7 Ways The Pinkertons Became Who They Are

Are the Pinkertons who 'Red Dead Redemption' makes them out to be?
7 Ways The Pinkertons Became Who They Are

In the original Red Dead Redemption, the outlaw John Marston is kidnapped by an agent of the Pinkerton Detective Agency and forced to hunt down the members of the gang he used to ride with across a Grand Theft Auto-style recreation of the wild west. The Pinkertons also feature prominently in Red Dead Redemption II; the sequel is set before the first game, focusing on the stories of the Dutch van der Linde gang and Arthur Morgan, an antihero and potential mentor to Marston.

The very real and still existent detective agency (now known as Pinkerton Consulting & Investigations, a subsidiary of Securitas AB) issued a cease-and-desist order shortly after the game's release. The suit stated that while the agency and its parent company were depicted with "clear affection" in the games, they thought that the "goodwill" associated with the brand warranted a slice of the huge profits Red Dead II had racked up in just the first few months after its release. 

When Take-Two counter-sued, arguing that since their game was based on historical fact, the "Pinkerton Men" should be considered Fair Use and free game for anybody to portray in media, the detectives changed their tune. As The Verge reported, the countersuit pointed out numerous other depictions of Pinkertons, including other video games which hadn't warranted a lawsuit. What set Rockstar's open-world "Grand Theft Auto on Horses" game apart, according to Take-Two, was that it had made a lot of money. 

In a prepared statement issued before both companies dropped their suits without going to court, Pinkerton's current president, Jack Zahran, disputed the historical accuracy of the game's depiction of agents shooting at outlaws, firebombing houses, and generally being a menace. 

While the cases may never have gone to court, there is still a debate at the heart of the dispute, which is still worth considering. What is the Pinkerton Detective Agency's reputation, and do the agents after the van der Lyn gang accurately represent the company and its values?

Rags to Riches

The Pinkerton Detective agency, which used to have the motto "We Never Sleep" displayed below an unblinking eye, is sort of the quintessential "American Dream" story. It was founded by one Alan Pinkerton, a young Scottish cooper who had immigrated to the United States in the 1840s to avoid arrest for his role in promoting sometimes violent protests as part of the pro-worker and pro-democracy Chartist movement. The official Pinkerton About Us page starts the timeline after he came to the United States.

Via Pinkerton.com

All while sporting the worst facial hair 1840 had to offer.

Shortly after beginning a new life and a successful barrel-making business in still sparsely settled Illinois, Alan happened upon a camp where some outlaws were producing counterfeit money, a common occurrence in the United States' early days. Pinkerton got the local sheriff, who in turn deputized him and a whole posse to arrest the counterfeiters. For his role, Pinkerton was made a permanent deputy.

Eventually, Pinkerton gave up his cooperage and began tracking criminals full time, moving to Chicago and becoming the city's first official police detective. Shortly after that, he founded the National Detective Agency, which would later be renamed "Pinkerton & Co." 

Progressive Values

But before becoming a lawman, Pinkerton and his wife were known as ardent abolitionists, and his house served as a station on the Underground Railroad, even after the powerful police force he founded made him a wealthy businessman.

 In fact, Pinkerton's dedication to the cause of Emancipation led him to raise funds for John Brown before the fatal raid on Harper's Ferry, which saw over a dozen casualties. At the time, many would consider such support for Brown tantamount to funding a terrorist attack, though admittedly, contemporary public opinion was split. 

Pinkerton himself also hired Kate Warne, widely regarded as the first woman detective in the country. She turned out to be an excellent hire since she helped foil a plot to Assassinate Abraham Lincoln in 1861 before he could take office. After the Civil War started, the agency provided occasional bodyguard services for Lincoln (notably not the night that he went to Ford's Theater) and helped protect strategically vital railways.

Library of Congress

That's Pinkerton on the left, Major Gen. McClernand on the right, and what appears to be some kind of lanky mannequin in between. 

Private Policing

Both in the lead-up to the Civil War and after, Pinkerton's agency became powerful because it met a demand for law enforcement that was not constrained by jurisdictions. Across much of the United States throughout the 19th century, few law enforcement organizations could legally operate outside of the municipality or county they were assigned to. Pennsylvania founded the State Police in 1905.

There were only a small number of Federal agents like the US Marshalls, and matters were further complicated by the existence of broad swaths of land that were unincorporated or sparsely settled. Native American-controlled territories were a complicated mess of treaties, federal laws, and what little tribal policy indigenous people could exert before they were swept aside in the name of Manifest Destiny genocide.

The railroads, which were instrumental in bringing "civilization" as it was understood, eventually connected the frontiers and wild spaces to the central United States. But to do that, it needed to cross all the legal grey areas on the map.

Steve Estvanik/Shutterstock

Which, to clarify, was most of it.

As a result, the railroads and other companies with interstate business interests often hired the Pinkertons or other private police organizations to provide security to trains, investigate robberies, and root out corruption and labor organization efforts among employees. These activities famously pitted the Pinkertons against famed bandit and Confederate war criminal Jesse James.

Fighting the Unions

But it wasn't just the security of their clients' physical property that the Pinkertons were charged with protecting; it was also the profitability. In the early 20th century, the Pinkertons were increasingly involved with turning their investigative efforts towards finding labor organizers through undercover operatives who would then act as witnesses to crimes committed by anybody involved with the group. 

