tv American History TV CSPAN December 5, 2015 9:10am-9:31am EST
>> you were watching american history tv. all weekend, every weekend on c-span3. to join the conversation, like us on facebook. coming up next on american history tv harvard university phd candidate loop willert talks about 19 century detective force -- work in that west. we interviewed him at the western history associations annual conference in portland, oregon in october. this is about 20 minutes. when did you first decide to focus her studies on the law and the west? lert: i started graduate school studying colonial america. but i was in laramie, wyoming explained to lessen the early 19th century.
i found these detective papers sitting around in an archive and never completely fascinating. i was not expected to see them or know they were even there. at that point i kind of decided .o switch to detectives host: what if you find out about these detectives that really intrigued you? mr. lillert: protective's seem to be everywhere in the 19 century west. the first one i saw was just in a saloon trying to talk to everyone because he was buying everybody drinks and they were salesmen. they were all undercover private detectives. somewhere salesman in travelers and posting is of the outlaws. they were posing as prospectors. one posed as a doctor and practiced in wyoming for 12 months to try to extract information from some people. detectives be in the west? and who hired them? mr. lillert: it's usually the
railroads, the mines and the ranches. they are enormous corporations from new york and boston. millions of dollars passing hands. they had a bunch of workers at a bunch of rural -- small room populations spread out across about a million square miles. did -- they had ranting managers they did not know these people were and people were sometimes going on strike in the meaning wages. for them to know who they were or what -- they were trying to unionize or break them up or control them, sending a private detective to the small villages. they thought that was the best way. host: it sounds like they were almost like spies. thanhat the idea more so prosecuting crimes? mr. lillert: yeah.
would century detective go to find a criminal conspiracy wherever he or she was. they would go into the saloon and they were spying on people of the questions they are asking is who is stealing the cattle in the horses. who is a the? -- thief? whether it is the western pennsylvania or san francisco, they always see the criminals. not just these organized criminals in positions of power operating behind the scenes. it's almost sherlock holmes ask evil.- homes-esque host: did they write their stories down to report back to the detective agencies? what kind of records and accounts were you looking at? mr. lillert: they were running down every conversation they could remember. they were taking notes and typing them up in the report. this giddy one or 10 pages long. they wanted to be as 10 best
detailed as possible which is nice for me as a historian. they had secret mailboxes. the first principle of being at effective is don't get caught. don't let your subjects know who you are. you have to stay in character always. if you don't do that, they can be dangerous and you could be killed. one of the parts of our job is finding way to communicate that information back to cities like chicago and denver with the offices would be. they had telegraph wire. telegraph operators. their own mailboxes. host: how are these individuals trained? what did you find out about the personal lives of these detectives? mr. lillert: so, let's say we are pinkerton's in chicago. it was founded in 1850. if the biggest one of the world. let that they need to find a ownerbecause a mine
calls them and says they think somebody is stealing from me. they might be union and i need to see what they're up to and maybe stop them. in chicago or denver the agency will put out anonymous advertisement in the newspaper. -- theyl say any miners will find what they find trustworthy. one who knows what he is doing and has been a miner before. maybe he has memberships in certain unions. one that they know what -- will not turn on them and go to the other side. once they settle on what they will send him in with a back story. we don't really learn to much they these detectives when mostly just speak about their work and the naked deactivated it go away. a couple of the turn of the agencies and decide these are actually really nefarious evil corporations. there are a couple of tell-all
books in the night -- 1880's and the early 20th century where they reveal all of the evil that is going on and expose papers in the pinkerton's. they say these are the real enemies, not the workers or the criminals themselves. host: this was a widespread thing in the west. mr. lillert: it's hard to find exact numbers because a lot of agencies destroy their papers. one of my tasks was to find them when they slipped through the cracks. people were terrified of detectives. this is one of the ways we knew they were there and had contact with them. andwyoming constitution, the 1st constitution has an article that bans all detective agencies are coming into the state innovating and spying on people that still happens all the time. host: was it a dangerous job? didn't pay well? -- did it pay well? mr. lillert: the standard fees
