Pinkerton Detective

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"We Never Sleep."
—Motto of the Pinkertons

An agent of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, "Pinkertons" for short, "Pinks" to their enemies. Not to be confused with Pinkos.

Founded in the 1850s by Allan Pinkerton, the Pinkertons were often hired by corporations such as the railroad companies to investigate crimes against them and the activities of labor movements. Made famous by their protection of Lincoln from an assassination attempt prior to his taking the oath of office.[1] In the 1870s, they added government work to their portfolio, as the Department of Justice didn't have the infrastructure to do massive investigations on its own. (This work dried up in 1893 with the passage of the "Anti-Pinkerton Act", which prevented the US government from directly hiring Pinkerton agents.)

In addition to their notorious and much-reviled strikebreaking work, the Pinkertons were also active in chasing down outlaws who'd pulled train jobs or major bank robberies. And if you were wealthy enough, you could hire them for regular detective work as well. The Pinks were well known for brutality and ruthlessness in their methods; in fiction, even when they're pursuing more laudable goals, this tends to give an unfavorable color to their portrayal.

It's believed the phrase "private eye" comes from the Pinkerton Agency's symbol, an open eye (which rather hilariously came to look like the CBS eye in later years). Dashiell Hammett was a former Pinkerton agent, and used his experience to inform his stories.

After the 1930s, the Pinkerton Agency largely concerned itself with security services. They were bought and merged with a European security company called Securitas AG, they're now known as Securitas Security Services USA, Inc. Poetically, Securitas is now the subject of unionization attempts.

Compare and contrast with Private Military Contractors. Hilariously unrelated to Real Men Wear Pink.

Examples of Pinkerton detectives in fiction:

Comic Books


  • The 2005 movie The Legend of Zorro has Pinkerton agents extorting the wife of Zorro to help them investigate a secret society trying to prevent the 1850 admission of California to the Union. Rather anachronistically, since the Pinkertons weren't formed until after that event.
  • As the Pinkertons pursued Jesse James in Real Life, they're often mentioned or seen in movies about him.
  • They pursue Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to Bolivia (both in real life and in the film.)
  • Spicer Lovejoy, Cal Hockley's valet in Titanic was a former Pinkerton.
  • In an early scene of the 1992 movie Hoffa, corporate-hired Pinkerton personnel assault early 20th century union organizers.
  • The Hollywood western Three Ten to Yuma and its 2007 remake feature Pinkerton agents escorting an armed stagecoach filled with bank notes through Arizona. Pinkerton agents are seen throughout the 2007 version, and it's worth noting that in the remake the main Pinkerton is both a Badass and deeply unpleasant character.
  • A couple of Pinkerton's Detectives pursue the eponymous characters in Bad Girls. They never catch up with them.
  • In the 1974 film version of Murder on the Orient Express, Cyrus Hardman is a Pinkerton agent. (In the original novel, he worked for the fictional McNeil Detective Agency.)


  • The Valley of Fear, a Sherlock Holmes story, features a Pinkerton Detective infiltrating a gang of terrorist "Scowrers" (a fictional offshoot of the Freemasons, and who were based on the Real Life Molly Maguires.)
    • A Pinkerton named Leverton (described by Holmes as "the hero of the Long Island cave mystery") appears in The Adventure of the Red Circle.
  • The Outlaw Josey Wales includes brief chapter wherein a Texas Ranger and a Pinkerton Detective team up to search for Josey Wales.
  • Pinkerton toughs occasionally appear as secondary characters throughout Harry Turtledove's series of Great War and American Empire Alternate History novels. As the USA in those novels is much more "Europeanised" than ours, with a strong Socialist movement, they ultimately end up being defeated by the organised strikers and unions.
  • Felix Leiter in the James Bond novels became a Pinkerton detective after being medically discharged from the CIA, for the rather good reason of losing a hand and a leg.
  • PK Pinkerton in The Western Mysteries believes that he is a relative of the founder of the Pinkerton Detectives. His aspiration is to become a Pinkerton Detective.

Live Action TV

  • In the HBO series Deadwood, the Pinkerton Agency and its agents are occasionally referred to by several of the show's characters, often ominously or with contempt. Even Al Swearengren thinks they're below his admittedly low moral standards! Miss Isringhausen, Sofia's tutor from the show's second season, is eventually revealed to be an agent of the group.
  • Pinkertons appear a few times in the TV show The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.
  • One of the main characters of the short lived series Peacemakers (basically CSI IN THE OLD WEST!) was a former Pinkerton agent. One episode also featured a legendary Pinkerton agent gone rogue as the perp.
  • The "Ten Li'l Grifters" episode of Leverage featured the team infiltrating a murder mystery costume party and had Eliot costumed as Charlie Siringo, a real-life Pinkerton agent. Given his history as a retrieval specialist, bodyguard, occasional government operative, and mercenary who now helps take down the Corrupt Corporate Executive of the week (at least one of whom he worked for in the past), the comparison is appropriate.

Tabletop Games

Video Games

  • In the computer game Post Mortem, the player-character Gus McPherson is mentioned as being a former member of Pinkerton, and depending on the player's actions, sends telegraphs to the agency for research.
  • Pinkerton Agents appear as skilled shooters armed with six-shot carbines in the 1866, a Western mod for Mount & Blade.
  • Booker DeWitt, the protagonist of BioShock Infinite, is a former Pinkerton Agent who was apparently expelled from the organization due to "behavior beyond the acceptable bounds of the Agency".

Web Comics

Western Animation

  • The security goons in Project G.e.e.K.e.R. are all named "Pinkers," a likely reference to the Pinkertons.

Real Life

  1. What's less well-known is that the detective who protected Lincoln was a female - Kate Warne - who was one of the agency's top detectives.