Founded in the 1850s by Allan Pinkerton, the Pinkertons were often hired by corporations such as the railroad companies to investigate crimes against them and the activities of labor movements. Made famous by their protection of Abraham Lincoln from an assassination attempt prior to his taking the oath of office. In the 1870s, they added government work to their portfolio, as the Department of Justice didn't have the infrastructure to do massive investigations on its own. (This work dried up in 1893 with the passage of the "Anti-Pinkerton Act", which prevented the US government from directly hiring Pinkerton agents.)
In addition to their notorious and much-reviled strikebreaking work, the Pinkertons were also active in chasing down outlaws who'd pulled train jobs or major bank robberies. And if you were wealthy enough, you could hire them for regular detective work as well. The Pinks were well known for brutality and ruthlessness in their methods; in fiction, even when they're pursuing more laudable goals, this tends to give an unfavorable color to their portrayal.
It's believed the phrase "private eye" comes from the Pinkerton Agency's symbol, an open eye (which rather hilariously came to look like the CBS eye in later years). Dashiell Hammett was a former Pinkerton agent, and used his experience to inform his stories.
After the 1930s, the Pinkerton Agency largely concerned itself with security services. They were bought and merged with a Swedish security company called Securitas AB, they're now known as Securitas Security Services USA, Inc. Poetically, Securitas is now the subject of unionization attempts.
Examples of Pinkerton detectives in fiction:
- A Comic Book story of Droopy (the dog) had him as a Pinkerton agent relentlessly and ruthlessly protecting a carpetbag of gold from a thief.
- In the Elseworlds comic Justice Riders (The Justice League in the Old West) Guy Gardner appears as a Pinkerton agent.
- Lucky Luke:
- In the book "Jesse James", two bumbling Pinkerton detectives appear. Might be a Shout-Out to two other bumbling detectives from Franco-Belgian Comics. They travel incognito, oblivious to the Sigil Spam that betrays them.
- In a post-Morris album of the series, Lucky Luke finds himself going against Allan Pinkerton himself.
- Pinkertons have appeared frequently (usually as antagonists) in Jonah Hex.
- Caleb Hammer, a Western character in the Marvel Universe.
- They sometime show up in Tex Willer. Being this a western comic book set before the start of the unions, they only show up chasing major criminals or doing investigative work. The agency is also noted to have some ethics, as they'll fire with prejudice any agent caught doing something illegal (as freeing a criminal after being bribed), and if asked about them will quickly denounce whatever they're doing now.
- At the start of the "Death Cell" storyline Tex is framed for murder and it's mentioned they've been contacted to help find information to prove his innocence and catch the culprit before he and his accomplice can start an Indian war and have the Navajos evicted from their reserve. By the end of the storyline Tex and his pards have identified the culprit and found enough evidence to convict him and prove Tex' innocence on their own... And the Pinks reveal they have identified every single other member of the organization and provided enough evidence to arrest them, without even appearing on-page until one of their agents shows up to reveal what they've done in the meantime.
- The 1970 film The Molly Maguires recounts the real-life story of Pinkerton detective James McParlan, alias McKenna, played by Richard Harris, as he infiltrates a gang of railroad saboteurs led by Sean Connery as Black Jack Kehoe.
- The 2005 movie The Legend of Zorro has Pinkerton agents extorting the wife of Zorro to help them investigate a secret society trying to prevent the 1850 admission of California to the Union. Rather anachronistically, since the Pinkertons weren't formed until after that event.
- As the Pinkertons pursued Jesse James in Real Life, they're often mentioned or seen in movies about him.
- They pursue Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to Bolivia (both in real life and in the film.)
- Spicer Lovejoy, Cal Hockley's valet in Titanic (1997) was a former Pinkerton.
- In an early scene of the 1992 movie Hoffa, corporate-hired Pinkerton personnel assault early 20th century union organizers.
- The Hollywood western 3:10 to Yuma (1957) and its 2007 remake feature Pinkerton agents escorting an armed stagecoach filled with bank notes through Arizona. Pinkerton agents are seen throughout the 2007 version, and it's worth noting that in the remake the main Pinkerton is both a badass and deeply unpleasant character.
- A couple of Pinkerton's Detectives pursue the eponymous characters in Bad Girls. They never catch up with them.
- In Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Cyrus Hardman is a Pinkerton agent. (In the original novel, he worked for the fictional McNeil Detective Agency.)
- The Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency (also a real company historically) engaged in similar strikebreaking actions in the semi-historical film Matewan.
- The Valley of Fear, a Sherlock Holmes story, features a Pinkerton Detective infiltrating a gang of terrorist "Scowrers" (a fictional offshoot of the Freemasons, and who were based on the Real Life Molly Maguires.)
