James McParland was the real-life inspiration for Patrick and Sissy’s pursuer: James McKenna
The lobby of the Idanha Hotel in Boise, Idaho, was the scene of great excitement in the spring and summer of 1907. There, most mornings, sat a large man with a luxurious, curled mustache, smoking cigars and loudly holding forth, surrounded by newspaper reporters and gawping onlookers. Behind him, guarding against the threat of assassination, stood a former cowboy, armed with a Colt .45 and a 20-inch blade hidden inside a walking stick. “Most pass by with awed looks,” a witness wrote, “while some few are proud to be seen sitting alongside and basking in the great man’s halo.” One of those who stopped to stare was the actress Ethel Barrymore, in town with a touring company. The object of curiosity introduced himself: “I’m a Pinkerton man.”
James McParland was not just a Pinkerton man. He was the living embodiment of Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, the most famous sleuth in America’s first detective organization, the lawman who had smashed the Molly Maguires in the eastern coal fields and brought the Wild Bunch to justice in the West, a figure who inspired adulation and loathing in roughly equal measure.
McParland was in Boise for the trial of the leaders of the Western Federation of Miners, accused of the murder of Frank Steunenberg, who, as governor of Idaho, had crushed a miners’ rebellion in the Coeur d’Alene district. McParland, the scourge of organized labor, had tracked down the suspects, extracted several confessions and planted a spy on the defense team. The case was seen as a major battle in America’s ferocious labor wars. Tension was high, and McParland was thoroughly enjoying the attention. He took Miss Barrymore upstairs and lifted a mattress to reveal an arsenal of Winchesters, remarking that “there were rifles under every mattress in the hotel.”
McParland was a showman and a braggart, a bully prepared to bend and break the law in pursuit of his quarry, but he was also a man of high intelligence and remarkable courage, a supremely successful law enforcer and an intensely polarizing force in the confrontation between workers and bosses during the growth of America’s labor unions. To mine and railway owners, government officials and bank tellers in fear of armed robbery, he was a bulwark against lawlessness and union extremism. To mine workers, union members and labor leaders, he was a symbol of ruthless oppression, the hated hireling of the rich, an agent provocateur, a perjurer and a sneak. Hyperbole followed McParland everywhere. The Appeal to Reason, a pro-union newspaper, described him thus: “Were the world’s supply of emetic poured down the hot throat of hell, the ultimate imp of the last vile vomit would be an archangel in good standing compared with this feculent fiend.” Now that is balanced reporting.
Locating the real James McParland amid the invective, acclaim and invention (including his own) is no easy task, and Beau Riffenburgh, author of “Shackleton’s Forgotten Expedition,” has made good use of the recently released Pinkerton archives to produce the fullest and fairest biography to date. Yet McParland continues to be an oddly mysterious character, obscured by his very notoriety.
He was born in, or around, 1844, in County Armagh, in the northern Irish province of Ulster, and joined the great Irish Catholic exodus to America in his 20s. After working as a laborer, policeman and liquor store owner, he was taken on by Allan Pinkerton, the hard-nosed Scot whose name would become synonymous with private crime detection. (From the Pinkerton’s trademark, a single, unblinking eye, comes the term “private eye.”)
McParland’s big break came when Franklin B. Gowen, a railroad magnate who aimed to gain control of the coal industry, hired Pinkerton’s agency to investigate (by which he meant destroy) the Molly Maguires, the shadowy Irish brotherhood of miners and tavern owners accused of a string of violent crimes in the Pennsylvania coalfields. The Molly Maguires, like McParland, have been subject to widely divergent interpretations. Some have depicted them as class warriors, standing up for miners in an era of appallingly low wages, crushing poverty and dire working conditions. In the eyes of Pinkerton, McParland and most of America, they were thugs and terrorists, responsible for sabotage, beatings and at least 16 murders. A hard-drinking, bare-knuckle bruiser himself, McParland successfully infiltrated the Molly Maguires, using the name McKenna, a mission of such stress and danger that all his hair fell out. His testimony helped send 20 men to the gallows, including 10 on a single day in 1877, remembered as “the day of the rope.”
Riffenburgh deftly undermines the more extravagant claims made on behalf of the Molly Maguires, noting that many of their misdeeds were carried out as “responses to personal grievances” and “not as part of the larger class struggle.” McParland’s role in the prosecutions is deeply contentious. He was prepared to lie on the witness stand, and some of the confessions he claimed to have heard were too good to be true. Is it likely, Riffenburgh wonders, that “so many men involved in heinous crimes would have so lightly confessed to someone they had not known long” and “in such a way that no one else could hear the conversation”? The defense insisted that McParland actively encouraged crimes he then failed to prevent.
McParland’s motivation was also obscure. Riffenburgh wanders into the realm of speculation in search of a moral impulse behind McParland’s campaign against the Molly Maguires, suggesting he “might even have seen it as an opportunity to altruistically help the Irish Catholic mining community.” There is little evidence to support this, and a great deal to suggest that he was guided by a sense of his own rectitude, as well as personal ambition, a taste for subterfuge and a determination to get a conviction, whatever that required. He believed, Riffenburgh reminds us, that “the end justifies the means” — the traditional rationale of brutal, driven men.
The Molly Maguire trials made McParland famous, and infamous, and won him literary immortality. During a trans-Atlantic crossing, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle fell into conversation with Allan Pinkerton’s son William, who told him about the case. In the Sherlock Holmes story “The Valley of Fear,” Conan Doyle duly created Birdy Edwards, alias John McMurdo, the detective who infiltrates the violent “Scowrers” of the Pennsylvania coalfields.
McParland rose to become manager of Pinkerton’s operations west of the Mississippi, working in concert with the cowboy detective Charlie Siringo, later his Idaho bodyguard and author of one of the best-titled works in the literature of the Wild West: “A Texas Cowboy; Or, Fifteen Years on the Hurricane Deck of a Spanish Pony.”
Over the next 30 years, McParland investigated (or, more accurately, supervised others in investigating, and then took credit for) a string of high-level cases involving train robbery, swindling and the notorious Wild Bunch led by Butch Cassidy. His efforts to convict union leaders for the Steunenberg murder failed, in part because of the dubious way he had assembled the evidence, but the case only increased his celebrity.
The “Great Detective” was created by a feverish press and McParland’s self-mythologizing. He kept his feelings to himself. “We will never know for certain what he believed, what he felt, why he acted as he did,” Riffenburgh writes. It’s a candid admission, but one that inevitably leaves the reader unsatisfied. McParland was the prototype of a character that has become an adored part of America’s cultural landscape, the hard-boiled gumshoe, the lone sleuth in search of justice. He was the first private eye in the public eye, and yet he remains strangely private.
PINKERTON’S GREAT DETECTIVE
The Amazing Life and Times of James McParland
By Beau Riffenburgh
Illustrated. 384 pp. Viking. $32.95.