Monday, May 21, 2012

Pinkertons: Guards or Blackguards?

I recently was talking to my friend Joyce in Pittsburgh when the topic turned to the Pinkertons.  Joyce's cousin had just finished Darkness Visible, and she had found a jarring contrast between the images of Pinkertons in their family stories and those of the Pinkerton characters in the book.
      The cousin's husband's grandfather had been beaten and dragged through the streets of Braddock and arrested during a strike in the early 1900s, all because he was a worker supporting unionization.  Joyce's grandmother had told the story of an incident during labor unrest in Homestead during the same period: Joyce's grandfather and his friend were walking along the the tracks by the Works when they encountered some Pinkertons.  The friend made a smartass remark to the Pinks; to the horror of Joyce's grandfather, one of them promptly shot the friend dead. (Predictably, the guard was not held accountable for the killing.)
     The history of the Pinkerton Detective Agency is a checkered one, with some very ugly parts. Founded in 1852 by Scottish immigrant Allan Pinkerton, the agency specialized in guarding trains. The agency was hired during the Civil War to protect President Lincoln.  In 1861 the Pinkertons famously foiled an assassination attempt on Lincoln in Baltimore, while he was on his way to his inauguration. (The agency was not successful in preventing John Wilkes Booth from killing Lincoln four years later, after the war.)
Left-right: Allan Pinkerton, Abraham Lincoln, Maj.Gen. John A. McClellan, 1862.
      After the war, the agency became known as the private militia for companies and the goverment to call in to crush uppity workers. Before the 1892 Homestead Strike, Pinkerton guards were employed in putting down coal, iron, and lumber disputes in Illinois, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania, as well as during the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.   A subsidiary group, the Coal and Iron Police, were used by Henry Clay Frick and other robber barons to stop union organizing in these industries.  Companies hired the Pinkerton Agency to provide agents to infiltrate unions, to supply guards to keep strikers and union organizers out of factories, and to recruit goon squads to intimidate workers. In the 1870s the Pennsylvania and Reading Railroad hired Pinkerton spies led by agent James McParland to investigate union activities in the company's mines by the Molly Maguires. The agents were successful in facilitating the arrest and eventual execution of organizers for the group.
Pinkerton detectives show off as a trophy the corpse of a Union soldier they had shot as a deserter (1862).

     The most famous (or infamous) of the numerous violent clashes between the Pinks (their derogatory nickname) and workers is the '92 Homestead Strike.  It is the only time that workers, during a daylong gun battle, defeated the Pinkertons. But of course, it was a Pyrrhic victory for the strikers, who were trumped by Frick's convincing the Pennsylvania governor to call in the State Militia to "restore order." However, after the Homestead battle, the Pinkertons were banned from employment by the government. The controversy swirling around the role of the militia in the violence spurred the passage in 1893 of the federal Anti-Pinkerton Act, which states that an "individual employed by the Pinkerton Detective Agency, or similar organization, may not be employed by the Government of the United States or the government of the District of Columbia."
     From this time and into the 20th century, the Pinkertons frequently appear wherever and whenever a dispute arises between workers and companies.  For many, the name "Pinkerton" became synonymous with union busting, not only in the overt use of guards, but through the use of infiltrators and goon squads.  Joyce's relatives apparently experienced the Pinkertons in these roles.  How many other people can tell similar stories of  guards literally getting away with murder?
     In 1912, the dark side of the agency came to public view in Charlie Siringo's book titled  A cowboy detective: a true story of twenty-two years with a world-famous detective agency; giving the inside facts of the bloody Cœur d'Alene labor riots, and the many ups and downs of the author throughout the United States, Alaska, British Columbia and Old Mexico, also exciting scenes among the moonshiners of Kentucky and Virginia (available as a Google e-book). The long title suggests the skullduggery involved in the agency work of union busting. In the book Siringo, who had worked for more than twenty years under James McParland in the Pinkerton's western division based in Denver, claims that the agency was guilty of  "jury tampering, fabricated confessions, false witnesses, bribery, intimidation, and hiring killers for its clients," assertions confirmed over time by documents and testimony.
     Another incident in the summer of 1917 suggests Pinkerton involvement. A man named Frank Little was helping organize workers in the metal mines of Montana, including leading a strike of miners working for the Anaconda Company, which had hired the agency to protect its interests. In the early hours of August first, six masked men broke into Little's hotel room in Butte. He was beaten up, tied by a rope to a car, and dragged out of town, where he was lynched. A note, "First and last warning," was pinned to his chest. No serious attempt was made by the police to catch Little's murderers. It's not clear if he was killed for his anti-war views or his union activities; either way, the result was the same.
Cartoon in Solidarity magazine, August 1917--'Copper Trust to Press: "It's all right, pal; just tell them he was a traitor."'
      In 1937, forty years after the Little incident, the agency dropped out of labor spying following revelations publicized by the LaFollette Committee hearings. The agency's criminal detection work also was diminished by the police modernization movement, which saw the rise of the F.B.I. and the bolstering of detective branches and resources of public police forces.
      In July of 2003, the agency was acquired by Securitas AB to create Securitas Security Services USA, Inc., one of the largest security companies in the world. (Ironically, Securitas employees are currently trying to form a union through the Services Employees International Union).
      In Darkness Visible my goal was to show the events of 1892 from multiple viewpoints.  As I read eyewitness accounts of the experiences of the guards,  I could not help feeling sympathy for the new recruits who were brought into the battle unprepared, victims of the company's phony enticements as much as of the workers' fury.
     But the Pinkerton rank-and-file and their leaders knew exactly what they were getting into. The words of A.F. Heinde to Hugh O'Donnell at the landing before the Pinkertons' first attempt to disembark were blatantly inflammatory. However, it must have come as a great surprise to Heinde to have the strikers defy him and the company by holding their ground and firing back.
     I can't help wondering, what was Heinde thinking?  Didn't he see the couple of thousand armed and angry workers blocking their way? It suggests arrogance and unwarranted confidence in acheiving the usual outcome for the agency, that is, crushing the workers. In any case, after the initial barrage of gunfire, in which Heinde was shot in the leg, he and company superintendent Potter high-tailed it to safety on the tug, leaving the rest of the Pinkertons to their fate, trapped on the barges.
     So, were the Pinkertons just guards or blackguards? Both, it appears. At my Munhall High School class reunion last summer, I talked to several classmates about the Strike and Battle.  They all held the same view, namely that the Pinkertons deserved what they got after the battle. Maybe so, maybe not. Whatever your views, it's a fact that the Pinkertons' arrival on the river bank changed not only Homestead, but the course of the American history.
A Hollywood view of the Pinkertons from the 2001 film, "American Outlaws." In the movie Timothy Dalton (no relative of the outlaw Daltons), center, plays Allan Pinkerton, who is called in to stop the James gang.  In the words of one reviewer, "What ensues is a stultifyingly bland, bloodless and clichéd bunch of nonsense." Again, the myth of the Old West triumphs over Clio, the muse of history.

No comments:

Post a Comment