The trail of Pinkerton’s lost estate

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jun 21, 2013

Allan Pinkerton’s country estate, The Larches, was admittedly never truly lost. But it did disappear from the place of prominence it once occupied, rather like most of history’s notable real-life detectives other than Pinkerton, in fact. Like their stories, The Larches has still been there, just obscure.

And just as with Pollaky, Burns, and even the younger Pinkertons, present-day obscurity has not always been the case. Onarga, Illinois has never been a major destination, exactly, but once upon a time it was the regular retreat of a fairly famous man and played host to other powerful and connected figures.

That changed following the death of Allan Pinkerton in 1884. During research for my book, I read hints that The Larches had become “a ruin” by the 1960s, but some further investigation has recently turned up more details. A kind correspondent has replied to my inquiries with much fascinating information.

According to documents I’ve received, Pinkerton’s will expressed an ambition to preserve The Larches and keep it in use by his family in perpetuity, “But his sons William and Robert had other ideas.”

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Great photos of great detectives, no. 6

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jun 18, 2013

There isn’t a great deal to post about this one, but I like it and feel like sharing. Ellis Parker and one of his (many) grandchildren:

Ellis Parker and a grandson

Ellis the family man

There’s something adorable about this stocky, gruff-looking bald old cop gently taking the hand of this innocent little tot. Definitely a glimpse of the kind man whose reputation as such was, unfortunately, dinged up by failing judgement in late-life. Frankly, if there were ever a Parker statue, this wouldn’t be a half-bad image to use.

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American Scottish patriots from England

Posted by Matt Kuhns on May 25, 2013

In an earlier post, I demonstrated what Brilliant Deduction describes as the Pinkerton family’s “stern economy with given names.” Among the branch of the family of import for detective history, at any rate, male children seem to receive one or another of just three first names, over and over: Allan, William or Robert.

In pondering on this practice, it readily occurred to me that two of those three names may have been treasured, in part, for their prominence in Scottish history. William and Robert have been among the country’s most revered names for quite a long while (even before Mel Gibson got involved). By the 19th century, the names’ place in their own family tradition may have meant more to the Pinkertons, but there is at least an obvious possible explanation for why they might have latched onto those names in the first place.

For Allan, though, I’ve really been at a loss. I thought there might be some other famous Scot behind that name, as well, but having looked into it I’ve not found much. Wikipedia offers up a poet named Allan Ramsay, but it seems a bit of a stretch. I could be wrong but I’ve got to guess he had little influence on the name’s significance in the Pinkerton family.

The web site of a James Allan (somehow lingering at Geocities, perhaps still online only because someone at Yahoo missed it when shutting things down?) lists a few other “famous Allans” of Scotland, but none of them seem much more convincing than Ramsay. His note about the history of the name itself suggests, like other sources, that it was probably a Breton name that crossed The Channel along with William the Conqueror’s invasion of England.

What’s more, the little I can find about the origins of “Pinkerton” describes it as an English name, also. Like so much that is “English,” it probably came from continental Europe as part of some migration/invasion, as well; I’m not sure what to make of the first half but the “-ton” suffix is presumably of Germanic origin.

So, that’s the Pinkertons: a patriotic Scottish family with English names of French and German etymology, who in very American fashion decided to leave most of that baggage behind and “make a name for themselves” in the New World, attaching an entirely new significance to that name in the process.

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Women and the home front

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Mar 30, 2013

One further thought, this last weekend of Women’s History Month, inspired by some comments from Mr. Jerry Clark at our recent store co-appearance. Discussing the “Pizza Bomber” case, a byzantine, years-long investigation chronicled in the book he and Ed Palattella co-authored, Clark spoke briefly of the personal toll such cases can exact.

Unsurprisingly, such work can stretch those involved awfully thin. Even with dedicated, well-organized teams like those of the modern FBI, the individuals at the center of a major crime investigation can find work taking over their life; as Clark noted, one may “clock out” and go home at night but one doesn’t ever really get away from a case like “the pizza bomber” until it’s truly and finally over. Meanwhile, stress and exhaustion can take a toll, not only on an investigator but on those around him or her. Particularly one’s family.

I don’t recall Mr. Clark’s exact words, but the gist of one further comment stuck with me, too. I believe it was, more or less, that an all-absorbing criminal investigation can sorely test personal relationships but, at the same time, strong family support can be invaluable in making it through.

This gave me pause because nearly every detective highlighted in Brilliant Deduction was a “family man.”

Which may not be that odd, certainly for the time period, but it’s striking how this contrasts with fiction. Sherlock Holmes—at least in the canonical stories—was a borderline-misogynist bachelor. I’ve not read a lot of Poirot novels but I’m not aware of any Mrs. Poirot. The 20th century American fictional detective archetype, exemplified by Spade and Marlowe, is decidedly unattached.

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A thorough New Jersey Man

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Mar 18, 2013

The stars of Brilliant Deduction are “forgotten” figures in the sense that they were once prominent figures, regularly in the news, at least regionally. Isaiah Lees, once a name familiar to nearly the entire city of San Francisco, is now almost vanished; William Burns, in his day perhaps the most famous real-life detective in history, has thoroughly lost out to his great rivals the Pinkertons (the exception to the rule) in popular memory. Ellis Parker, though the last to depart the stage, has fared little better; despite a recent biography, my efforts to acquire a photo of the man via the same newspapers that regularly featured his picture within living memory met with zero recognition of him.

