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(Cheryl Carlin)

Outlaw Hunters

The Pinkerton Detective Agency chased down some of America's most notorious criminals

A standoff ensued, and someone threw a lantern into the darkened house, purportedly to aid visibility. There was an explosion, and the posse ran in to find Zerelda Samuel's right arm blown off. Reuben Samuel, her third husband, and their three young children had also been inside. To the detectives' horror, 8-year-old Archie, Jesse James' half brother, lay fatally wounded on the floor.

The death of Archie Samuel was a public relations nightmare for Pinkerton's Detective Agency. Not only had the Pinkerton agency again failed to capture Jesse and Frank James (the brothers had been tipped off and weren't at the house that night), but a little boy had been blown up and Zerelda Samuel was calling for blood. Public opinion, which until then had mostly supported the Pinkertons, shifted. One sensational biography of James, published a few years after his death, ruled that the explosion was "a dastardly piece of business … a cowardly act, thoroughly inexcusable." Though Pinkerton insisted it was one of locals, not one of his men, who threw the bomb, the tragedy did much to build Jesse James' legend and stain the Pinkerton agency's reputation.

For the first time, the man who once said he did "not know the meaning of the word 'fail' " had been defeated. It would be seven more years before James met his end, at the hands of a fellow criminal seeking a $10,000 bounty.

Despite the lowered public approval, Pinkerton's Detective Agency continued to operate after the Archie Samuel incident. Pinkerton men captured more criminals; broke up the Molly McGuire gang of Irish terrorists; and pursued Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to Bolivia, where the bandits were killed by local law enforcement. Toward the end of the 19th century, the agency became more involved in labor disputes, always on the side of management. This sort of operation did little to help the agency's reputation, especially when Pinkerton men inadvertently incited a deadly 1892 riot at a steel mill in Homestead, Pennsylvania. The name "Pinkerton" soon became a dirty word among the working class.

Pinkerton died on July 1, 1884, and his obituary in the Chicago Tribune described him as "a bitter foe to the rogues." By that time, his son William had taken over the agency's Chicago headquarters, and his son Robert had taken over operations in New York. In the 20th century, the agency gradually shifted its focus from detective work to private security, and it remained a family-run company until Robert Pinkerton II, Allan's great grandson, died in 1967. He left a corporation with 18,000 employees and 63 branches across the United States and Canada.

Today, as a subsidiary of an international company called Securitas Group, the Pinkerton agency provides private security for businesses and governments around the world. Pinkerton Consulting and Investigative Services protects shipping containers from terrorists, conducts background checks and guards executives for many Fortune 500 companies, says Pinkerton General Counsel John Moriarty. "We're proud to be able to claim direct descent back to 1850," he says. "There are no other companies providing this kind of service that can trace their origins back to the beginning." In a way, he says, "even the FBI and the Secret Service are descendants of the Pinkerton Agency."

Though Pinkertons no longer hunt down outlaws, the agency kept a vast archive of historic criminal files and mug shots until 2000, when it donated the materials to the Library of Congress. The collection included a full drawer on Jesse James.

Former Smithsonian editorial assistant Amy Crawford attends the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Boston-based freelance journalist writing about government, education and ideas. Her writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Slate, Boston Magazine and the Boston Globe.

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