Riffenburgh, Beau. Pinkerton’s Great Detective: The Amazing Life and Times of James McParland. New York: Viking, 2013

Frank Wiles illustration from The Valley of Fear

So, is this your first Scintillation?

If you ever find yourself at a Sherlockian event where you don’t know a soul (trust me, this will only happen once), you can break the ice by turning to the person beside you at the table, or behind you in line, and ask: “So, what’s your favorite Sherlock Holmes story?”  Even though they’ve likely been asked dozens of times, that question really never gets old–people adore talking about what they love and why they love it. It could be that they were introduced to Sherlock Holmes when a parent or grandparent handed them A Study in Scarlet, or that The Hound of the Baskervilles thrilled them first on the screen, then on the page. They may enjoy the battle of wits between the Great Detective and The Woman, or be fascinated by the very modern evil of Baron Gruner. Chances are good, however, that there are some stories you will rarely, if ever, hear mentioned. “A Case of Identity,” for example, or the rather uncomfortable “Adventure of the Three Gables.”

I have a confession to make: I used to hate The Valley of Fear. It made no sense to me. Perhaps because I tackled it towards the end of my first Canon binge-read, or perhaps because I am incredibly dense, I had only a vague idea of what was going on in the middle, and imagined that “Birdy Edwards” was also Sherlock Holmes, undercover. Or a girl, because “Birdy.”*  In subsequent returns to the Canonical well, I skipped it, gradually even forgetting that it contains some significant information about Professor Moriarty.** In a very informal online survey of Sherlockians from several different countries, I found that I wasn’t the only one. Compared to its fellow novels, VALL tends to go unloved, with only 3 out of 53 respondents choosing it as their favorite of the four.***  We might consider ourselves slightly vindicated: released in book form in June, 1915 by Smith, Elder, Conan Doyle’s last novel received fairly positive reviews, but even The Liverpool Daily Post found the writing “clumsy.”

Perhaps that’s the same flaw that continues to  work against VALL, or perhaps the history of the labor movement in the United States receives such scant attention in the modern classroom–crammed as it is into the rush from the Civil War to World War 1–that it has lost some resonance for today’s reader. Certainly the “Scowrers” don’t seem to have much connection to any lodge or union we’re familiar with.



And so we read a little faster, hoping to run into some more Moriarty.

Pinkerton’s Great Detective  can change that.

I first encountered Beau Riffenburgh’s biography of Detective James McParland last year, while working on a larger project. I knew, of course, that “The Scowrers” section of VALL was based upon an actual Pinkerton’s undercover mission, and I hoped that the book would essentially point out who was who, and what was what, so I could pound out the requisite paragraphs and move on. I was looking for easy answers. What I got was a new appreciation for both The Valley of Fear and a nuanced look at the beginnings of the modern labor movement and late 19th-century class conflict, as seen through the eyes of a complicated man.

This one.

This one.

Born in Ireland around 1845 (he was baptized on April 6 of that year), McParlan (the “d” would be added later) came from a family of relatively prosperous tenant farmers. After working in English chemical factories through his late teens and early twenties, he emigrated to the United States in June, 1867. He lived in New York, then Chicago, working a succession of jobs, including grocery deliveryman, clerk, logger (in Michigan), teamster, and even (briefly) as a detective for Beaubien & Co. After a stint as an officer for the Chicago PD, he left policing for a more lucrative career in liquor sales, both as a distributor and saloon owner–until the Great Chicago Fire destroyed his store and sent him into bankruptcy. Desperate for work, he joined another detective agency–Pinkerton’s.

Alan Pinkerton’s eponymous agency had distinguished itself during the Civil War, but mounting business debts, the Chicago Fire, and the Panic of 1873 had driven it to the precipice of financial ruin. In his frantic search for well-paying clients, Pinkerton suggested that his close friend and New York manager, George Bangs, offer the agency’s services to Franklin Gowen, head of the rapidly expanding Philadelphia and Reading Railroad. The timing, Riffenburgh points out, was propitious for both parties: Pinkerton needed the money, while Gowen needed a tool with which to break the miners’ unions of Pennsylvania’s Schuykill County. Through several years’ skillful maneuvering, Gowen had managed to gain control of the region’s coal supply and transport, and to effectively destroy the Workingman’s Benevolent Association. The latter had proven a serious miscalculation: Although Gowen seems not to have realized it, the WBA–an early miners’ union led by Irish-born John Siney–had actually served as peacekeeper in often volatile communities. Without it, some disgruntled workers turned to more lethal means of getting their point across, exchanging collective bargaining and strike for vandalism, assault, and murder.

Illustration from The Valley of Fear, by Frank Wiles

“Why, I seem to have read of the Scowrers in Chicago. A gang of murderers, are they not?”

In October, 1873, James McParlan, paving the way for his fictional counterpart, Birdy Edwards, took a train deep into Pennsylvania coal country. Like Edwards, he had taken a false name–“James McKenna” to Edwards’ “McMurdo,”–and invented a dodgy background of murder (McMurdo implies he’s killed someone) and counterfeiting. His task was to infiltrate the “Molly Maguires,” a violent organization which Gowen believed–or wished to believe–was part of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and connected in some fashion to the WBA. The young detective had been chosen by Alan Pinkerton himself for his sharp wits, story-telling abilities, his devotion to the Catholic Church (which condemned the Mollies) and for his unquestioning acceptance of the Pinkerton dictum that, when it came to justice, the end truly did justify the means. As “McKenna,” McParlan would be expected to develop close relationships, even friendships, with men he would ultimately send to prison, or to the gallows. He would be required to feign criminal activities to the point of becoming a suspect himself. And eventually–although he’d been promised his role would remain secret–he would be required to reveal himself in court, facing those who had trusted him, and setting himself up for perpetual censure, both during the ensuing trials…

…of all the men that deserve punishment this man McParlan deserves twice what anybody charged with crime in this country deserves; if it is true that anybody deserves hanging, this man McParlan ought to be hanged twice, because, if there is an author to this mischief and this deviltry anywhere, McParlan is the man.

–John W. Ryon, Attorney for John “Blackjack” Kehoe and eight other defendants, 1876.

And sixty years later….

His [McParland’s] entire career was based upon tactics so questionable that he can no longer be dismissed with merely a prayer of thanks for ridding the country of a gang of cutthroats.

–J. Walter Coleman, The Molly Maguire Riots, 1936

Riffenburgh spends nearly half of the book on this three year span of McParlan’s life, covering it in marvelous detail that will enable observant Sherlockians (are there any other kind?) to better connect the real life events of “The Scowrers” to Conan Doyle’s interpretations of them. He provides the reader with striking, sympathetic depictions of the bleakness of life in the Schuykill Valley mining towns. Dr Watson might sniff as he imagines Edwards’ reaction to the Vermissa Valley, which were “no resorts for the leisured or the cultured,” but his 21st century counterpart takes the time to examine both the economics behind Gowen’s bid for control of the area industry, and the way in which executive decisions involving a few cents here and a few tons there meant financial ruin for the men who owned nearly nothing and owed nearly everything to the companies which abused them. “Everywhere,” Watson tells us, “there were stern signs of the crudest battle of life, the rude work to be done, and the rude, strong workers who did it.”

Pennsylvania coal miners

Pennsylvania coal miners

Just how “rude” these men were is the question, and it may be one of the reasons why VALL often goes underappreciated today. For James McParlan, the Pinkertons, their clients, and a good portion of the United States populace at the time, the Molly Maguires were nothing more than “a band of roughs joined together for the purpose of instituting revenge against any one of whom they may take a dislike.”†  As time wore on and labor unions made progress, however,  interpretations of groups like the Mollies began to change. By the 1930s, historian J. Walter Coleman portrayed them as “a type of secret labor union, representing a natural response to the exploitation of miners, but differing in ideology, strategy, and ethnic affiliation” from the WBA.† In the most recent academic study of the group, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires, Kevin Kenney concludes that, rather than considering them a proto-union, it’s more plausible to see the Mollies’ violent behavior as a an example of “a particular Irish tradition of retributive justice,” directed at individuals “in a sporadic battle to defend a specific vision of what was fair and just in social relations.”†† Many today believe that the Mollies who would ultimately be executed as a result of McParlan’s investigation were martyrs who may have been, at best, unfairly tried and at worst, innocent.

