Pinkerton’s Great Detective – The Amazing Life and Times of James McParland, by Beau Riffenburgh, published by Penguin Group.


I found this book while researching the early 20th Century. It was not the book I was expecting.

In the 1800s, there was a furious series of battles, more or less, between Miners in different coal and steel areas, and the companies that owned the mines, the railways, and smelting works. It was a series of Labour struggles for fair pay, improved safety, and less hardship. A gang of Miners calling themselves the Molly Maguires, who were suspected as being associated with the Ancient Order of Hibernians, began to use violence to promote their own cases.

But the Molly Maguires and AOH did not stick to threatening or striking. They took up guns, and began to murder mine managers and owners, or merely settle debts.

The story of the Molly Maguires was the story of the development of America and the development of labour laws, as well as the growth of Police forces – both those funded by the community, and those which were directly paid for by companies with motives that could be highly dubious.

For a fictional slant on the story, a good introduction is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story, The Valley of Fear.

I can remember reading that story long, long ago, and being enthralled by the reach of such a violent group of men. This book is the story of the undercover agent who was  responsible for the court cases against the Molly Maguires and AOH members.

And it is a compelling story.

James McParland was an Irish-born American, who early on managed to get a job at the young Pinkerton’s Detective Agency. In fact, I don’t think it would be too strong to say that it was McParland who established the Agency. It was McParland’s efforts in the coal region that tore apart the violent gang at the heart of it. Afterwards he was to sit in several trials as a leading witness against the men who had participated in murders all over the area.

But this book is not merely about that case. McParland remained in post for many decades, and as manager of the western district, he was the driving force behind capturing or killing or driving off a host of famous outlaws: Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, Kid Curry, and many others. After that, he was active in the investigation into the murder by bomb attack of former Idaho governor, Frank Steunenberg. This I found a fabulously rich part of the book, with much of the testimony from the court cases.

Of course, anyone expects that a non-fiction book may well have a weakness at its heart: the writing.

I cannot count the number of biographies I’ve had to struggle through because the authors are keen to demonstrate their detailed research and academic vocabulary. This is not that kind of torture. In fact, I read most of it at one sitting because the writing is sharp, clear, and direct. It is rather like an Ian Mortimer biography, in that it reads like a thriller. Riffenburgh manages to put the reader into the mining communities, with their poverty, violence and dangers, and balances the motivations of the magnates of the coal region with those of the murderers of the Molly Maguires, or the Western Federation of Miners. He has a light touch, a logical, coherent approach to setting out the key elements of his story, that makes reading his book a simple joy.

This is a book I’d recommend to those interested in history, in American history, in the history of mining in the US, or in Sherlock Holmes.

A brilliant book. Highly recommended.

3 Responses to “Pinkerton’s Great Detective – The Amazing Life and Times of James McParland, by Beau Riffenburgh, published by Penguin Group.”
  1. Lindsey Russell says:

    Not read any American history in ages. But history AND crime certainly sounds good. I could be tempted :-)


  2. Jack Eason says:

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
    More from Michael;)


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