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Pinkerton's Great Detective

British historian Beau Riffenburgh tracks the undercover private eye who took on organized crime in the Wild West.

January 2, 2014

Pinkerton's Great Detective: The Amazing Life and Times of James McParland, by Beau Riffenburgh, Viking Adult, 400 pages


Reviewed by Stefan Beck for The Barnes & Noble Review

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 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 US 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.


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