximately 1200 men were rounded up by deputized citizens, loaded onto trains, and shipped out to New Mexico. James W. Byrkit, Forging the Copper Collar: Arizona’s Labor-Management War 1901-1921 (Tucson, Arizona: The University of Arizona Press, 1982).

[26] Harold Aurand, as quoted in Churchill, 15.


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