Private eyes

This post was written by Channing Bragg (MC ’21) and Cole Cleek (MC ’23) and was edited by N. Locklin.

The first thing that people tend to think of when tragedy strikes is to seek out the police, but what do you do when the police cannot help you? There is only one place to turn to and that is private investigators. Private Investigators are the ones who put their ear to the ground and try to solve the crimes for their respective clients. They accomplish this in any number of ways by searching for clues, conducting interviews, and surveillance just to name a few. The benefits of using a private investigator over the police is that they were able to employ more shady tactics to solve the case than your average detective. Private agencies also often had more resources available than did typical local law enforcement agencies.

The story of private detective agencies really develops leading into the time around the Civil War and especially after. The first of the most prominent agencies was opened by Allan Pinkerton in Chicago in the middle of the nineteenth century. The agency began early on by supplying help to companies and assisting politicians like Abraham Lincoln, but also taking action in other ways such as helping runaway slaves leave the country. After the war, there was more of a chance for work to pick up.

P.I.’s were originally little more than mercenaries and a private police force, given the price is right. In extreme cases P.I. were even private militaries that were primarily employed by private companies. The Pinkertons were a lot like the other agencies at the time, they acted as private security forces and in other situations they were a private militia. During the labor strikes of the late 1800’s the Pinkertons would be bought out by private companies to work as security or to quell the strikes if possible. They accomplished these jobs through strike breaking measures, though during 1892 several Pinkerton agents killed several strikers in an attempt to use these anti-strike tactics. The Pinkertons were also famous for hunting outlaws such as Jesse James and the Sundance Kid. They also had the capability to ignore borders when a suspect had fled into a country where there was no extradition treaty. The private detectives would just kidnap the fugitive bring and him back to the States. It has been said that at one point the Pinkerton agency had more members than the entirety of the United States Army.

Pinkerton logo

Another advantage private investigators had was their large network. In an era in which law enforcement in one town might not even be aware of crimes in the next town, PIs could keep in touch with their contacts across the country. Their prevalence began dwindling, though, as bigger cities began to develop their own detective networks. This development left the more rural parts of the country behind, but even that would come to change as more and more state agencies were established into the middle of the twentieth century.

During the 1920’s P.I. were often hired to investigate small cases such as infidelity, theft, or missing persons. Detectives in the 1920’s were pretty unreliable or even corrupt. Some P.I.s took bribes or rigged cases to get a certain outcome, for profit or for personal satisfaction. In The Man from the Train, Bill James offered a shining example of the wild and unorthodox methods that detectives in the early 1900’s were able to employ. James wrote about when a detective used a ventriloquist to get a man to divulge information to his “talking” donkey. In any context that previous statement is completely absurd, but this is real. The detective had utilized a ventriloquist to try and gain information from a man by having the ventriloquist throw his voice towards the man’s donkey. It worked and the detective was able to trick the man into giving information about the case.

Through the early 1930’s, during Prohibition, P.I.s got a lot of funding from the federal government and private groups to investigate bars and distilleries. Despite the national ban on the consumption of alcohol there were hundreds of secret bars and taverns scattered across the country. Many temperance groups would hire detectives to find and shut down these speakeasies. Although as was a staple for P.I.s at the time, many of them were bribed off or were directly profiting off of a bar. One of the biggest reason’s prohibition groups hired P.I. was due the simple fact that the federal government was unable to enforce the ban on its own. So many private groups tried to take it into their own hands. However, their efforts weren’t much more successful than government enforcement efforts. There was also a lack of incentive for detectives to hunt these criminals down as many of the bars were owned by gangs and mobs, such as the Chicago Outfit and the Irish mafia.

Private investigators did not have to have any particular training before they could take on clients. Their methods included simple surveillance—a task that requires patience. They also gather evidence through formal interviews with witnesses or the victims of crimes. But they also learn a lot by keeping under the radar and just listening to gossip. In such cases, it helped if they were not local so no one would suspect that they were being watched. The detective had to be careful to only gather evidence that could be used and shown in court. If he gathered evidence that couldn’t actually be used, then he was not only wasting his time but possibly his client’s as well. In some cases, detectives had an already predetermined outcome in their head and tended to stack the evidence in favor of their choice. Although as time went on detectives became more reliable and more people sought their services.

Well into the 1950’s there was a boom in popularity for detectives and private investigators. This was due to not only the rise in crime and the change in culture, but it was also heavily influenced by the rise of detective stories. During this time, a lot of movies, books, and comics featured detectives and private eyes. People still sought out detectives for their personal needs, like their husband is sleeping with the neighbor, or asking to investigate their brother for theft. However, during this spike in popularity many P.I. had to change the way they ran their businesses. With more and more people seeking them out, the increased pressure and high expectations would cause trouble for any agency that was involved in crime or corruption.

Eventually, the federal government and many states increased funding for formal law enforcement and investigative agencies. The FBI had been created in 1908 and for decades it was used to address whatever threat loomed largest at a given time—organized crime, Prohibition, communism, etc. The Bureau itself was not immune to corruption, but the high profile and required training gave incentives to improve.  Governments were also able to fund labs for forensic analysis and the first FBI lab opened in 1932. As communication and access to resources improved, fewer law enforcement officers turned to private investigators for assistance. Today, private investigators tend to have specific academic or professional credentials and might work with attorneys but are much less likely to be involved in criminal cases. PIs work for insurance companies or investors, but they can still be hired to investigate family issues.

Published by Nancy Locklin

I am a professor of history at Maryville College in east Tennessee.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: