Saturday, November 16, 2013

Pinkerton's Great Detective: Guest Post by Beau Riffenburgh

Today I welcome Beau Riffenburgh, author of the just released Pinkerton's Great Detective.

Beau Riffenburgh has a Ph.D. in history from the University of Cambridge, where he was a member of the academic staff for fifteen years. He has written numerous books on exploration, including Shackleton’s Forgotten Expedition. He lives in Llanarthne, Wales, UK. In Pinkerton's Great Detective, Riffenburgh explores the Agency archives and other sources to compile the first biography of James McParland, the legendary Pinkerton detective who took down the Molly Maguires and the Wild Bunch. Pinkerton's Great Detective brings readers along on McParland’s most challenging cases: from young McParland’s infiltration of the Molly Maguires to his hunt for the notorious Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch to his controversial investigation of the Western Federation of Mines in the assassination of Idaho’s former governor—a case that he took on at the request of President Theodore Roosevelt. So thrilling were McParland’s cases that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle invented a meeting between him and Sherlock Holmes; he was referred to by those seeking his services, by newspapers around the country reporting his cases, and even by criminals as “The Great Detective”. Filled with outlaws and criminals, detectives and lawmen, Pinkerton's Great Detective shines a light upon the celebrated secretive agency and its premier sleuth.


Many serious readers of historical mysteries will be familiar with The Valley of Fear, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s final novel about Sherlock Holmes. In it, Holmes meets the mysterious American detective and undercover operator Birdy Edwards. Today’s readers might not realize it, but in 1915, when The Valley of Fear was published, virtually everyone in the United States understood that the book was a paean to the man considered America’s greatest living detective – the true-life Birdy EdwardsJames McParland of Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency.

Born in Ireland, McParland moved to the U.S. in 1867 while in his early twenties. He eventually made his way to Chicago, where, in 1872, he joined Pinkerton’s. The next year he was assigned to go undercover in the anthracite coalfields of Pennsylvania, where a group called the Molly Maguires was accused of murder, sabotage, and other violence against the mining companies and their managers. After more than two years, McParland helped bring down the Molly Maguires by testifying in no fewer than 19 trials, his evidence and the subsequent hanging of 20 men helping make him a nationally known figure.

In the following years, McParland worked many more high-profile cases for Pinkerton’s, and in 1888 he was appointed head of the agency’s Denver office. He later became the manager of all Pinkerton’s operations west of the Mississippi, and his triumphs in many highly visible cases kept his name in front of the American public for decades. The constant praise he received from the press included being nicknamed “the Great Detective.” So common was this appellation that one could use it anywhere around the country, and the average listener would know that it referred to McParland.

However, due to being a key player in the western mine-owners’ struggles to suppress the growing unions – and particularly due to his noted role in developing the evidence that led to the arrest and trials of the leaders of the Western Federation of Miners for the assassination of former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg – McParland eventually became a hated figure by the supporters of unions, the labor movement, and socialism. These historically differing views of McParland – being lionized by one part of society and demonized by another – have led to a situation where an online-search for him today is likely to bring up accounts that are both mistake-prone and extremely biased either in favor of or against him.

I first “ran into” James McParland after the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid inspired me to read about those characters, and I discovered that McParland was the man ultimately in charge of the Pinkerton’s hunt for them. Not long after that, the movie The Molly Maguires prompted me to find out the basics of his role in the investigation of that group, and later still I read about his key role in the investigation of Steunenberg’s assassination.

Later, as a professional historian, the changing historic treatment of McParland fascinated me, and I wondered where on the continuum of good and evil he truly fell, because there seemed to be no intermediate ground in people’s opinions about him. So I decided to try to find out who this mysterious and complex individual truly was. I started my own investigation into him, with no preconceptions, no agenda other than to tell his story based on the evidence, and a goal of putting forward an unbiased account of his life. It was vital to place this tale in its proper historic context and milieu – because much of what had previously been written about him failed to take into account or acknowledge the differences in the legal and social systems of his time and today. I think it is of great value to anyone interested in the historic or social setting or the changes of interpretation about McParland through time to take particular notice of the Notes, Appendices, and other materials that can be found online at: or These will give the reader a deeper understanding and appreciation of McParland and the cases that he worked on.

Most of the research for Pinkerton’s Great Detective was done in archives, libraries, courthouses, and other repositories around the United States. In fact, I collected original manuscripts and other primary research materials from twenty-two different states and four other countries. These included original reports, business and personal correspondence, trial transcripts, medical records, legal rulings, governmental documents, billing statements, confessions, and wanted posters. I also made examinations of accounts in approximately 150 different newspapers. The most important research source was the Library of Congress, which holds some sixty-three thousand items that were formerly part of the Pinkerton’s archives. This meant that there was lots of material to go through, but it gave me a wealth of information to work with to try to uncover the truth about the mysterious James McParland. And although I think that I was as successful as one might be, and that I understand McParland now in many ways, in others he has continued to be – just as he would have wanted – a riddle, a conundrum, and forever a man of mystery.

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