John "Black Jack" Kehoe, was hanged for murder as a Molly Maguire. He was pardoned posthumously in 1979.

John “Black Jack” Kehoe, was hanged for murder as a Molly Maguire. He was pardoned posthumously in 1979.

While Riffenburgh does discuss the tradition of Mollie Maguires, “Ribbon Men,” and similar groups in Irish history, in the end he takes the possibly controversial stance that the men whom McParlan pursued were no one’s heroes, and that they were fairly tried in accordance with the practices of the time–practices which allowed for private prosecutors and jury selection processes which would be considered “stacking” today. Rather than punishing evil mine bosses, men such as Thomas Duffy, Thomas Munley, James Roarity, and others instead targeted men who had crossed them in personal ways–by unnecessary roughness during an arrest, for example,–and, to avoid detection, arranged to have their murders carried out by Mollies from other communities in a quid pro quo system. After devoting several pages to countering various arguments which seek to place McParlan in a bad light, and to portray the Mollies as martyrs, he writes:

…despite the underlying implication, the Molly Maguires were not more worthy of compassion and pity than the men who were killed in cold blood because of agreements between body masters. Those instigating and carrying out the murders and other outrages were not heroes–that role could more safely be ascribed to Siney and those who stood with him in the WBA, working for the betterment of the miners via a peaceful solution.

Riffenburgh, p.160

The author also argues that McParlan was not guilty of many of the sins now attributed to him, namely, those of being an agent provocateur, lying on the stand, and not warning murder victims that they were in danger. Although he acknowledges that the detective was perhaps a little too good at getting confessions from his “colleagues,” and that, in one case, McParlan claimed not to know the name of a target when he demonstrably did, Riffenburgh concludes that the Pinkerton agent was simply unable to get away in time to warn one victim, did not inspire crimes, and was justified in not endangering his own life by blowing his cover to stop all of those crimes of which he had prior knowledge.


Pottsville, PA, circa 1868. One has to imagine that McParlan was glad to put the whole Schuylkill Valley behind him.

Pottsville, PA, circa 1868. One has to imagine that McParlan was glad to put the whole Schuylkill Valley behind him.


By November, 1877, it was all over, and McParlan moved on to the rest of his life, a life that included  solving a poisoning, chasing after Butch Cassidy and “The Wild Bunch,” getting embroiled in the violent Colorado Labor Wars and eventually heading up Pinkerton’s Denver office. In 1906, however, the assassination of former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg catapulted McParland (the “d” had made its appearance) into a high profile case pitting him against the 20th century’s most famous attorney. The last third of the book is dedicated to the detective’s efforts to bring down, not only the bomber, Harry Orchard, but the labor leaders McParland believed were behind this and other crimes. Simultaneously playing bad cop and (apparently) father confessor, McParland extracted a detailed confession from Orchard, then used it to go after much bigger fish, including the charismatic founder of the Industrial Workers of the World, William “Big Bill” Haywood. McParland’s experience with the Mollies decades before had not only set him firmly against labor unions, but apparently convinced him that men such as Orchard were only tools manipulated by other, more powerful, men for their own gain. “We have unearthed a conspiracy,” he said,

…that will make the blood run cold. This is not a war against organized labor, but it is a war against organized anarchy and dynamite. It is a war against the most damnable and fiendish crimes that ever degraded humanity, and it is a war against as heartless a band of criminals as the authorities of any state or any civilized country have ever had to deal with, and I need not except Russia.‡

Riffenburgh, p.283

The Steunenberg murder roused the ghosts of Schuylkill County in other ways as well.  During those trials, the Molly defense lawyers took the logical step of casting aspersions on McParland’s character and actions. Decades later, Clarence Darrow did the same:

Is there any worse trade than the one that man [McParland] follows? Can you imagine a man being a detective until every other means of livelihood is exhausted? Watching and snaring his fellow men. Is there any other calling in life can sink to that? But yet we have been told it is an honorable profession. Well, that depends on how you look at it…. It is honorable compared with some things the State has done in this case. But it is not honorable in any old-fashioned sense of that word. McParland told the jury that this confession was given freely, voluntarily. Did he lie? Is he a liar?…[C]an you believe a detective at all? What is he? A detective is not a liar, he is a living lie. His whole profession is that, openly and notoriously.

