Mostly forgotten detective faced notorious criminals
This is a quiz: Can you name the man who was called America’s most famous detective a century ago?
Well, let me give you a hint. Even though he was a real live detective, Arthur Conan Doyle featured him in a book “Valley of Fear” with literature’s most famous fictional detective “Sherlock Holmes.” He has been called “America’s James Bond.” Maybe he was Superman, since according to a couple of sources he suffered 38 gun shot or knife wounds during his career.
The answer is James McParland, a detective for the Pinkerton Agency for decades, and his adventures are as exciting as any fictional sleuth. I wasn’t familiar with him until I read a book “Pinkerton’s Greatest Detective,” written by Beau Riffenburgh. After completing the book, I did some online research and found a number of listings about McParland and his career. Yet a century after his death much of his life is a mystery. He has been hailed as a savior of American business and a great hero who worked to stamp out crime. To others he is a scoundrel who used every dirty trick in the book to destroy organized labor. Probably the truth is somewhere in between.
Pictures of him as a young man reveal a meek appearing individual who wore glasses. In fact, he had problems with vision throughout his life, and as an older man, he was very heavy. Yet during his long career he matched wits with some of the most notorious characters of his day. He chased terrorists, embezzlers and train robbers, including the famous “Hole In The Wall” Gang. He developed arch enemies in famous defense lawyer Clarence Darrow, the growing Socialist Movement and, yes, organized labor. Yet, he was a hero to many who believed he stood for law and order.
He was born in 1843 in Ireland, and came to the United States in 1867. He landed in Chicago, where he was a policeman and owned a liquor store that was destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. That was the turning point in his life, as he was employed by the Pinkerton Agency, which was looking for a tough Irishman to work undercover in the coal mines in Pennsylvania and report on subversive plans. His courageous secret efforts led to the destruction of the Molly McGuires, who were regarded as terrorists by coal mine operators and a large segment of the population. The coal mining regions of Pennsylvania were lawless, violent and cruel. His work had a lot to do with bringing law and order.
He even spent time in Kansas at Parsons dealing with labor unrest and a serial killer. He and his wife Mary had a home base in Chicago, but he was gone most of the time. Pinkerton detectives worked seven days a week with virtually no time off. They did most of their work undercover, and it was very dangerous.
Much of his later career was spent in the Colorado and Idaho areas stalking a variety of criminals. Yet his biggest case came in the early 1900s when former Idaho governor Frank Stanenburg was murdered. A bomb was placed on his front gate and exploded when he opened the gate. Although there were suspects charged, no one was ever convicted.
McParland was a study in contrasts. He was a relentless detective who probably bent the rules, yet he was a man of deep religious convictions and was an active Catholic who gave liberally of his time and money to the church.
He died on May 18, 1919, leaving behind a legacy of adventure and mystery. He is just one of many fascinating persons who are largely forgotten but make American history fun to study.