Long before TV shows CSI or Law & Order, or real agencies like the FBI, NSA, or CIA, there was the Pinkerton National Detective Agency (PNDA). Founded in 1850 by Allan Pinkerton, their motto was “We never sleep.”
Pinkerton lived outside Chicago in Dundee, a small town that needed a “cooper” or barrel-maker. He was such a darned good-barrel maker that soon, he cornered the market. So, he decided to skip the middleman and go directly to a small island near town to get materials . While out there, he discovered a camp of counterfeiters, and being a good citizen, he coaxed the local sheriff to order a stakeout.
Long story short: With Pinkerton’s detective work, authorities were successful in shutting down the counterfeiters; people began enlisting Pinkerton’s help for other detective-type issues; and the rest, as they say, is history.
By the 1870s, “the Pinkertons” began collecting newspaper stories for reference in their investigations. Plus, their collection of mug shots and methodology became the first criminal database. Here in the Buffalo Bill Center of the West’s photo archives are a collection of PNDA cards. They are a baseball card-type affair, but feature outlaws instead of ball players. Agents carried the mini-dossiers to familiarize themselves with the country’s most serious law-breakers like Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch.
George Parker’s (alias Butch Cassidy) No. 469 R card listed his occupation as “cowboy” and his criminal “occupation” as bank robber, highwayman, and cattle and horse thief. The card had a list of identifying scars, but I found the “mole on calf” noteworthy.
Other cards in the Center’s collection include William Cruzan with 11 scars, a double chin, and a smashed second finger on his left hand. Frank “Peg Leg” Elliott’s card, No. 1249, makes no mention of why he’s called “Peg Leg”—but this is the same company who notes a mole on Butch Cassidy’s calf!
O.C. “Deaf Charley” Hanks “leans head slightly to left,” and is, as his nickname implies, “slightly deaf.” William H. McGinnis has a mouth full of gold teeth. John Arnold writes good and has a “Texas or Mo [Missouri] accent”; and Thomas O’Day has a “rather large nose.“
Investigate more PNDA cards in the Center’s collection; what do you notice about these ne’er-do-wells? With whom would you have avoided all contact? Comment below; we look forward to your input!