The classified ad ran halfway down the first column. It was seven lines deep and was headlined, "North Western Police Agency."
The advertisement read: "Pinkerton & Co. devote their attention to the transaction of a general Detective Police Business in Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana." The last line: "Allan Pinkerton … Edward A. Rucker."
That there were exploits to know of was not a foregone conclusion. A Scottish immigrant, Pinkerton settled in Dundee, Ill, and worked as a barrel-maker. While hunting for saplings, he uncovered a secret camp in the woods. He suspected foul play and led the local sheriff back to the spot, where they broke up a counterfeiting ring.
Within the decade, the cooper had become a copper.
In October 1853, in his first appearance in the pages of the Tribune, "Deputy Sheriff Pinkerton" arrested "two notorious counterfeiters." And an 1854 letter to the editor from the Kane County Democrat proclaimed his fitness to be Chicago City Marshall, saying he "has not been equaled in the West as a real genuine thief catcher." A third story detailed how Pinkerton used specially marked bills to catch an embezzling bookkeeper.
But Pinkerton saw greater opportunity working on his own. He was right. By 1857, less than two years after Pinkerton launched his "detective police business," the Tribune called on the city to fire the police chief and appoint Pinkerton in his place to stem a recent rash of burglaries and robberies.
Pinkerton's reputation soon spread across the nation. In 1860, Pinkerton was hired by a Baltimore railroad company to protect its lines against Southern secessionists. In February 1861, a Pinkerton man uncovered a plot to kill President-elect Abraham Lincoln, who was making a multicity tour on his way east for the inauguration. Pinkerton thwarted the plot by smuggling Lincoln through to Washington.
Soon Pinkerton — and his men — were everywhere. Nearly every major crime story or figure in the late 1800s is linked in some way to Pinkerton's men, including the hunts for Jesse James and Butch Cassidy, and the investigations of numerous bank heists, train robberies, sensational kidnappings and gruesome grave robberies. Pinkerton also wrote more than 15 detective stories based on his experiences that became best-sellers.
Pinkerton revolutionized law enforcement. In an era when city policemen rarely caught any criminals, he and his men tracked down fugitives and brought thugs to justice. He taught his detectives surveillance and undercover techniques. Pinkerton was one of the first to compile mug shots of known criminals and suspects, a practice later adopted by the FBI. His efforts protecting Lincoln and spying during the Civil War was the forerunner of the U.S. Secret Service. His agency slogan, "We Never Sleep," and its image of an unblinking eye, is believed to be the source of "private eye."
In the process, Pinkerton captured the nation's imagination. As a eulogist said at his funeral on July 3, 1884: "How can a few words tell again the history of his life, so crowded with character and incidents. The schoolboys know it by heart. Full of truth, it reads like a romance or a dream."
EDITOR'S NOTE: The Legendary Lawmen series will return Dec. 11. Look in the next two weeks for an expanded two-week Flashback about the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor.