BOOK REVIEW: A detective who was not everyone’s hero

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PINKERTON‘S GREAT DETECTIVE: THE AMAZING LIFE AND TIMES OF JAMES McPARLAND
By Beau Riffenburgh
Viking, $32.95, 400 pages

In the West, there was the Hole in the Wall Gang, including members Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In the Pennsylvania coalfields, there were the murderous Molly Maguires, and on the heels of them all pounded the legendary early American detectives from Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency.

The best known Pinkerton detective was James McParland, who launched his career when he was hired as a lawman by Allan Pinkerton in 1873. So widespread was his reputation that he became a character in a Sherlock Holmes story written by Arthur Conan Doyle. Beau Riffenburgh, who dug deep into archives and libraries to chronicle the history of the agency, relates that Pinkerton himself was annoyed that Conan Doyle did not obtain his permission to fictionalize the facts of the story he heard in a train dining car, especially since the chief character was unmistakably McParland.

McParland, at 29, was hired to infiltrate the Molly Maguires, a brutal Irish-American group responsible for at least 16 murders in the Pennsylvania coalfields of the late 19th century. He worked undercover for two years and eventually testified in 19 trials that broke the Maguires’ brotherhood and resulted in 20 hangings.

For McParland, it was the beginning of a career that lasted more than three decades and took him from the investigation of the assassination of former Idaho Gov. Frank Steunenberg to the nation’s first case of “murder by mail.” That involved the slaying of Josephine Barnaby, a Rhode Island socialite who, in 1891, was sent a bottle of liquor with a mysterious message attached. There was arsenic in the bottle, and Mrs. Barnaby promptly died when she drank it. Her physician and financial adviser was eventually convicted of the crime.

The author notes that seeing the film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” led to his researching the two outlaws and discovering that McParland was the man in charge of Pinkerton’s hunt for them. Yet McParland was not everyone’s hero.

McParland and the Pinkerton agency became symbolic of the “mistrust, hatred and violence between owners and workers during the growth of labor unions,” according to Mr. Riffenburgh. On the other hand, on a personal level, McParland served as “a model and inspiration for generations of undercover detectives, long remembered as a larger than life link to the past, an icon of a previous rough and rowdy age and a grand old man telling tall tales of events that could no longer happen in the modern world.”

On the darker side, the author writes of those who saw McParland as “the epitome of evil, a man who did more damage to labor than any other non-mine owner ever had.” A harsh critic of McParland and his methods was the famous lawyer Clarence Darrow, who faced him across many courts and argued that McParland was a man who had lived with lies for so long he could not distinguish them from the truth.

Mr. Riffenburgh suggests this was a “brilliant strategy” for Darrow, because McParland’s frequent shadowy role of hunting for the truth while living a lie made it easy to see him as a man for whom the truth and lies were so closely intertwined that they became indistinct.

Consequently, it was a manufactured image of McParland’s acts rather than his actual behavior that helped dictate how history viewed them. The author concedes that McParland seemed to have his own moral code, “which allowed him to do anything, say anything, go to any extreme to get his man.” When that objective was to secure a conviction, he notes, that made him dissimilar only in scale to other law enforcement agents of his time, or in some respects, to today’s police, who are confined to much narrower legal and ethical limits.

Mr. Riffenburgh acknowledges the difficulty for a biographer of glimpsing the true character of McParland, who left behind no trail of personal letters, diaries or written confidences with friends. There was no proof of what he was like as a husband or as a father who lost two daughters. What there was of his personal legacy showed him as a man who was “extremely self-confident, could bluff like a professional card player and had an innate sense of what buttons to push in verbal jousts, whether with men he was interrogating or when the role was reversed in court.”

There is no question that the demands of his job colored his personality, raising the question of whether his ego was so inflated because he had earned such fame so early, or because he never did miss getting a confession.

The author winds up with what amounts to a philosophical shrug. “As always with McParland, there are more questions than answers. It is just this elusiveness that is the essence of the great detective.”

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and The Baltimore Sun.

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