of the pinkerton's in those days was about eight dollars a day. the agency will take a cut of that. alan pinkerton, the founder was a huge base near chicago. the agents would get some of that. this is in the west, say 1886 in wyoming. there was a strike attempt on cowboys to get $40 a month wage. eight dollars a day, even if they are not seeing all of it is quite a bit of money. very dangerous. some of these accounts that the detective will write which might be fictionalized but very interesting, they are one of the tropes that the workers find out who they are and they have to escape with gunshots at their back or they are caught. definitely if you are found out your intelligence operation would be compromised and you could die. host: in the course of your research at the found one individual in his accounts that
you find particularly interesting? can you elaborate on that individual? mr. lillert: hmmm. there is a good man named charlie. he was called "the cowboy detective." he started with the thinker tends -- pinkerton's. they believe there was an anarchist threat any work with them to find the servant anarchists in chicago. he startedfe publishing and said no, this is all made up. anarchists -- he has a remarkable string of operations where he is working and posing as a bandit, posing as a cowboy. he goes to new mexico, alaska. the agency is chasing criminals to australia and hawaii. host: what kind of criminals? mr. lillert: livestock theft is a big one.
people that were robbing railroads. the pinkerton's come with her first big publicity event is the death of jesse james and his gang. they famously firebombed his id and they--in a ra take the arm off his mother and kill his half-brother. violent stuff. host: you talk about the disguises and the characters they took on to say undercover. doctor that for a long amount of time -- he posed as a doctor. can you tell us more about that story? mr. lillert: this is in a small town called buffalo, wyoming. in the 1880's and 1890's are among the wealthiest americans. all the gilded are in cheyenne. they decided all the cattle are
being stolen. almost every settler is a criminal. these are ideas they get from detectives that were hired and operating there. there is the johnson county war where they hire an army of 50 people to invade his town of buffalo and all of northern wyoming with the death list of people they believe are thieves. the invasion fails. they only kill a couple than the people fight back and get them. after this the people are very alert. a priest comes to town who by all accounts was really just a traveling jesuit missionary. people say no, we don't want him here because he' could be a detective. the pinkerton's send a doctor in a town, a position. -- physician. they really needed one. he convinces them he is a real doctor. reports say things like spent the day analyzing urine samples
or doing checkups. he was probably medically trained by 19th-century standards. people trust doctors. while he is giving them checkups and operations he is talking to them and asking them questions. what you think of the renters? you think there are actually easier? you carry a gun with you? all these intelligence questions of people are not necessarily suspicious. although at one point he records of worker in a hotel saying, i do actually a doctor? we think you might not be. he convinces this person he is for real. host: where did you find those records? mr. lillert: the huntington library. it's an amazing set of hundreds of pages of detective reports that was in the private hands of a defendant of a cattle baron for about 100 years and they were just released now. thesemany people have stereotypes of the west based on
viewing western movies and books. do you find that people have also kind of a view of detectives? have you had to deal with that when talking about your subject at all? the historians that talk about detectives in the last 20 years are mostly labor historians. the pinkerton's were always the bad guys. they were breaking unions. there were a couple of decades for the history about how evil and of various these people were. it is true. they were doing other stuff too. i'm trying to look at them as how does the government in one place what about a subject, or maybe in 100 miles away were railroads don't go in the 1890's. we look at the early modern world, like a lot of governments have no idea what is going on on the peripheries. detectives are a major
development to find out who these people are. a question i come across a lot is where the people actually stealing that the did -- what the detectives are saying. one detective has been in these saloons and he says, every damn person is a feat of i believe what i'm hearing here. it's clear that not every person was a thief but there was that in crime. jesse james was a bandit. host: one the detectives that the information back to whoever hired them, what happens next? -- how didompanies the 70's deal with what the detectives were undercover -- uncovering? mr. lillert: by the 19th century most places there are not powerful police forces that we would associate with new york or london.