- A Pinkerton named Leverton (described by Holmes as the "hero" of the "Long Island cave mystery") teams up with Holmes in The Adventure of the Red Circle.
- The Outlaw Josey Wales includes a brief chapter wherein a Texas Ranger and a Pinkerton Detective team up to search for Josey Wales.
- Pinkerton toughs occasionally appear as secondary characters throughout Harry Turtledove's series of Great War and American Empire Alternate History novels. As the USA in those novels is much more "Europeanized" than ours, with a strong Socialist movement, they ultimately end up being defeated by the organised strikers and unions.
- Felix Leiter in the James Bond novels became a Pinkerton detective after being medically discharged from the CIA, for the rather good reason of losing a hand and a leg in Live and Let Die.
- PK Pinkerton in The Western Mysteries believes that he is a relative of the founder of the Pinkerton Detectives. His aspiration is to become a Pinkerton Detective.
- Cyrus Hartman in Murder on the Orient Express is an employee of the McNeil Detective Agency, a fictional counterpart of the Pinkertons.
- Sebastian Becker, the protagonist of a detective series by Stephen Gallagher, is an ex-Pinkerton.
- In The Coronation and the novella Dream Valley, it is mentioned that Erast Fandorin worked for the Pinkertons during his stay in the US (though mostly as a freelancer rather than a full agent).
- The protagonist of Anthony Horowitz's Sherlock Holmes story, Moriarty, is Detective Chase; a Pinkerton agent seeking to track down an American Crime-boss before he can replace Moriarty after his fall from the falls.
- Clive Cussler's character Isaac Bell is an investigator for the Van Dorn Detective Agency, a fictional organization modeled after the Pinkertons.
- In Jordan L. Hawk's gay supernatural detective series Whyborne & Griffin, Griffin is an ex-Pinkerton, and his first encounter with the polymath Percival Whyborne relates directly to a terrifying ordeal he'd experienced while he was working with them. Later adventures often return to individuals or events from Griffin's Pinkerton past.
- In the HBO series Deadwood, the Pinkerton Agency and its agents are occasionally referred to by several of the show's characters, often ominously or with contempt. Even Al Swearengren thinks they're below his admittedly low moral standards! Miss Isringhausen, Sofia's tutor from the show's second season, is eventually revealed to be an agent of the group.
- Pinkertons appear a few times in the TV show The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr..
- One of the main characters of the short lived series Peacemakers (basically CSI IN THE OLD WEST!) was a former Pinkerton agent. One episode also featured a legendary Pinkerton agent gone rogue as the perp.
- In Book Two of North and South, Orry Main enlists an ace Pinkerton detective to find his stray wife. Eventually, the gumshoe chafes at what is becoming a full-time assignment.
- "The Ten Li'l Grifters Job," an episode of Leverage, featured the team infiltrating a murder mystery costume party and had Eliot costumed as Charlie Siringo, a real-life Pinkerton agent. Given his history as a retrieval specialist, bodyguard, occasional government operative, and mercenary who now helps take down the Corrupt Corporate Executive of the week (at least one of whom he worked for in the past), the comparison is appropriate.
- Pinkerton agents figure in an episode of Copper. They are not portrayed in a positive light.
- On the Ellery Queen episode "The Adventure of the Mad Tea Party", the victim's butler is an undercover Pinkerton, which doesn't stop him from being a suspect.
- In Boardwalk Empire Season 4, the Pinkerton Detectives are revealed to have been hired to investigate the suspicious death of Jimmy Darmody, to which end one of their agents seduces Gillian and manipulates her into confessing to the murder of the random young man whose corpse she passed off as Jimmy's to get him declared legally dead.
- The Pinkertons naturally centers around these, featuring their founder Allan Pinkerton in the pilot, while one of the main characters is his son William. Incidentally the actor playing Pinkerton, Angus MacFadyen, has the same background as his character, both having been born in Glasgow, Scotland.
- In Deadlands, the Pinkertons are the original Men in Black organisation, eventually becoming the Agency.
- Not actual Pinkertons in Rocket Age, but the Wolfgang & Long Detective Agency shares similarities with them, running investigations across the solar system for nations who can't readily reach criminals.
- In the computer game Post Mortem, the player-character Gus McPherson is mentioned as being a former member of Pinkerton, and depending on the player's actions, sends telegraphs to the agency for research.
- Pinkerton Agents appear as skilled shooters armed with six-shot carbines in the 1866 Western-themed mod for Mount & Blade.
- Booker DeWitt, the protagonist of Bioshock Infinite, is a former Pinkerton Agent who was apparently expelled from the organization due to "behavior beyond the acceptable bounds of the Agency".