Detective Dynasties

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Feb 19, 2013

My history of great detectives examines both police detectives and private detectives, but it’s safe to say that the most famous of real-life detectives all operated their own private practice sooner or later. (Though in nearly every case, they were also in government employ at other times in their careers.) Of those who did operate private detective businesses, I find the occurrence and fates of those which became family businesses an interesting area of comparison.

Of the private detectives who did not bring their sons into the profession to succeed them, most simply had no sons at all. William Pinkerton had no male heirs, though the Pinkertons’ detective dynasty (of which William himself was a second generation) continued with his brother Robert’s son Allan II. Jonathan Whicher seems to have had no children at all, at least none who survived infancy; the same seems to be true, remarkably, of the long-lived and romantically profligate Vidocq.

Childlessness was decidedly not a factor in the case of “Paddington” Pollaky, whose second wife Mary Ann Hughes bore at least four and possibly several young Pollakys; a number were daughters but Pollaky had at least one son to carry on the name. Nonetheless, despite establishing a thriving detective practice, Papa Pollaky apparently made no effort to encourage a son to join him and may well have discouraged the idea, for reasons on which I speculate in Brilliant Deduction.

Detection as a family business seems to have been all or nothing, really, at least among my book’s stars. Ellis Parker did bring his son Ellis, Jr. in to assist with at least one case, though that one turned out disastrously for both Ellises and I don’t believe any of Ellis Sr.’s children ever really followed him into the role of detective. The only detectives in my study to bring in a second generation in a meaningful sense, meanwhile, also launched eventual dynasties lasting into third or fourth generations.

Per the Library of Congress’s records, family direction of the Pinkerton agency persisted for more than a century, until the 1967 death of Robert Pinkerton, the great-grandson of Allan (and the grandson of the Robert Pinkerton profiled in Brilliant Deduction.) I’m less certain about the Burns agency, though I recall reading that a grandson of William Burns eventually succeeded his sons.

I’m more positive that neither agency is family-run, today. (I don’t want to spoil the agencies’ shared fate for those planning to read the book, though if you want to know it isn’t secret information and may be found with a little online searching.) A BBC story examining family businesses last year sheds an interesting light on the detective dynasties, however. Though the oldest family firm in America is now in its 14th generation, the much briefer family successions of the Burns and Pinkerton agencies is the norm: “Globally, family businesses are extremely prevalent, [yet] very few family businesses last more than three generations.” Moreover, today’s concepts of the corporation may play a role, particularly in the United States: “family businesses in the US tend to be criticised for not focusing on shareholders and quarterly profits.”

I wonder what Allan Pinkerton would have thought about that.

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