Sunday, January 18, 2015

History: The Case of the Vanishing Private Eyes

How 19th-century America's biggest, most dogged detective agency went on to get unceremoniously acquired 100 years later by a Swedish conglomerate...

Sam (Dashiell) Hammett was a wayward youth. Having left school at the age of 13, he spent his teenage years holding down odd jobs, blowing his paychecks on horse races and boxing matches, and consorting with prostitutes in the rougher sections of Baltimore and Philadelphia. Within a few years, alcoholism had its claws in him, and by age 20 it was rumored that he had already contracted a venereal disease.

In 1915, Hammett, the son of a Maryland farmer, joined the Pinkerton National Detective Agency at the age of 21. During the early 1890s, the Pinkertons, as they were more commonly known, had boasted a force of 2,000 active operatives and some 30,000 reserve officers. By comparison, the United States Army, which for decades had been primarily concerned with fighting Native Americans in the West, had fewer than 30,000 officers and enlisted men assigned to active duty.