Fans of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) will remember the lovable outlaws’ ever more bewildered refrain about the posse hired to track and kill them: Who are those guys? Beau Riffenburgh, an award-winning, Cambridge-educated historian whose specialties are football and polar exploration, watched the movie four decades ago and has asked the same question ever since. His answer, Pinkerton’s Great Detective: The Amazing Life and Times of James McParland, makes plain why Riffenburgh took a break from writing about the likes of Johnny Unitas and Ernest Shackleton: they just weren’t manly enough. Alongside James McParland, manhunter, Ur–undercover cop, and eventual law enforcement éminence grise, they may as well have been a couple of figure skaters.
The Pinkerton of the title is Allan Pinkerton, founder of Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency. The agency is the most famous or most notorious in U.S. history, depending on whom one asks. Despite its success — it has endured to the present day and is currently owned by the Swedish company Securitas — it has been vilified for providing strikebreakers and industrial security at a time when the labor movement was just finding its feet. Pinkerton hired McParland in 1872, and in due course he was given the near-suicidal assignment that made his reputation: infiltrate and take down the Molly Maguires, a secret brotherhood then wreaking havoc in Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region.
As “Jim McKenna,” murderer and fugitive, McParland gained the trust of the Maguires and was ultimately able to achieve just what Pinkerton had hired him to do. Riffenburgh, whose meticulous research draws upon a major donation of Pinkerton archives to the Library of Congress, has recreated McParland’s undercover work in nerve-racking detail. To lend himself credibility, “McKenna” claimed an affiliation with the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an organization whose chapters were often benign but, in the coal fields, were as often fronts for terrorist activity against mining interests. Since McParland in fact knew little of the AOH, he often had to improvise in ways that would be comic — Donnie Brasco by way of the Coen brothers — were the stakes not so terribly high. Playing dead-drunk was his preferred strategy, but sometimes he had no choice but to fall back on blarney:
One of the men in the tavern gave him a sign: placing his right forefinger to his right ear. McParlan[d] smiled and slowly shook his head, saying only that he “had seen the day.” When asked what that meant, he enigmatically responded that “he knew as much as the doctor.” Surprised that that seemed to do the trick…he “entertained the crowd with anecdotes & songs…interspersed with a few fights.”
Unlike the archetypal undercover cop, McParland couldn’t just pal around with wise guys in track suits. He also took mining jobs — above-ground jobs but hard labor nonetheless — to get closer to the Molly Maguires. Between his various injuries and the psychological stress of this protracted operation, McParland developed alopecia totalis and the nickname “Billiard Ball.” Fortunately, it would all pay off in court.
That is not to say McParland’s investigation won him the unanimous thanks and praise of a grateful nation. As a Pinkerton, McParland was employed by powerful railroad and coal mining interests against a nascent labor movement — albeit with his efforts concentrated on that movement’s most savage wing. There has been much debate about McParland’s and the Pinkertons’ role in unjustly associating the labor movement with the excesses of a violent minority. Riffenburgh is careful to give all of the evidence a fair hearing. Yet, he is clearly sympathetic to the man whose priorities and methods were questioned and excoriated at trial. Lying and betrayal, even in the service of crime fighting, were still unpalatable to many Americans, particularly McParland’s Irish brethren. He was widely accused of being an agent provocateur and of neglecting to prevent numerous murders.
McParland remained unruffled by the criticism. His pithy replies to courtroom needling anticipate the hard-boiled dialogue of Dashiell Hammett, himself once a Pinkerton, and of Charles Portis’s Rooster Cogburn, among many other fictional detectives, bounty hunters, and tough guys. Asked why he didn’t prevent one assassination, he stated that it was to save his own skin, adding, “I would not run the risk of losing my life for all the men in this Court House.” Later, when the defense facetiously inquired, “Did you tell the people to whom you applied to become a member of that organization that you wanted to go into it for the purpose of betraying its secrets?” McParland fired back, “I did not. There would not have been much strategy in that.”
In the wake of the Maguires episode, McParland suffered a number of personal setbacks, including the marked decline of his health and eyesight, but before long he was back in the saddle, and in 1888 he was made director of Pinkerton’s Denver office. This chapter of his career was most remarkable, as it found him working closely with the other larger-than-life character in Riffenburgh’s account, the Texan “cowboy detective” Charles Angelo Siringo. The pint-size Siringo, described by Allan Pinkerton’s son William as “tough as a pine knot,” became a cowboy at age twelve and eventually recorded some of his experiences in a book evocatively titled A Texas Cow Boy, or Fifteen Years on the Hurricane Deck of a Spanish Pony.
Siringo was in Chicago on book business during the Haymarket riot. Horrified by what he judged “this great Anarchist curse,” he recalled having been informed by a blind phrenologist that he had “a mule’s head…a fine head for a newspaper editor, a fine stock raiser, or a detective.” File it under “stranger than fiction”: Using Pat Garrett as a character reference, Siringo applied for a job at Pinkerton’s and was in short order working under McParland. He expected “cattle work,” and though there was plenty of that, he would make his name on the trail of Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and the Wild Bunch. Whatever one makes of the Pinkerton Agency and its methods, this narrative is the most compelling and pleasurable reading in Riffenburgh’s book.
McParland’s last significant effort for Pinkerton was investigating the assassination by dynamite of former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg, who had during his term quashed a miners’ rebellion in Coeur d’Alene. The conduct of this investigation and the resulting trial did much to undermine McParland’s and Pinkerton’s precarious reputation, involving as it did extrajudicial kidnapping, spying, and jury tampering. The socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason voiced one extreme of public opinion about McParland: “Were the world’s supply of emetic poured down the hot throat of hell, the ultimate imp of the last vile vomit would be an archangel in good standing compared to this feculent fiend.”
Thanks to Riffenburgh, it is not hard to divine the truth. McParland was neither a demon nor a saint. This is no copout. The man belonged to an age ravaged by violence and conflict, and his job as he understood it was to capture the guilty. Those eager to believe that he wanted to crush the labor cause as such, rather than to eliminate the perpetrators of the worst violence, must consider his words to Siringo prior to one assignment: “I will let your own conscience be the judge, after you get into their Union. If you decide they are in the right and the Mine-owners are in the wrong, you can throw up the operation without further permission from me.”
He was not always in the right, but he broke with the right less often and less deliberately than the criminals he hunted. That is as much heroism as Riffenburgh, a great detective in his own right, has managed to find in this alien, tumultuous time.