While some, like the Molly Maguires, were often violent, historians now question the legitimacy of convictions that relied heavily on Pinkerton agents' evidence. What's more, if the agency could not disrupt organization efforts by nipping them in the bud, they could still muster hundreds of armed men to work as strikebreakers. More often than not, they were able to force the reopening of factories, mines, mills, railroads, and any other business where strikes both shut down production and threatened to divert profits to workers. 

This became the agency's bread and butter as the Gilded Age saw increasing clashes between radical labor movements and wealthy business owners. After Alan Pinkerton died, it became one of their signature services.

Fighting the Unions (With Guns)

One of the most notable cases was the 1892 Homestead Strike (aka the Homestead Massacre). After Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick decided to try to drive the union out of the Homestead Steel Mill with hardball negotiations that included cutting wages as an opening offer, the workers called their bluff and went on strike. The situation rapidly led to escalation with the owners fortifying the plant and locking the laborers out, prompting workers to call in reinforcements from other unions and coordinate strikes at other Carnegie-owned facilities. 

After roughly a week of around-the-clock picketing, a group of 300 Pinkerton Agents armed with Winchester rifles were sent to break through the pickets after landing on the riverbank near the steel mill, leading to a firefight in early the morning of July 6th, 1892. The agents tried again and actually surrendered upon realizing that the more than 6,000 striking laborers wouldn't be shifted by their small force. 7 laborers died, and 11 suffered injuries, with similar numbers on the Pinkerton side.

The strike ultimately ended in failure after running more than two weeks, only running out of steam after the intervention of the Pennsylvania state militia troops and the public relations disaster stemming from a failed assassination plot against Henry Frick by anarchist Alexander Berkman. Pinkerton tactics became more sophisticated and effective after Homestead, but they continued making good money brawling with strikers and helping strikebreakers breach picket lines. This part of Pinkerton history doesn't come up much on their official website.


"Yup; absolutely nothing of interest between 1890 and 1960. Move along now."

Doing things the "Right Way."

As we mentioned, Alan Pinkerton originally came to the US to escape criminal charges he earned as a chartist fighting for laborers' rights, yet he amassed his fortune once here in large part by bringing the hammer down on labor organizations. How did he explain the difference between what he did as a young man and what made him wealthy?

Pinkerton was a complicated man, but his attempt to square the difference amounted to arguing that socialism and anarchism were foreign ideas that would lead the American laborer down the wrong path. His opposition to unions and "foreign" influence also led to his company accepting a Spanish government contract to suppress a Cuban rebellion in the 1870s. 

It is unclear if Allan himself was aware that a major aim of this rebellion was the abolition of slavery, but it seems hard to believe the detective who founded what was a world-leading intelligence agency wouldn't be able to puzzle that out. The contradictions between his agency's work and his personal history and actions were difficult to sort out while he was alive. After his passing in 1884, the agency which bore his name ensured that anti-union work would be a chief association.

Rockstar Games

You'd think a company with a history of union busting and slavery defense would be a little more hesitant to dredge that up over a video game.

Working With Amazon

It's important to judge companies more than a century old, not just by who their founder was or how the money was originally made. We need to look at what they do today.

Presently the Pinkerton brand bills itself as a leading risk management company that offers a "variety of services," including emergency response units ranging from telecommunications support after natural disasters to private firefighters. And they're also a smaller part of the Swiss AB Securitas firm, which is a name you may recognize from the sides of armored trucks visiting banks.

But it seems Pinkerton still offers some of the services that made the company infamous. In 2020 they were hired by global retail giant Amazon to keep a private eye on employees working to unionize a warehouse in Poland. The poor working conditions, which include employees peeing in bottles to avoid getting in trouble for taking too long a bathroom break, is also at the heart of recent unionization efforts in the US, such as at the Bessemer, Alabama warehouse.

Likewise, contemporary armed Pinkertons Agents have also earned a reputation for being trigger happy. An agent hired to protect reporters during a Denver, Co. demonstration by far-right groups in October 2020 allegedly shot and killed a demonstrator after he pulled a can of bear spray on the agent. Potentially more damaging than the lawsuits about Red Dead, the Pinkertons are facing lawsuits stemming from the fact the agent sent by them and their subcontractor was unlicensed.

Denver Police

We're more interested in who saw this walking manifesto and thought "Give that man a gun."

Is it fair to say that the Pinkerton Agents in Red Dead Redemption II are an accurate representation of how the company conducted itself in the time periods depicted? That's an issue any given player will probably have to answer for themselves but considering during the game, players rob multiple banks and engage in all sorts of shootouts with police agencies and sheriffs. While the Pinkertons are certainly the antagonists, Arthur Morgan isn't necessarily a "good guy" either. There's room for moral ambiguity. Players are certainly in the role of somebody who simply is not interested in making the world a safer place, while the Pinkertons are attempting to use any means necessary to stop them. 

The better question might be why is being cast in a morally ambiguous light is so upsetting to the company?  

Justin McGown is a freelance journalist and writer. You can find him on Twitter at Quartz_Movement.

Top image: Library of Congress

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