Pinkerton's Donates Historic Files

Thursday, May 25th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WESTLAKE VILLAGE, Calif. (AP) — Pinkerton's, the fabled detective agency that chased Jesse James and taught America's police how to do their job, is donating some of its historic files to the U.S. Library of Congress.

Boxes being packed Wednesday for the truck ride to Washington contained everything from a how-to book on safecracking to a photograph of the Sundance Kid's lover — though little on the agency's role as strikebreaker in some of America's bloodiest labor disputes.

``It's going to be extraordinarily valuable for historians,'' said Jane Adler, who was hired by Pinkerton's to organize the material, which dates from about 1850 to the late 1930s.

``It's a one-of-a-kind collection,'' said the library's John Sellers, a specialist in 19th century history. ``There are a lot of historians already calling me.''

Had they been auctioned separately, the items would have fetched $1 million, Sellers said, adding that he first sought the material a decade ago.

Adler said the archive had been neglected as the company changed hands several times in recent decades. It merged last year with the Swedish company Securitas. Some papers had disintegrated nearly to powder. The donation will allow for the collection's restoration and preservation, Adler said.

The agency was founded in 1850 by Scottish immigrant Allan Pinkerton. At a time when U.S. police agencies were corrupt and incompetent, Pinkerton operatives were thorough and professional, Adler said.

The Secret Service, FBI and other agencies gradually adopted some of the Pinkerton methods. Pinkerton's eventually got out of the crook-catching business and is now a private corporate security provider and consulting company.

``Pinkerton's taught the public police in America how to do their job, and they eventually talked themselves out of a job,'' Adler said.

Most of the material headed for Washington dates from the Wild West era, when Pinkerton's chased bandits for the banks and railroads. There are wanted posters, mug shots and rap sheets for outlaws such as Jesse James, and the only know photograph of ``Sundance Kid'' Harry Longbaugh's mysterious girlfriend, Etta Place.

There also are daily detectives' reports, pictures of burglar tools, and an 1895 book on safecracking written for the agency by international bank robber Max Shinburn.

``You get into types of escape, criminal personalities, analysis, profiles of people,'' Sellers said. ``This was a very active and very highly trained staff.''

The archives include a leather-bound account of Allan Pinkerton's role in foiling a Baltimore plot to kill President Lincoln in 1861 and a transcript of Pinkerton's telegraph to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton days after Lincoln's 1865 assassination.

``How I regret that I had not been near him previous to this fatal act. I might have been the means to avert it,'' Pinkerton says.

However, the archives contain little information on the agency's most notorious assignments: strikebreaking and widespread anti-labor spying. The agency was sensitive about that unpopular work, which it gave up in 1937, Adler said.

There are, for example, no internal documents about the 1892 Homestead, Pa., steel mill confrontation between strikers and 300 Pinkerton men that left nearly a dozen people dead.

There are reports of detectives attempting to recruit labor spies in the coal fields of Pennsylvania in 1874, and some material on the Molly Maguires, a secret group that used terrorist tactics against mine owners that was infiltrated by Pinkerton operatives.

The archive will be immediately available to scholars and a public exhibit may be mounted in two or three years, Sellers said.


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