Private Guards, Public Goods, and Political Violence: or lessons from the end of the Gilded Age

How much authority, in terms of the criminal justice system, can the state hand over to a private agency? This was an underlying, if not explicitly stated, question asked last month by the Justice Department when it announced that the Bureau of Prisons would no longer contract with private prisons. At the same time the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would be launching an investigation into the private firms that house hundreds of thousands of undocumented people detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. If the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security were looking for historical precedents and lessons, then they would do well to remember the congressional investigations and hearings which led to the 1893 Anti-Pinkerton act. The act, which declared that no employee of Pinkerton’s National Detective agency or similar agency could be employed by the federal government, was a direct response to the public outrage that followed the bloody battle between striking steel workers and armed Pinkerton guards in Homestead, Pennsylvania in 1892. On its face the act addressed a simple set of questions. How much authority could the state turn over to private firms and how much latitude could companies such as Carnegie Steel have to hire their own armed guards? In 1893, Congress said that federal officials could not outsource their obligations and capital could not hire its own armies.

Yet at the same time, the congressional hearings about Pinkerton guards and their actions was a larger effort to come to terms with the legacy and history of Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, which in turn became an effort to understand the legacies and histories of industrialization, immigration, riot, protest, anarchism, and the concentration of economic and political power by leading capitalists. It was an effort to understand the tensions of the Gilded Age because the Pinkertons, for better or worse, represented this age. Formed in the 1850s as a private detective firm for banks and railroads, Allan Pinkerton’s agency had from its very origin blurred the line between official and private. Pinkerton’s espionage during the Civil War, his company’s pursuits of train robbers after the war, and his agents’ roles as both infiltrators and enforcers in the coal fields only complicated this ambiguity.  For every story of Pinkerton detectives bringing a criminal or anarchist to justice, another story told of Pinkerton men as the railroads’ muscle. After Allan’s death in 1884, his sons pushed the agency into the more lucrative and contentious field of private (but often deputized) security guards during labor strikes; Pinkerton guards soon earned a reputation as a private army for capitalists, which gave rise to the political outrage at what the Populists would call the “Pinkerton system” and others would call ‘pinkertonism.”

While the Anti-Pinkerton act tried to address the complicated contradictions of private armed guards playing public roles, the larger questions within ‘pinkertonism’ remained unsettled. Indeed the Pinkerton agency remained at the center of labor and capital struggles well into the 1930s. As Pinkertons faded from political significance, the Federal Bureau of Investigations rose in prominence. Yet by the 1960s we again became aware that abuse of power could occur within state agencies as well. As the power of the FBI was curtailed at the end of the 20th century, private firms such as Wackenhut and Blackwater rose to fill the perceived need for security.

And therein lies the paradox of our current political debates. Recent decisions about private prisons and private guards suggest that we have remembered the lessons of pinkertonism- the state cannot delegate its central authorities and obligations to private firms for hire. Yet at the same time, concerns about the National Security Agency reminds us of the potential abuses when the state exercises its own power.  The complicated history of the Pinkertons should provide us lessons, but it is often too complicated for those lessons to be clear.


S. Paul O’Hara is an associate professor of history at Xavier University. He is the author of Inventing the Pinkertons; or, Spies, Sleuths, Mercenaries, and Thugs: Being a story of the nation’s most famous (and infamous) detective agency.