chevy's undercover detective agencies that are really companies that are ruling their own little domains around the mines and ranches. at the extreme scale of what happens next would be an invasion. kill all the thieves. that is not comment that we see a lot of vigilantism. it's another famous turboprop -- trope about the wild west that did happen. they say there is a lot of homicide in killing. host: you say it would be rare that this evidence should be collected and someone will be brought to justice before a judge somewhere. mr. lillert: they are trying to get a confession. once they get a confession you can bring them to court. one of the original pinkerton's, they take out the molly mcguire's that are supposedly an
evil conspiracy in the coal miners of western pennsylvania and they hang 10 or 20 of them based on this one detective's infiltration. it's not clear if these were all criminals. they were irish. it's a popularly debated subject. in the west in wyoming what i found is that people really don't like going to court. they prefer settling themselves. how do you see your work studying this subject interpreting to the overall understanding of western history? particularly it sounds like wyoming has been an area of focus for you. mr. lillert: wyoming, montana, colorado. places like that. the first thing is that detectives were almost everywhere. you think about them now in the --ies but in these all these and all these little rural areas they were in the saloons.
university of idaho in 1905 had cameson in the pinkerton's in and they started suspecting a runner on the tracking. there was a detective that ran on the tracking for a couple of months. -- track team for a couple of months. host: do you see that fitting into the larger picture of the west? mr. lillert: what government was in the west? what was the government doing? is not just individuals on the frontier. we think about the military cleansing native americans and the reservation system and the railroads. but the federal government has a huge role in taking in this huge region and making a part of the nation. the question is how did the exercise that power? a tentative conclusion would be is that they are farming out that power to govern and punish to these corporations and their detectives rather than forcing
it themselves with soldiers in the 1880's or federal marshals. so when did this use of did itves in this way, begin to phase out at a certain point? where do you see the trajectory going? mr. lillert: on one hand by the 19th 30's and the new deal congress had had enough of this labor espionage with the detective agencies and their investigations. there were new laws. it was at this point that that the pinkerton's destroy their old papers which makes my life a lot harder. we were going to talk with the surveillance society today. it was definitely something to think about when getting started on this research. it resemblesays what the detectives are doing in the 19th century. we take it for granted now that the company will know almost
every thing about us and all these random faxing can traces where we go. in an earlier world for most of human history it would've been -- i don't know if there is a direct connection between edward snowden today and the pinkerton's of the 1880's. it's very reminiscent. host: you are working on your dissertation at harvard. what is the timetable for finishing? do you hope to publish any of this in books someday? what is your plan? mr. lillert: i am in my third year now. we have some can't years -- ten years in the program. i think they try to push you out. i would like this to become a book, hopefully one that appeals to a wider audience. i like sharing the story. a lot of them probably have not been read in the last 100 years. host: thank you very much for
talking about your subject with us. mr. lillert: thank you for having me on. >> every weekend on american history tv on c-span3 48 hours of programs and events that tell our nations story. this morning beginning at 11:00 eastern, we're live from historic colonial williamsburg bringing you scenes from the 1770's. pe of the american revolution with reenactment of revolutionaries and british loyalists mingling on the streets. labels for the governors house and the virginia capitol building. we will take your calls and tweets about the colonial era with historians and experts. sunday morning at 10:00 on road to the white house rewind we will hear the aspirations of presidential hopefuls from 1987, former defense secretary donald rumsfeld shares his thoughts about running for manchester, new hampshire. from 1994, dick cheney explores as possible run in the 1996 presidential race. >> i used to think of it as a political calculation.
you would sit down and look at the landscape and try to figure out who else was going to run and what your prospects were. the more i think about it, the more becomes a personal decision rather than a political decision. >> at 11:30, southern illinois university edwardsville history professor robert pollette on the european sugar trade. its impact on race and slavery in the 1600s. >> sugar was one of the main motives of the slave trade in america. 75% of all africans brought to the americas in the 1600s were brought to areas where they were going and making sugar. it was a huge business. the firstars argue industrial enterprise in the western world. >> american history tv, all weekend, every weekend. only on c-span3.