Pinkerton’s Great Detective: The Amazing Life and Times of James McParland
(Seal Press, 2013)
Beau Riffenburgh loves to dig into dusty archives and uncover the lost stories of fascinating historical characters. He has authored popular books on Ernest Shackleton and Douglas Mawson, two of the earliest explorers of Antarctica, and about others who ventured to the far ends of the earth. He shifts course a bit in his latest book, Pinkerton’s Great Detective, about James McParland, one of the nation’s earliest private agents. Riffenburgh’s biography is the story of what was once known as a self-made man, and he tells it quite admirably. Perhaps unintentionally, he also reveals that McParland’s story is an unorthodox, engrossing American immigration tale.
McParland, who early on was called “McParlan,” emigrated from Ireland, landing in New York in 1867 at age 24. Relocating to Chicago, he worked briefly as a laborer, a municipal policeman, and opened a liquor store that was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. He then joined the Pinkerton Private Detective Agency and spent the next four decades of his life forging a successful career with the agency. He was a fervent, church-going Irish Catholic who carved out a life that was at times in opposition to the lives of many within his ethnic community.
One of Riffenburgh’s strengths as a historian is acknowledging that the America of the late-19th century is not today’s America. A century ago, the nation was being remade by industrialization, immigration, and urbanization. Especially in rural, mining areas, the U.S. was a rough-and-tumble place, a world in which today’s notions of civil society and law-and-order were—at best—in formation. Private police forces, like Pinkerton, and religious-civic prevention groups, like Anthony Comstock’s New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV), had the power to arrest citizens, assist in prosecutions and engage in vigilante raids. In addition, they often collaborated (conspired?) with leading industrialists and politicians to impose strict labor discipline, crush worker protests, and undermine unions.
As Riffenburgh reminds us, “violence was an accepted part of day-to-day existence to many men who worked in the mines: they were hard drinking, short tempered, unwilling to back down, and unafraid to die.” Nothing less could be said of those who controlled the mines, mills, oil rigs, railroads, factories, and banks of America.
Franklin Gowen, a Protestant German–American, ran the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and had considerable investments in the coalmines of Schuylkill County, PA. He retained the Pinkerton agency to break the Molly Maguires, a violent Irish Catholic resistance group of coalminers, shopkeepers, and others, who challenged Gowen’s authority. Gowen’s goal was not simply to defeat the Mollys, but to break the miners’ early trade association and destroy the more traditionalist fraternal organization, the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
For two years, McParland served as Gowen’s undercover detective amidst the bitter Pennsylvania coalfield battles. It was McParland’s first and most decisive Pinkerton campaign and he garnered media attention as the lead witness in a sensational trial against the Molly Maguires, nine of whom were convicted. This episode stretches over the book’s first third and, at times, reads like a potboiler.
Riffenburgh details many of the questionable—if not illegal—practices McParland and other detectives employed: undercover infiltration, covert surveillance, bribery of witnesses, deception of authorities, planting false evidence, giving false confessions, serving as agent provocateurs, destabilizing unions, and using vigilantes to beat back any threat to their client’s interests. Nothing was unacceptable.
McParland’s success against the Molly Maguires moved him up the Pinkerton ladder, and he eventually landed a position running the agency’s Western division in Denver. In 1894, he played a major role in the break up of the Cripple Creek, CO, miners’ strike, and he supervised the 1896 campaign against the Wild Bunch, a gang of bank and train robbers led by Butch Cassidy. His last great effort, investigating the assassination of a former Idaho governor from 1906 - 1907, pitted him against “Big Bill” Haywood, Clarence Darrow, and the mineworkers union. It ended in McParland’s utter failure as all those accused—and against whom he testified—were acquitted.
Riffenburgh carefully recounts these momentous confrontations, often in excruciating detail. His research seems exhaustive, drawing from autobiographies of others with first-hand knowledge, scholarly studies, and newspapers of the day. Most illuminating, he draws upon a trove of McParland’s reports to the Pinkerton agency. McParland often composed these handwritten notes at night and smuggled them to a nearby town to mail.
Behind the formal biography is the story of a foreigner’s Americanization, of how cultural values are inculcated and self-identity cast; it’s a process that continues to this day.
Perhaps because he came to the New World as a young adult with experience under his belt, McParland did not end up in a mine, garment factory, or a police uniform. Rather, he infiltrated the public organizations and private lives of more hardscrabble Irish immigrants. Using their shared backgrounds to his advantage, he had no trouble disrupting their secretive—and often illegal—activities. His efforts saved lives, but also helped preserve the dominant property interests of his employer and furthered his own career. McParland’s experience demonstrates the moral challenges of immigration, of giving up the old for the new. For McParland and countless others, personal loyalty was not determined by ethnicity but by opportunity.
Riffenburgh struggles with a key question: Why did McParland live the life he did? This is the challenge faced by all biographers, one requiring a historian’s rigor, a psychologist’s insight and a novelist’s imagination. Sadly, Riffenburgh just misses the mark. He exhaustively documents McParland’s complex life, but fails to resolve why McParland aligned himself with his employers and their clients rather than his fellow Irish Americans, who struggled against these powerful forces.
Riffenburgh holds back from making a moral judgment about McParland’s decisions, a weakness that haunts the book. He wants to find in McParland a historical hero, but he is too honest a scholar to deny his subject’s dark side. He grants that McParland was “America’s greatest detective,” but also notes that the agent was a “master of evasion, obfuscation, and, at times, outright deceit.” He also points out McParland’s slippery ethics: “He was willing to lie, even when under oath, to secure a conviction,” notes Riffenburgh, “and his letters and reports show an unattractive certainty of his own rectitude that at times verged on the fanatical.” Yet Riffenburgh repeatedly comes to McParland’s defense, painting him as a man of remarkable valor and driven by a corporatist morality crafted “in true Pinkertonian form, the ends justify the means.”
Rather than making a decisive statement, Riffenburgh settles for ambiguity. “As always with James McParland, there are more questions than answers,” Riffenburgh writes. “It is just this elusiveness that is the essence of the Great Detective, who was, is, and will forever remain, an enigma.” One could only have hoped that Riffenburgh, given the considerable research he undertook, would not have hidden behind the claim of moral neutrality. It would have added a real dynamic to his otherwise fascinating narrative.
DAVID ROSEN is a frequent contributor to the Brooklyn Rail. To see more of his work visit DavidRosenWrites.com.