By Al Johnson, PNAI Historian
A look back
“…the private detectives were tougher than today. Many sat around the Green Cigar Store on Third Avenue between Union and University streets. They’d play pan and take their calls at the card table. They weren’t people you wanted to fool with. To get into the business back then, you needed very little equipment. Like a mom-and-pop restaurant, you could get going with $500. Back then, you often wore dark clothes and rubber shoes, sometimes a dark overcoat, so you couldn’t be seen at night. You’d slip between houses to do surveillances.” – Windsor Olsen. (10)
When the Pacific Northwest Association of Investigators (PNAI) was founded in 1947, the private detective industry looked quite different than today. After decades of sensational press and colorful fictionalized accounts, the profession as a whole held a reputation in many communities that were less than upstanding. (1)
Public perceptions, combined with a general trend of heavily centralized over-regulation sweeping the nation during the “New Deal” era, threatened the very future of individual investigative shops in Seattle. The formation of PNAI, coinciding with a post-WWII trend in professionalization and a return to public-private cooperation, led to the ability of small and mid-sized private detective firms to keep their doors open. Eventually, other associations were formed across the nation and a gradual professionalization took root which grew into the craft of the professional private investigator that we have today. PNAI arrived at the right place and time to contribute to saving the growing private detective industry and contribute to increased independent professionalization and ethical operation.
The birth of the private detective 1833-1880
Some form of private investigation has existed throughout time and in various cultures. However, the modern Western version can trace its genesis like the contemporary police force to the turbulent decades of post-revolution era France. “In 1833, Eugene Francois Vidocq, a French soldier, criminal, and privateer founded the first known private detective agency, “Le Bureau des Renseignements Universels pur le commerce et L’Industriale”. (2)
The precedent for trouble and controversy seems to have been “baked into the D.N.A.” of the private detective field from its birth. The persons Vidocq hired were primarily criminals, and many times the police force attempted to shut the private operations down, alleging criminal misconduct on the part of Vidocq. However, the French courts acquitted him, and the industry continued to develop. Despite the setbacks, Le Bureau developed many pioneering techniques that the French police were not using at the time. “Vidocq is credited with introducing record-keeping, criminology, and ballistics to criminal investigations. 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.” (3)
Almost 20 years after the Paris PIs set up shop, Alan Pinkerton began the first private detective agency in America. In 1850 the Pinkerton National Detective Agency was born and would grow at times rival the U.S. Army Reserves in the number of employees. The story of the Pinkerton agency could fill volumes in itself. But its trajectory set precedents for much of the early and current American private industry of civilian sleuths. Whereas the French private detectives were primarily working for an emerging French Middle Class that was underserved by the governmental police forces and had the capital to hire their own, the American paradigm was initially focused on the larger corporate accounts. America’s rapid expansion, large areas of non-incorporated territory where businesses operated, and the need to improve efficiencies in a conglomerate workforce made a market demand Pinkerton could fill. The first clients for Pinkerton were large companies, mainly in the transportation field.
During the Civil War, Pinkerton engaged in what many today would recognize as contract support work to the government. The Pinkerton Agency pioneered contracting work of the time, and instead of supporting government agencies, it filled the role now run by government agencies. Many people still do not know that it was a private detective company that was the first to implement a large-scale wartime field intelligence collection, counter intelligence spy detection, and the forerunner of the Secret Service Presidential protective detail. Only later did the U.S. Government create Federal agencies to replace what the Pinkerton men and women had been doing on behalf of the U.S. Government.
And it was indeed men AND women that the government would have to replace. The Pinkerton Detective Agency had set another groundbreaking standard during their early years: The mysterious Kate Warme became the first female private detective in America when Pinkerton hired her in 1856. Warne was credited with numerous successful missions, including escorting President-Elect Lincoln to D.C. to be sworn in, a spy for the Union operating behind enemy lines in the South, and being an undercover investigator in multiple high-profile cases. (4)
Late 19th Century scandals
However, after the war years, the large-scale and corporate focus of Pinkerton and follow-on agencies that mimicked Pinkerton, often created by her former agents, would gain infamy in some quarters of the U.S. due to their violent methods against labor unions and other organizations. The limits of private detective work had not been set. In that regulation-free era, Pinkerton acted at times like a government entity rather than what we today think of as a private enterprise. The power and sometimes lawless behavior of large private detective firms in the late 19th Century caused the U.S. Government to get involved in 1893. The Anti-Pinkerton Law, as it was known, was codified in 5 U.S.C. 53 and stated, “An individual employed by the Pinkerton Detective Agency, or similar organization, may not be employed by the Government of the United States or the government of the District of Columbia.”(5)(6)
These sometimes violent actions against Americans on behalf of large corporations drew negative press and even satirical condemnation from literary observers such as Mark Twain. (7) Twain ridiculed the agency in multiple books and articles. America had two opinions of Private Detectives by the end of the 19th Century that were mirrored by Twain’s writings: That of the overbearing, violent, and somewhat dense corporate fixer and that of an intelligent, independent, and noble questor of truth.
The reality at the time, of course, fell somewhere in between these two extremes.
Painting a new picture, the early 20th Century
The 1920s, 30s, and 40s saw another shift in the public perception of the private detectives, as a lone, noir-like figure evolved from fictional media in the American collective consciousness. The public square was awash in images of a questing square-jawed solitary knight archetype that was now competing with the 19th Century version of a skulking and amoral shadow stalker for hire.
While the late 19th Century fictional accounts mostly painted the lone detective archetype as a Sherlock-inspired cerebral savant, the 20th Century authoritarian “New Deal” era saw Private Detectives evolve as a symbolic counter to the loss of freedoms and liberty during that time. (8) A new genre of costumed “men of action” such as The Shadow, Green Hornet, Slam Bradley, and Batman emerged to give a visceral sense of agency to a population increasingly feeling powerless. While many do not associate these with private detectives today, in the 1930s, they were written as such, and audiences recognized them in that genre. Radio, newspaper serials, and movies painted a picture of the private eye as an occasional costumed loner outside of society, operating independently of restrictions of both government and civil rules. Real-life Pinkerton detective Dashiel Hammet (who spent time in Tacoma and used that city as a backdrop for the real-world incident in the opening chapter of The Maltese Falcon) further developed the lone knight image in his literary works. His character of Sam Spade, later played on screen by Humphrey Bogart, made Hamett’s noir archetype known across America. The Maltese Falcon was one of many stories that brought the hard-boiled lone knight image from the page to the silver screen during this period. (9) Unfortunately, a series of headlines throughout the 1930s and 1940s newspapers that were primarily negative and sensationalist added to the image of a lone, action-oriented, rulebreaking private detective. “Bremerton Woman Says She Paid Man to Have Her Husband Slain…Mother of 2 Pays $324 in Murder Plot…To a Private Investigator.” “Underhand Work Seen in Politics…detective agency had engaged in political wiretapping in several states.” Perhaps the most damaging was the national headlines of the infamous exploits of private detective Gaston Means Means was best known for swindling hundreds of thousands of dollars in exchange for such fraudulent claims as to knowing the whereabouts of the Lindburgh baby. Even headlines such as the one regarding the private detective who barely survived an attempted bombing by three Los Angeles police Captains had the potential to raise suspicion as to what the private detective did that made three L.A. Police Captains want to blow him up.
These fictional and real accounts, combined with the lack of self-regulation and ethics within the industry, created an environment where an increasingly fascist New Dealist mindset saw an opening to regulate many independent operations. To give but one example of how the City of Seattle viewed the industry, the city placed private detectives under the same business regulations as Massage Parlors, Gambling Dens, and Turkish Baths. Not exactly a stellar endorsement.
Not all private detectives of the time were “mom and pop” in their approach. The most famous was the remarkable Luke May, who hung his private detective business shingle in Seattle in 1919 and finally retired in the early 1960s. During that time, May was an exemplary innovator and inculcated professional process within all investigations and focused on scientific evidence collection, handling, and evaluation. Some of his innovations were patented and led, like the earlier French pioneers of private detective skills, to adoption by police investigators. May wrote many handbooks that private and law enforcement organizations used; some techniques are still in use today. The police frequently used his lab in Seattle for forensic examination and reports. A true Northwest Private Eye pioneer that bucked the trend of the day.
One new development that was emerging came about as a byproduct of the social and governmental changes due to WWII. The war had drafted millions into civil or military service, and the process of indoctrination into the military and some civilian organizations was highly systematic, regimented, and “scientific.” It inculcated in millions a baseline paradigm that systematic training was vital to any profession and that professionalism came as a byproduct. Before WWII, there were various “mail-order” private eye schools that promised training, but after WWII in the Pacific Northwest, there emerged a traditional brick and mortar private eye school. Jewell’s Detective School opened in room 514 in the Volker Building and accepted the new G.I. Bill payments the government had just instituted to provide secondary and vocational education to the millions of returning G.I.s. Returning military personnel could use the government benefits to learn the legal, scientific, administrative, and other skills necessary to enter the private detective industry. (11)
Unfortunately, there were not enough Luke Mays or Jewell Detective School alumni to change the opinion of many municipal regulators. Seattle gradually increased the regulatory and financial burden upon the small and medium-sized shops to thin the field. One City ordinance, proposed in 1948, had the potential to deal a knockout blow to the small independent private eye.
