We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

The Library of Congress is the new home of the Pinkertons’ archives. Too bad so much of the good stuff has been locked out.

Back when Allan Pinkerton made his name in America, work was hard, factories were filthy, and private detectives were supreme tough guys. And no private detectives were tougher than Pinkerton’s own employees. Pinkerton knew that his adopted America needed lawmen for hire, and he provided them. He knew that Gilded Age companies wanted protection from pesky labor organizers, and he provided that, too.

By the time the 19th century was over, in fact, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency—which turns 150 this year—had come to define private muscle in the age of unfettered capitalism, labor unrest, and firmly sealed archives. The Pinkertons earned their reputation during battles like the bloody Homestead Steel Mill strike of 1892. Because the agency wasn’t telling, no one knew exactly what happened. But everyone knew it was gruesome.

Over a century after Homestead, a very different set of rules apply to our history. The files of celebrated tough guys like J. Edgar Hoover and Allen Dulles are open to the public. And, as of May 31, the Library of Congress is the home of the long-locked archives of the Pinkertons, thanks to a donation from the company’s latest owner.

“I’ve been after this collection for about 10 years,” says John Sellers, a historical specialist at the Library of Congress. “This is the kind of material that’s not usually surrendered….We have no parallel to it, and it does document quite a bit of American social history. The use of it will be heavy.”

A final chance to separate truth from rumor about the agency’s work for Gilded Age bosses? Alas, no. Researchers looking for the inside dope on some of the Pinkertons’ more notorious or morally ambiguous operations will likely come up short. But that’s not any fault of archivists or the library, say historians who have researched Pinkerton material. Rather, it’s because—unlike public agencies—the Pinkertons of old were free to do what they wanted with anything that might make them look bad.

“The Pinkertons saw this work was somehow sensitive, so they were selective,” says Frank Morn, a criminal justice professor at Illinois State University, who has written a history of the Pinkertons. “They got rid of the stuff that didn’t reflect well on the agency, and they saved the swashbuckling stuff.”

Did they ever. One hundred ninety-five binders, along with books and documents collected for the agency’s library, make up the surviving Pinkerton files. And though they include such nifty items as an original 1901 photograph of “Sundance Kid” Harry Longbaugh and the lengthy 1906 confession of murderer Harry Orchard, whom modern readers may know as the subject of J. Anthony Lukas’ Big Trouble, they’re a little lighter on, say, the 70 labor disputes the Pinkertons took part in between 1866 and 1892.

As for Homestead, where a clash between 300 Pinkertons and striking workers at Andrew Carnegie’s plant left at least 10 workers dead and scores wounded, the collection “contains not one sheet of paper,” says archivist Jane Adler, who assembled the collection prior to its donation. The only piece in the Pinkerton archives pertaining to the clash, she says, is a battered volume from the Congressional hearings that followed—where legislators asked questions whose answers should have been in the company’s files.

The Pinkertons, of course, were about more than strikebreaking. Morn says that the archives are valuable even without the bloody fingerprints. They “can still be read with considerable profit,” he says, by researchers interested in specific criminals, the mechanics of police work, the Wild West, and the like. Sellers, a Civil War specialist, adds that even with the omissions, the archives were privately appraised at $500,000 and could easily command more than $1 million if put up for sale.

“The value of the archives is the extraordinary light it sheds on law enforcement,” says Adler. “The Pinkertons taught the police how to do their job.”

A Scottish immigrant, Pinkerton started his detective work in Illinois in 1850, before achieving fame as the intelligence chief for ultracautious Civil War Gen. George McClellan. After the war, Pinkerton went back to private business—expanding his company until he had a broad corporate and criminal portfolio. The Eye That Never Sleeps, Morn’s history of the agency, notes that Pinkerton essentially created the idea of a national police agency, with the kind of record-keeping, standardized procedures, and guiding principles that Hoover’s G-men would later adopt.

But if their groundbreaking work was in establishing police tactics later used by the feds, the Pinkertons won their fame fighting the labor wars. In an 1872 book titled Strikers, Communists, Tramps and Detectives, Pinkerton himself set the company’s tone by concluding that “every trades-union has for its vital principle, whatever is professed, the concentration of brute force to gain certain ends. Then the deadly spirit of Communism steals in and further embitters the working man against that from which his very livelihood is ensured.”

Eventually, of course, the image of the Pinkertons as a bunch of picket-line brutes started to become bad for business. And just as the agency had taught Hoover’s FBI a good deal about record-keeping, it also wound up teaching the G-men a bit about how to make yourself a pop-culture hero. Hoover famously provided selective file access to friendly reporters and screenwriters. The Pinkertons, even earlier, had fed favored writers for pulp magazines.

The Pinkertons’ mythmaking, in fact, spurred the creation of the very archives the Library of Congress just acquired. The firm’s Depression-era work for big business had spurred intense criticism. In response, a vice president named Ralph Dudley pulled from storage binders relating to the company’s more popular criminal investigations.

Dudley’s binders became the archives, which the company then made selectively available to friendly journalists and popular historians. Writers for True Detective magazine hacked out 60 dramatized and inevitably laudatory articles based on the Pinkerton material through the 1940s. “The archives,” Adler says, “obviously present a view of the agency and its history that was satisfactory to Pinkerton executives….[They] needed to repair its public image.”

Morn was one of the few academic researchers to get a crack at the Pinkerton Archives years ago, when they were still located in the old company headquarters in New York City. Though he was then a University of Chicago doctoral student interested merely in a social-history treatment of Pinkerton operations, anxious company officials asked that he submit to agency review any of the documents he planned to publish.

But Morn wouldn’t have had much luck digging up the real dirt even if he’d wanted to. The agency’s files for its noncriminal work—that is to say, its corporate-security projects—were deposited with the clients. That way, they were safe from prying journalists, skeptical congressmen, and future historians. “The agency protected the privacy, or secrecy, of such clients simply by keeping no trace of their business in its records,” Adler notes.

A 61-year-old graduate of Oxford and UCLA Law School, Adler has spent three years assessing and organizing the Pinkerton archives. The job has been tricky from the start. The Pinkerton company was sold twice in the 1980s. Its old private detective work had largely been replaced by security and plant-guarding jobs, and the current owners weren’t really sure what PR stink bombs might be waiting in the archives they’d inherited.

When Adler started work, the files were essentially stuffed into a small room equipped with a single cramped desk in a subsequent parent company’s offices in Encino, Calif. “It was a room full of boxes, and for eight months I sat on the floor,” Adler said. Initially hired by the company simply to find out what it had, Adler kept plugging away; her hope all along, she says, was to get the archives into the Library of Congress.

The Swedish security company Securitas AB ultimately acquired the agency, which is now called Pinkerton’s Inc. Securitas AB decided on its own to donate the archives to the library. It was a natural resting place; the Library’s 119 million-item collection already included nine volumes of Allan Pinkerton’s Civil War correspondence.

Adler herself remains on the case. Inspired by her archival work, she now has a contract with Yale University Press to write a book about the Pinkertons. Regular old folks, meanwhile, will be able to check on her research shortly. The archives, packed in 400 boxes, will first be received at the Library of Congress’ warehouse in Landover. Sellers says it will take time to fully organize the material, but that researchers should be able to start requesting access within days. CP