–Clarence Darrow, Adams trial closing argument, quoted in Riffenburgh, p.315.


Charismatic and controversial, Darrow is best known for representing John Scopes in the "Scopes Monkey Trials."

Charismatic and controversial, Darrow is best known for representing John Scopes in the “Scopes Monkey Trials.”

McParland won his battle against the Mollies. Although Harry Orchard spent the rest of his life in prison, the detective lost his battle against Big Labor, just as he would gradually lose the battle against diabetes and old age. Still, he was a Pinkerton to the end, keeping an office for which he was paid, but could no longer truly fill.

I truly enjoyed Pinkerton’s Great Detective. Riffenburgh does an excellent job of guiding the reader through a part of United States history which often gets short shrift in the classroom. Still, I must confess that writing this review has proven extremely difficult. Pinkerton’s Great Detective is essentially three books in one: the first telling the story of the Molly Maguires; the second a sort of anthology of cases; and the third, an account of the Steunenberg case. Once McParland becomes an administrator, his role in cases becomes…less exciting, albeit safer, so that much of the action is usurped by operatives such as the bright adventurer Charles Siringo and the frighteningly cold-blooded Tom Horn. As interesting as these and other men are, they are to some extent placeholders, not simply because McParland was pushing paper, but because he does not seem to have pushed enough.  In his research, Riffenburgh found that, aside from work documents and trial transcripts, the detective left little record of his personal life behind, making his biographer’s job rather difficult. Aside from the occasional impulsive action (such as when he tried to resign his position during the Molly case) and the great affection he had for his family, not much is known of the private McParland–everything is filtered through his professional personae. “As always,” Riffenburgh concludes, “there are more questions than answers.”‡‡

Our Sherlockian bookshelves are often filled with pastiches and reference books written for us, by us. But sometimes it’s nice to branch out. Pinkerton’s Great Detective is an entertainingly written, expertly researched study which illuminates the dark Vermissa Valley, bringing the Scowrers out of the shadows.

Pinkerton’s Great Detective is available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook formats. Normally, I don’t recommend any particular edition; however, the traditional book form doesn’t contain the extensive notes and appendices–those are located online at http://www.susannagregory.com/beauriffenburgh/pinkertons-great-detective/.  The Kindle format contains all of the back matter as well as the text.

Star Rating: 5–This is a wonderful book which gets it right.


*I know, I know.

**VALL is where we learn that Moriarty owned a painting by Grueze, had a brother who is a station master in the West Country, and authored The Dynamics of an Asteroid. It is also where we get the clearest picture of him as a consulting criminal. In my defense, I remembered the information, but just assumed that I had picked it up in FINA.

***For the interested, the results were: STUD (11), SIGN (15), HOUN (24), and VALL (3). My personal favorite is STUD.

†Pinkerton superintendent Benjamin Franklin, report, October 9, 1873 (Riffenburgh, p.26)

††Kenney, Kevin, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires, ebook

††† ibid.
‡Readers will no doubt remember that Conan Doyle did not except Russia, either: “The Adventure of the Golden Pince Nez” involves a pair of Russian nihilists.

‡‡ Riffenburgh, p.367

1 Comment

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One response to “Riffenburgh, Beau. Pinkerton’s Great Detective: The Amazing Life and Times of James McParland. New York: Viking, 2013

  1. Charles Cunyus

    Personally I actually prefer The Valley of Fear to A Study in Scarlett myself although not as much as The Sign of Four or The Hound of the Baskervilles mainly because I love the way Moriarty is depicted as a hidden menace off screen and it highlights his ruthlessness and how he throughly beats Holmes in what would have to be his greatest failure of a case and even rubs his nose in it with his “Dear me Mr Holmes, Dear me.” note and the American depiction of Birdy Edwards and the Scowrers is something I’ll take over the American depiction of Jefferson Hope and the Mormons in general in ASIS every time. Anyways TVOF isn’t my favorite of the four full length novels (that would be THOTB) but I still enjoy it myself.