Notable Private Detectives Throughout History
A private detective, often referred to as a private investigator, is an individual who is not affiliated with the police but is licensed to perform detective work. Their work is not just limited to solving cold cases. They also perform a wide range of tasks such as documentation, surveillance, research, and interview.
Due to how the profession has been romanticized in various forms of media, fictional characters such as Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Nancy Drew are well-known. However, numerous real-world detectives made noteworthy contributions to shaping the profession as it stands today. In this article, we’ll be taking a look at some of them:
Eugène-François Vidocq is the founder of the world’s first known private detective agency. In 1833, after being dismissed for a crime he allegedly organized, Vidocq established Le Bureau Des Renseignements or the Office of Intelligence. He mainly hired former criminals in his organization, stating that no one knows a criminal’s mind better than a fellow convict.
Although the authorities tried to shut down the Office of Intelligence numerous times, Vidocq’s organization has become a basis for modern detective agencies. His organization inspired Allan Pinkerton to establish the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in 1850 in America. Eugène-François Vidocq himself is also credited for creating techniques in criminology that are still being used today.
Kate Warne holds the distinction of being the first female private investigator in America. Not much is known about her history before being employed by the Pinkertons, but she played a pivotal role in solving numerous high-profile cases. One of her most notable cases was thwarting the Baltimore Plot, a failed assassination attempt on the then-newly inaugurated President Lincoln on February 1861.
Warne, along with her other colleagues, was tasked with ensuring Abraham Lincoln’s safety during his journey to his inauguration after receiving a tip about an imminent assassination plot. Using her exceptional skills, she was able to uncover the conspiracy by seamlessly integrating herself into her surroundings. She also adopted various disguises and aliases to hide her true identity.
Kate Warne’s contributions did not stop after her success in preventing Lincoln’s assassination. As the American Civil War began in 1961, she shifted her efforts toward espionage. She went into Confederate territory and relayed important information to Allan Pinkerton.
While the Pinkerton Agency received much publicity during the war and prevented Lincoln’s assassination, Kate Warne’s role was often unnoticed and unacknowledged. Nonetheless, she received praise in other published materials for her other contributions to the organization. Her dedication and resourcefulness made her an asset to her colleagues and society as a whole.
William J. Burns
William John Burns, often hailed as “America’s Sherlock Holmes,” built a notable reputation for his exceptional skill in resolving a range of forgery cases. After having a successful and distinguished career in the U.S. Secret Service, Burns left government service in 1906. It was in 1909 that he established his own detective agency, which would leave a lasting mark on the field of private investigation.
The establishment of the William J. Burns National Detective Agency proved to be a significant turning point in his career. One of the agency’s most pivotal moments came in 1910 during the investigation of the Los Angeles Times Bombing. William Burns managed to uncover a far-reaching terrorist campaign spanning multiple states masterminded by the McNamara brothers, John and James, alongside Ortie McManigal.
William J. Burns’s remarkable talent and achievements as a detective led him to become the Director of the Bureau of Investigation (BOI) in 1921. The BOI served as the predecessor to the present-day Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). But after his three-year stint as director, he resigned from the position due to a bribery scandal called the Teapot Dome scandal.
Following his retirement, Burns later relocated to Sarasota, Florida where he published detective and mystery stories. Tragically, William J. Burns passed away in 1932 at the age of 70. Some of his high-profile cases were adapted in television and film.
It’s important to recognize that the world of private investigators extends beyond the realm of fiction. Detectives have played significant roles in shaping our society and will continue doing it for years to come.