Led by Councilmen James Scavotto and William L. Norton, the proposal would raise the fees for operating a Private Detective business out of reach for most small and medium-sized agencies, requiring fingerprinting and positive identification by city law enforcement officials and other measures. The city admitted that the regulations were sparked by a “concern over the number of young graduates of private detective schools.”
Pinkerton supported the higher fees as it would knock out their smaller competition. Their lawyer, John N. Sylvester, stated at the May 1948 City Council meeting that the proposed $5,000 indemnity bond was needed as the current fee structure wasn’t harsh enough against small detective agencies. “Under the present law, all a man needs to go into the private detective business is to have $120-100 for a license and $20 for a surety bond.” (12)
Thankfully, the small and medium-sized Private Detective operators now had a more powerful voice.
PNAI was able to provide its lawyer to advocate and counter the Pinkerton and Seattle City position. Edgar R. Rombauer, speaking on behalf of the PNAI members, stated that the $5,000 would “put most of the small firms out of business.” And “would require the posting of virtually a 100 per cent collateral.” Thankfully the City Council shelved the proposals, and PNAI helped to salvage the “mom and pop” agencies from oblivion while contributing to professionalism and self-regulation that would reform the image of the Private Investigator and reduce the regulatory burdens that were detrimental to the profession.
The city would continue to try and regulate the private detective industry out of business at various times, including ten years later, in 1959, when City Councilman Charles M. Carroll proposed limiting the number of Private Detective businesses based on the overall city population, fixing the number of agencies to 28. Thankfully industry counsel successfully defended the right of private detectives to operate under reasonable existing police power supervision, and the need for a fix on shops based on population was unreasonable and out of bounds for municipal powers. (Seattle Daily Times May 6, 1959). That same year, King County instituted its regulation on reasonable private detective businesses. (13)
Ten years after the New Deal and a revamped image of the private detective in fictionalized accounts, the industry saw a more comprehensive evolution to a more professional and disciplined craft. Also, at this time, PNAI was a decade into advocating for the private detective community in the Pacific Northwest, and a gradual increase in professionalism and a renewed view of private detectives among the public in fictionalized accounts combined to prepare the way for the eventual statewide regulations. However, this time, the private eyes had a voice.
PNAI Historians Note
I am looking for information on Washington State private investigators and PNAI from the 1950s through the mid-1960s during the “Atomic Age.” if you liked this article, please let us know. The research has led to some interesting P.N.W. private investigator personalities like Luke May and rabbity holes like the Jewell Detective School, which, while not directly related to PNAI, are interesting for the lineage of the P.I. craft here in Washington State. If you have any material, information, or leads, don’t hesitate to contact me at Al@TeamSPI.net or via the PNAI leadership team.
- Private Detective vs. Private Investigator: For purposes of this article, Private Detective and Private Investigator can be used interchangeably. Due to the majority of historical material used in this article referring to the profession as Private Detective, this article will, by extension, utilize that term more often than the current Private Investigator.
- https://pinkerton.com/our-insights/blog/unsung-heroes-first-female-detective-kate-warne and https://explorethearchive.com/kate-warne-first-female-detective
- The private detective profession was reviled in some quarters in the U.S. during the late 19th and early 20th Century mainly due to the reputation of the Pinkerton Detective Agency as “spies and agitators” who worked for the American industry against Unions and other groups such as the infamous “Molly McGuires.” The image of the private detective as agent and agent provocateur for industrial concerns continued well into the 20th Century in the Pacific Northwest. Boeing and other manufacturing giants used private detectives to not only keep Union disruption down but handle issues ranging from corporate sabotage/espionage to wartime counterintelligence duty preventing theft and sabotage by foreign agents and sympathizers. Some saw even individual private detectives like Luke May as “anti-labor” due to his investigation of the Centralia violence between the American Legion and the I.W.W. after WWI. This image of the private detective agency as a tool of Industry and Government was offset somewhat in the 1930s due to the popularity of the “hard-boiled lone detective” archetype in fictional books and film. Weiss, Robert P. “Private Detective Agencies and Labour Discipline in the United States, 1855-1946.” The Historical Journal 29, no. 1 (1986): 87–107. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2639257. and Weiss, Robert. “THE EMERGENCE AND TRANSFORMATION OF PRIVATE DETECTIVE INDUSTRIAL POLICING IN THE UNITED STATES, 1850-1940.” Crime and Social Justice, no. 9 (1978): 35–48. http://www.jstor.org/stable/29766033. The 1930s also saw more anti-Pinkerton and prominent private detective and security firm investigations by the government. The 74th Congress opened an investigation into Pinkerton, Burns, and other agencies used by large corporations against unions. The report, Violations of Free Speech and Assembly and Interference with Rights of Labor, was published in 1936 and again in 1937. However, the committee continued to investigate well into WWII and was part of the New Deal era regulating U.S. industry. The negative consequences of this report filtered down to the state and municipal levels and potentially affected local governments’ attitudes towards private detective groups. 1936 Report https://www.google.com/books/edition/Violations_of_Free_Speech_and_Assembly_a/1Q03AQAAIAAJ and 1937 Report https://books.google.de/books?id=tTjRAAAAMAAJ&lpg
