The Strange Connection Between Detective Fiction and Union Busting

The Pinkerton agency exerted a strong pull on crime novelists from Victorian England to Soviet Russia—but who were the Pinkertons really?

Old Pinkerton logo, featuring an eye with the caption "We Never Sleep" surrounded by the words "Pinkerton's National Detective Agency"

In the summer of 1892, members of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steelworkers (AA) union and the Carnegie-run steelworks in Homestead, Pennsylvania were squaring off in a labor dispute when matters came to a head: factory management attempted to bring in armed militiamen along the river abutting the plant, resulting in a battle between the hired gunmen and the strikers that killed ten and left a number of others injured. Today, the Homestead strike––sometimes referred to as the Homestead massacre––is widely remembered as one of the bloodiest moments in American labor history and represented a major blow to the AA’s unionization efforts throughout the United States.

Though typically referred to as detectives, employees of the Pinkerton Agency would perhaps more accurately be described as paramilitaries.

The armed forces who faced the strikers on the river at Homestead were members of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, a private security force frequently hired by the robber barons of the era to investigate unioneers, infiltrate labor meetings, and instigate violence against strikers. Though typically referred to as detectives, employees of the Pinkerton Agency––whose logo of an ever-open eye and motto of “We Never Sleep” create a strong impression of menacing hypervigilance––would perhaps more accurately be described as paramilitaries. Amongst labor activists of the Gilded Age, Pinkertons were widely despised; in an essay on the Homestead strike, socialist organizer Eugene V. Debs referred to them as “a motley gang of vagabonds mustered from the slums of the great cities; pimps and parasites, outcasts, abandoned wretches of every grade; a class of characterless cutthroats who murder for hire; creatures in the form of humans but as heartless as stones.” Given its prominence as a cultural force, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the Agency exerted a strong pull on the imagination of many early icons of the detective fiction genre, some of whom admired the organization and some of whom vilified it.

One early pioneer of crime fiction to write about the Pinkertons was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who met William Pinkerton (son of the Pinkerton Agency’s founder) while the two were on a trans-Atlantic journey together. During the voyage, Pinkerton regaled his new companion with stories of Pinkerton agent James McParland’s recent exploits infiltrating a group of Irish Catholic miners in Pennsylvania known as the Molly Maguires. Conan Doyle was so impressed that he wrote McParland into the final Sherlock Holmes novel, The Valley of Fear. In that book, a Chicagoan Pinkerton agent by the name of Birdy Edwards recounts his attempts to bring a villainous group known as the Scowrers to justice. Conan Doyle also included a Pinkerton agent in “The Adventure of the Red Circle,” referring to the fictional detective as “the hero of the Long Island cave mystery.” Conan Doyle’s stories depicted the agents as professional and effective. In his admiration of the Pinkerton Agency’s sleuthing skills, Conan Doyle seems not to question––or even register––the organization’s politics. Yet for other early writers of detective fiction, that reality was evident––and became a shaping force in their writing as well. 

One such author was Dashiell Hammett, whose classic The Maltese Falcon came out in 1930, fifteen years after Hammett (a school drop-out by the age of 13) joined up with the Pinkerton Agency. Not long after, the young Hammett was dispatched to Butte, Montana, at a time when the mining town was roiling. Earlier that year, 168 workers had suffocated when an underground fire had consumed the oxygen in the shaft, the deadliest hard-rock mining disaster in American history. Now, miners striking for better safety regulations, higher wages, and an end to abusive labor practices were meeting with violent suppression from their bosses.

Dashiell Hammett would later claim that as a Pinkerton, he had turned down an offer of payment to kill a union organizer.

Hammett, along with other Pinkerton agents, was sent to Butte in order to halt the ongoing industrial action. Attempts to quash the strike were violent: Hammett would later claim that he had turned down an offer of payment to kill Frank Little, an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World who was lynched for his role in the strike and in anti-war activities. Whether that particular story is true or not, there is no doubt that Hammett returned from the strikes jaded and deeply marked by the anti-worker violence he saw. Later in his life, he would join the Communist Party and be elected president of the Civil Rights Congress. When called to testify in 1951 about a bail fund established by the CRC to aid those accused of political subversion, Hammett refused to reveal the names of its donors and was imprisoned for contempt. Two years later, his unwillingness to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee led to him being blacklisted. 

The seeds of Hammett’s later politics can be found in his 1929 debut novel, Red Harvest. The novel’s protagonist, a nameless figure known only as the Continental Op, is dispatched to Personville (a Butte stand-in nicknamed Poisonville by its residents) after an industrial magnate’s earlier attempts to enlist militiamen to quell a strike has descended into a lawless turf war between competing bands of hired guns. The Continental Op, cold-blooded and calculating, observes the killings around him with little reaction. Quite the opposite: his part in orchestrating the deaths of the people he’s been hired to eliminate causes him to go “blood-simple,” relishing the spectacle of violence instead of abhorring it. Far from Conan Doyle’s praiseful accounts, Hammett’s own fictionalization of the Pinkertons––one rooted not merely in hearsay tales but in his own first-hand experience with the agency––zeroes in on callousness and cruelty.

While Russia’s love for Pinkerton novels didn’t diminish with the Russian Revolution, their politics became something of a problem for a socialist state.

The literary influence of the Pinkertons extended beyond the United States as well. In Russia, where there was a craze for illustrated detective paperbacks, such books were collectively known as “Pinkerton novels,” or Pinkertonovshchina. One of the most popular protagonists of these books was a savvy investigator by the name of Nat Pinkerton, a clear homage to the American union-busters. While Russia’s love for Pinkerton novels didn’t diminish with the coming of the Russian Revolution in 1917, their politics became something of a problem: for a socialist state, the idea of idolizing an individualistic American hero with origins in violent anti-unionism was absolutely anathema. Yet there was no denying the books’ enduring popularity. In the 1920s, prominent Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin (by all accounts a fan of thrillers himself) called for the creation of the so-called “red Pinkerton,” a detective story that would capitalize on the preexisting success of the genre to teach socialist values. In a 1922 speech delivered to the Russian Communist Union of Youth, he justifies his push for red Pinkertons by noting, “Marx, as is generally known, read crime novels with great enthusiasm.” Red Pinkertons like Marietta Shaginian’s Laurie Lane, Metalworker and Mess-mend, or Yankees in Petrograd (both penned under the pseudonym Jimmy Dollar) aimed to teach socialist ideas and capture the imagination of young readers, inspiring them to throw themselves into the revolutionary struggle. But the genre faced severe criticism from Party members who thought that the detective novel was inescapably enmeshed with bourgeois values, and debates about the genre quickly became a proxy battle for deeper internal rifts among the Bolsheviks. By the end of the 1920s, Bukharin had been forced to abandon his calls for the creation of a Soviet Pinkerton novel.

Though the red Pinkerton phenomenon was short-lived, its existence testifies to a growing global awareness of the ways in which mass media––including detective stories––could be harnessed for propagandistic purposes––an awareness that was latent amongst the authors who wrote about the Pinkertons from the beginning. Perhaps the strongest testament to the Pinkerton Agency’s skills in secrecy is the way it dropped off the cultural radar in the decades after it captured the attention of Conan Doyle, Hammett, and Soviet officials: though it no longer makes its way into major detective novels, the Agency still exists, repackaged as a corporate risk management firm after the growth of municipal police forces and the creation of the FBI took over much of its old territory. The history section of Pinkerton’s website, which claims that the company’s agents have long served “as guardians and protectors of organizations around the world,” makes no mention of its union-busting days. Its logo remains the all-seeing eye.

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