Sunday, February 22, 2009

Origin of the Private Eye

from the trivia-laden mind of Earl Staggs

In 1842, a young man left Scotland to begin a new life in the United States. Legend has it he left his native land only one quick step ahead of the law due to his early years as a hardboiled, two-fisted fighter for the rights of the working class.

He arrived in Chicago in 1842 at the age of 24 and supported his young family by working as a cooper and, eventually, as a policeman. In 1846, his natural tendencies of dogged determination and perseverance led to his uncovering a major counterfeiting ring. On his own time and working unofficially, he discovered evidence leading to the apprehension and conviction of the perpetrators. From that experience, he came up with the idea of filling the void left by inept and severely restricted official police forces with a private agency.

In 1850, he opened an office and began hiring out to individuals and businesses for the purposes of investigation and detection. He quickly gained a reputation for success in tracking down and apprehending lawbreakers and his business grew rapidly.

During the Civil War, he established a spy network which served President Abraham Lincoln well. After the war, his intrepid force of detectives pursued the likes of Jesse James, the Reno Brothers, and the duo of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Always innovative and creative, he developed many techniques of surveillance and detection commonly used today by law enforcement agencies worldwide as well as those who have followed in his footsteps as private investigators.

One of those developments was the collection and widespread circulation of photographs of criminals and suspects accompanied by detailed records and descriptions. Now the use of mug shots and wanted posters are an indispensable tool of law enforcement.

When he felt the the need for a symbol for his enterprise, he drew a wide open, unblinking human eye with the words beneath it, “We Never Sleep.” From that symbol and from his innovative approach to crime detection came the now-familiar expression “Private Eye.”

The name of the young man who created the profession of private investigating was, of course, Allan Pinkerton, and the company he created is now synonymous the world over with investigation, surveillance and security.

Years after the founder’s death, another adventurous young man joined the Pinkerton agency. Eventually, however, he would turn to writing and create a fictional character who became the quintessential model of the tough, hardboiled, two-fisted private eye.

One might wonder if that young man--Dashiell Hammett-- gleaned some of his character--Sam Spade-- from stories heard around the water cooler about the legendary exploits of the very first private eye--Allan Pinkerton himself.

Earl Staggs


Morgan Mandel said...

Great story, especially since it's true. I like the fact that it has a local flavor for me in the Chicago area.

There are so many places and restaurants named after actual people and we never know anything about those people.

Morgan Mandel

Jean Henry Mead said...

And now we know the rest of the story . . . Good post, Earl, and one that my fellow western historical writers would certainly enjoy.

Pam Ripling said...

Mini-bios are my favorite blogs! I'm embarrassed to say I didn't know the detective's name as I was reading, then, of course, the "AHA!" moment. Thanks for sharing this great vingette.


Chester Campbell said...

Good story, Earl. I knew who you were talking about, but my addled brain couldn't come up with Pinkerton. Most fictional and, I suspect, real PIs follow his route from cop to Private Eye.

Mark Troy said...

Delicious irony that he had to leave Scotland for fighting for the working man and ended up busting unions and attacking workers in Haymarket Square.

Earl Staggs said...

I'm glad y'all liked my little trivia piece. My mind is so filled with useless trivia, there's little room for anything significant. Mark, I didn't know the Pinkertons were involved in the Haymarket Square mess. Thanks for that info.