03/15/2013 09:38 am ET Updated May 15, 2013

The Pinkerton Detectives -- Good, Bad, and Ugly

Daniel Stashower's new nonfiction book, Hour of Peril, tells the harrowing tale of how Allan Pinkerton, founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, saved Abraham Lincoln from assassination in 1861. Pinkerton and his associate, female detective Kate Warne, foiled a well-planned plot to assassinate Lincoln as he made his way to the Capitol for the inauguration. Allan Pinkerton's abolitionist sympathies were well-known at the time, and Lincoln no doubt considered him an honorable man who was perfectly suited to the role of personal protector.

But not all of Allan Pinkerton's charges or the Agency's causes were so noble, and over the several decades following the Civil War the Pinkerton Agency developed a reputation for unscrupulous and even brazenly illegal activity. In 1874, after Frank and Jesse James robbed a train in Missouri, the Pinkerton Agency was hired to bring the James brothers to justice. A band of Pinkertons surrounded the James' family farm in Clay County, Missouri, and, in an attempt to flush out the brothers, pitched incendiary devices through the windows. But the brothers weren't on the scene, and one device exploded inside the house, killing Frank and Jesse's eight-year-old brother and maiming their mother. Public sentiment went with the James' family, and the Pinkertons gave up the chase, slinking off in defeat.

The Pinkertons also gained a reputation for ruthless strikebreaking, and many industrialists hired them to squelch strikes. Some people even contended that it was the Pinkertons who unleashed a bomb at what started out as a peaceful demonstration in Chicago's Haymarket Square in May 1886. The ensuing Haymarket Riot led to the death of one police officer and several demonstrators, the speedy trial of eight anarchists, and the execution of four of the anarchists. Although the allegation that the Pinkertons incited the riot was never proven, the Pinkerton's reputation as clandestine and ruthless strikebreakers no doubt fueled the rumor and lent it credibility.

The Pinkertons have cropped up in many popular books and films over the years, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Dashiell Hammett, a one-time Pinkerton detective, admits he drew inspiration from his detective days in crafting such characters as Sam Spade. My own recently published novel, Parlor Games, is based on the true story of a beautiful young woman and the Pinkerton detective who pursued her, foiling what he and the wealthy men who hired him considered bold attempts at blackmail. The Pinkertons called May Dugas "the most dangerous woman in the world," but she dismissed this moniker as mere puffery on their part. In Parlor Games she tells her side of the story. But as in many matters historical, the truth is elusive, and readers of Parlor Games must come to their own conclusion about May Dugas and her particular Pinkerton pursuer.