It is difficult to know exactly when the first Private Investigator appeared. If we think of Investigators as an arm of the police, then, we have to look back at least as far as the early Egyptians and Sumerians.
It is first mentioned in the Old Testament where the Lord instructs Moses … “Send thou men that they may spy out the land of Canaan”. The Twelve Spies were a group of Israelite chieftains, one from each of the Twelve Tribes, who were dispatched by Moses to scout out the Land of Israel for 40 days during the time the Jews were in the desert. (Numbers 13:1-16)
Spies have been around for several thousands of years, and therefore, it can be argued that they’ve been the “forerunners” of today’s Investigators.
In 1833 Eugène François Vidocq, a French soldier, criminal and privateer, founded the first known private detective agency, Le bureau des renseignments (Office of Intelligence) and, again, hired ex-convicts. Official law enforcement tried many times to shut it down. In 1842, police arrested him on suspicion of unlawful imprisonment, and, for taking money on false pretense after he had solved an embezzling case. Vidocq later suspected that it had been a set-up. He was sentenced to 5 years with a 3,000-franc fine, but the Court of Appeals released him. Vidocq is credited with having introduced record-keeping, criminology and ballistics to the field of criminal investigation. He made the first plaster casts of shoe impressions. He created indelible ink, and, unalterable bond paper with his printing company. His form of anthropometrics is still partially used by French police. He is also credited for philanthropic pursuits … claiming he never informed on anyone who had stolen for real need.
After Vidocq, the Private Investigation industry was effectively born. Much of what Private Investigators in the early days did was to act as the police in matters where their clients felt the police were not well-equipped or unwilling to do. A larger role for this new private investigative industry was to act as pseudo law men, particularly when dealing with labor and employee issues. The wealthy found that the need to help control large numbers of workers who had developed new “freedom of men” ideas as a result of the French Revolution did not sit well with the wealth resource owners. Some early Private Investigators were nothing short of mercenaries and/or professional military companies helping private entities with problems that could be solved with force (or the show of force), usually in foreign countries.
In the U.S., the Pinkerton National Detective Agency was a security guard and detective agency established in 1850 by Allan Pinkerton. Pinkerton had become famous when he foiled a plot to assassinate then-President-Elect Abraham Lincoln. Pinkerton’s agents performed services which ranged from the equivalent of both a private military contractor to that of security guards. During the height of its existence, the Pinkerton Detective Agency had more agents than the standing army of the United States of America, causing the state of Ohio to outlaw the agency due to the possibility of its being hired out as a “private army” or militia.
During the labor unrest of the late 19th century, businessmen hired Pinkerton guards to keep strikers and suspected unionists out of their factories. The most notorious example of this was the Homestead Strike of 1892, where Pinkerton agents ended up killing several people by enforcing the strike-breaking measures of Henry Clay Frick, (acting on behalf of Andrew Carnegie, who was abroad). The agency’s logo, an eye embellished with the words “We Never Sleep”, inspired the term “private eye”.
Pinkerton agents were hired to track western outlaws Jesse James, the Reno brothers, and, the Wild Bunch including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
“Unblinking eyes” notwithstanding, the people in this profession have been referred to in less than complimentary fashion throughout the years.
It was not until the prosperity of the 1920’s that the Private Investigator became an entity accessible to the average American. With the wealth of the 20’s, and, the expansion of the middle class, such accessibility and usage was made available to Middle America.
Since then, the Private Investigation industry has grown with the changing needs of the public. Social issues such as infidelity and unionization have impacted the industry, and, served to create new types of work … such as the need for insurance and with it, insurance fraud, criminal defense investigations, the invention of low-cost listening devices and much, much more.
The early Investigators were effectively part-time “keepers of the peace” … at least in the U.S. Many companies employed talented individuals to locate and bring criminals to justice. In this cause, they often took on work that could not be handled by the established police and law enforcement venues.