Why are we called “Private Eyes”? The answer lies in Glasgow

14 January 2016

Here’s a curious Glasgow tale, one which takes us from the Gorbals all the way to the White House. Allan Pinkerton (1819-1884), founder of the famous US private detective agency which still bears his name, was born in this house, at the corner of Muirhead Street and Rutherglen Road. His father was a police sergeant who was maimed in a riot in 1829. Young Allan trained as a cooper but became a member of the Chartist Movement, which defended workers’ rights, and was involved in a strike by spinners in Glasgow. He then tried to help a leader of the movement to break out of prison in 1839 and, in 1842, had to leave Scotland to avoid being arrested. He sailed for the States the day after getting married. Once on US soil, he set up home in Chicago where, after helping break up a forgery ring, he was appointed deputy-sheriff and then sheriff. He started the Pinkerton Detective Agency in Chicago in 1850. The company solved a number of train robberies. He even went after Frank and Jessie James, although he failed to catch them. He also foiled an attempted assassination of President-elect Abraham Lincoln in 1861. That’s Allan, on the left of Lincoln, no doubt with his hand on the grip of a concealed revolver. Pinkerton, an avowed anti-slavery campaigner, led the Unionist Secret Service during the American Civil War but afterwards returned to his agency. Despite his progressive views, Pinkerton, an odd character, also used his men as strike-breakers, helping to undermine the ‘Molly Maguires’ an underground union movement who had been operating in the coalfields of Pennsylvania for over twenty years. Fellow Scot, Sean Connery, later starred in a film of the same name, outlining the brutal battles between workers and management. Pinkerton’s open eye logo, with the legend ‘we never sleep’ is the reason that all private investigators are called ‘private eyes’. The Pinkerton Agency is still in business today.