- Mark Twain famously wrote multiple stories regarding private detectives, some favorable, most not so fair, especially when dealing with the exploits of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. In some stories, Twain and others used the term \”Amateur Detective\” when referring to the private detective profession. An analysis of Twain\’s writing shows the growing unease with the ability of a private company to merge with governmental authority and impede the rights of American citizens. He also had issue with the \”Sherlockian\” ability given to many literary amateur detectives to have \”god-like\” knowledge of who did it and stand above mortals in their intellect. Twain preferred the \”detective of the people\” who were flawed in reasoning just like everyone else, but who through perseverance and common sense, could solve the case. For these positive characteristics, he used Tom Sawyer as a detective and narrated through the voice of Huck Finn, two characters who were immensely popular in America at the time. Whitley, John S. “‘Pudd’nhead Wilson’: Mark Twain and the Limits of Detection.” Journal of American Studies 21, no. 1 (1987): 55–70. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27538249.
- Ousborne, Jeff. “‘Something Different That Still Spells Law’: ‘Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar’ and the Fate of the Radio Detective.” Studies in Popular Culture 37, no. 2 (2015): 1–23. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43940355. Ousborne posits “New Deal” era characterizations of private detectives whose central theme is “a profound lack of faith in civic and government institutions…administrators are corrupt, and the police are helpless.” Post-war, after millions served in or supported the U.S. Government via its war drive, saw a metamorphosis in how the public saw the relationship between citizens and government. New private detective archetypes were created, such as Johnny Dollar. He sought to create a character that was an “avatar of ‘corporate liberalism” and sought to somehow resolve the abuses of the “New Deal” in a post-war detente between government and the people in attempting to write characters and plot lines showing cooperation and not competition and repression between the two groups.
- The comparison between Hammett’s noir-like private detectives and 19th Century archetypes should not be confused with how Hammett and Pinkerton viewed the private eye business or profession. Hammett delved deep into the pathos of the need for a private investigator and the social disruptions that caused one to call upon the shamus in the first place. Hammett seems to have shied away from the faith that reason and the rational process could be a solution to anything. His experience and disillusionment with World War I would have potentially infused him with that belief. Pinkerton and his vision for 19th Century detective agencies were still infused with the confidence that science, process, and organization would win the day. Pinkerton saw a massive nationwide organization surveilling just about everything of vital importance to the state in a systematic manner. For more on the contrast in visions between the 19th and 20th Century detectives, see Raczkowski, Christopher T. “FROM MODERNITY’S DETECTION TO MODERNIST DETECTIVES: NARRATIVE VISION IN THE WORK OF ALLAN PINKERTON AND DASHIELL HAMMETT.” Modern Fiction Studies 49, no. 4 (2003): 629–59. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26286791.
- The Seattle Daily Times, September 5, 1982
- The Jewell Detective Schools founder, Moro Jewell, formerly with the U.S. Army Intelligence branch, had been tasked during WWII to go undercover throughout the U.S. and investigate any individuals or groups that would impede industrial war production. In that capacity, he joined the Communist Party in 1945 and was instrumental in later unmasking some of the P.N.W. Communist agents to the U.S. Government. His information gathered when infiltrating the King County Communist party cast a light on the foreign influence operations in the P.N.W. https://depts.washington.edu/labhist/cpproject/images/hearings/canwell/3%20Moro%20Jewell.PDF
Alumni from the Jewell Detective School entered service as industrial agents, police officers, and private detectives. One of Bellevue Police Department’s founding officers was George R. Quarnstrom, who, after serving in the U.S. Army, took a year at the Jewell Detective School and later joined the new Bellevue P.D. in 1955. https://bellevuewa.gov/sites/default/files/media/pdf_document/1955_AnnualReport.pdf
- The Seattle Daily Times, May 25, 1948.
- Applicants would be cleared through the local Sheriff (Tim McCullough at the time), fingerprints checked by the F.B.I. to ensure no out-of-state shenanigans, and finally, a $100 annual fee for agencies and $5 a year for individuals.