Still, it’s more accurate to describe the reduced profiles of Parker et al. as “obscure,” because none of them is entirely forgotten. Since publishing Brilliant Deduction, in fact, I have heard from various others interested in one or another of its heroes, beyond those biographers and other chroniclers I found during my research. Just recently, their number has been joined by two gentlemen working to restore a little of the faded reputation of The Garden State’s greatest sleuth.

The first of these, attorney and local historian George R. Brinkerhoff, has written an excellent feature article on Ellis Parker for JerseyMan Magazine. Having spent a good deal of thought and effort on how to condense down Parker’s life and career, myself, I feel I may say with fair qualifications that Mr. Brinkerhoff has succeeded admirably. Parker’s origins, key information about his most remarkable cases, a good sense of what he was like as a person, and a thoughtful analysis of his story’s unhappy ending; it’s all there.

Having also observed how published reminiscences of Parker grew fewer and farther between since his death, I’m glad to see at least one local periodical taking note of his fascinating story again. Better still, there may be more to come, from the second gentleman; as noted in the JerseyMan story, Parker grandson Andrew Sahol has been preparing to write his own account of “Pop” as few other living people could.

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Great photos of great detectives, no. 3

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Mar 14, 2013
William Burns and family with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

William Burns (at right) and family with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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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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Meet my family: Allan, William, Allan, Robert and William

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Feb 18, 2013

I use this blog to indulge the many asides which, though interesting, didn’t really seem to belong in my main text. One of those asides, however, did make an abbreviated appearance in the book; upon introducing the third-generation boss of Pinkerton’s, named Allan just like the firm’s founder, I realized to my surprise and gratification that I actually needed to make some comment on this. Therefore I made note that this second Allan was “typically identified as Allan II to limit confusion resulting from his family’s stern economy with given names.”

“Stern economy with given names” is, in fact, understatement to the point of (one hoped) dry humor. By this point in the book, careful readers have been introduced to

  1. William Pinkerton of Glasgow,
  2. Allan Pinkerton, son of 1) who died in infancy,
  3. Allan Pinkerton, a second son of 1) who became a famous detective in America,
  4. Robert Pinkerton, another son of 1) and probably a business associate of 3)
  5. William Pinkerton, son of 3) and later director of Pinkerton’s,
  6. Robert Pinkerton, son of 3) and co-director until his death in middle age, and
  7. Allan Pinkerton (Allan II), son of 6)

As well as two Joan Pinkertons, wife and daughter of the famous Allan. The son of Allan II, last Pinkerton to direct the agency, does not appear in Brilliant Deduction, but by this point the reader will probably have at least a 50/50 chance of guessing that his name was Robert Pinkerton.

To a great extent this dedicated re-use of family names probably was not very rare in earlier eras, and may not even be that rare today in many places, but it does seem awfully confusing, at least in retrospect. Presumably it was manageable enough at the time, with context, but one has to wonder…

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Pawn Stars vs Pinkertons

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jan 18, 2013

Not surprisingly, given that I wrote a historical nonfiction book, I like history. I also like History, i.e. the History channel. Much of what I watch on History, these days, is admittedly as much about contemporary life as history. But I actually note one theme common to Pawn Stars, Swamp People, American Restoration, etc., in common with Brilliant Deduction: generational conflict in a family business.

This appears over and over in the above television series. The Harrisons bickering with one another, Rick Dale balancing too much authority for his son Tyler vs too little responsibility, and of course almost every alligator-hunting crew on Swamp People includes a father-son relationship.

Many of the detectives in Brilliant Deduction made work a family affair as well. Vidocq had no children, apparently, while “Paddington” Pollaky had a large family but demonstrated no interest in bringing them into the line of work he himself grew increasingly eager to escape. The great American private detective firms of Pinkerton and Burns, however, were both family businesses. And even county detective Ellis Parker drafted his son Ellis, Jr., for help on at least one very significant case.

These father-son partnerships seem to have run more smoothly than History’s usually do, though that may not have been entirely a good thing. Both Ellis, Jr., and Sherman Burns arguably disagreed with their fathers too little and might have done considerably better to question the old man a bit more.

Within the Pinkerton family, however, this was definitely not a problem.

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William J. Burns returns?

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Nov 30, 2012

This is something which has been puzzling me for months. Somewhere, toward the end of my research or while I was beginning to write Brilliant Deduction, I came across a reference to a William J. Burns connected with the Department of State. As I was also writing about a William J. Burns connected with high profile federal government departments, I was naturally curious. I quickly learned that William Joseph Burns is currently serving as U.S. Deputy Secretary of State.

Close-up of William Joseph Burns

Associated Press photo

I’ve remained curious, since, about any connection. With a recent Atlantic item speculating about Burns as a candidate to succeed his boss as Secretary of State, it seems like as good a time as any to post about the question.

Obviously, “William Burns” isn’t the most unusual name in the world. But the possibility of a connection is intriguing. If William Joseph Burns is a relation, his career would represent an interesting comeback story for a family and a name that left Washington under a cloud 90 years ago.

Perhaps a great grandson? I’m only guessing, here, though having spent quite some time in front of photos of the earlier Burns, the photo at right does suggest a resemblance, to me.

The more I think about it, the more I’m curious. I’ve begun exploring the question, a little, and will certainly post further if I should learn anything.

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