One was a New Orleans gunslinger who was destined to become the nemesis of the Ku Klux Klan. Another was a detective whose agency became embroiled in bloddy and unpopular attacks on striking workers. But both had strong Scottish ties and the exploits of Hiram Whitley and Allan Pinkerton (pictured) later inspired the foundating of America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation.
In the aftermath of the American Civil War a variety of detective organisations took shape which predated the FBI in the US and that many were led by immigrants or American-Scots, says Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, a professor of history at Edinburgh University, in a new history of the FBI.
Scottish interest in crime had long been recognised in its literature, he says, pointing to generations of adventure and detective story writers who followed in the wake of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and John Buchan. However, his research shows an interest at a more hands-on level.
He says: "Scots tend to be well educated, literary and speak English, compared with, say, many of the Irish immigrants to the US at that time, who would have spoken Gaelic. And it could be that later on the Sherlock Holmes stories inspired them.”
Whitley, a larger than life character at 6ft 10in, is ironically the most often overlooked among American crime fighters. The son of Glaswegian émigré, he had been a gunslinger, a slave catcher and a bounty hunter who fought on both sides during the civil war, before he turned his career around by working for the government.
“He got himself hired by the Secret Service, a precursor of the FBI, and became its head. When the Department of Justice was established in 1870 with a view to achieving justice for black people, it hired the whole of the Secret Service and put them to breaking up the Ku Klux Klan,” says Jeffreys-Jones, whose previous works include an acclaimed study of the CIA.
“Whitley was well equipped to do this, because in the past he had been hunting down moonshiners [distillers of illegal whisky] in the Blue Mountains, often the very same people who rode with the Klan.”
In the later 1870s, a reaction spread from the American south against the radical policies which had given rights to black people, and right-wing historians wrote Whitley’s triumph over the Klan out of history, says Jeffreys-Jones.
After Whitley left – he went on to set up in business and founded an Opera House – the federal government had only a very weak detective facility and turned increasingly to private companies for help, and particularly to the business established by another Glaswegian, Pinkerton.
Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, whose logo is shown, achieved notoriety by infiltrating and breaking the Molly Maguires miners organisation and was later hired on 28 occasions between 1885 and 1892 by the government and often pitted against organised labour.
In 1892, in a confrontation at the Carnegie steelworks near Pittsburgh, ten strikers were shot dead by Pinkerton agents, causing outrage in America, and leading to five Congressional inquiries. The incident would lead the government gradually to abandon private detection agencies and to seek a national solution.
President Theodore Roosevelt established the Bureau of Investigation in 1908. One of its most prominent early directors, William J Burns – the son of Scottish immigrants – was acknowledged as one of the most brilliant detective of his day.
“He was proud of his Scottish descent. Burns cracked a lot of cases, but was a little bit dodgy as far as ethics were concerned,” says Jeffreys-Jones.
Burns was forced to resign in disgrace in 1924, after he became embroiled in the Tea Pot Dome oil scandal which convulsed America. He was succeeded by J Edgar Hoover, and the rest, as the academics say, is history.
The FBI: A History, by Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, is published by Yale University Press