A Short History of Private Investigation

When the average person thinks of the private investigator, an image of Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon or Jack Nicholson in Chinatown frequently comes to mind. But how did the private detective business come about?

Nineteenth-century France

Ironically, the founder of the first-know private detective agency in 1833 was himself an accused criminal. His name was Eugène François Vidocq, a French soldier and privateer. He was known for using former prisoners as agents and for creatively bending the law to meet his ends. But he also invented many private investigation techniques that are still in use today, including the scientific study of crime, record-keeping and ballistics. Some of his innovations are still used by French police today.

As the industry increased in size during the ensuing decades, private investigators became de facto police officers, performing tasks that traditional law enforcement was unable to unwilling to do. For example, PIs were hired to hold back laborers who’d begun to revolt against the wealthy during the French Revolution.

Investigative agencies in the U.S.

In 1850, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency was established in 1850 by Allan Pinkerton. His claim to fame was stopping an attempt to assassinate then President-Elect Abraham Lincoln.

Like the French detectives, Pinkerton’s agents also served as enforcers, carrying out such duties as military contractors and security guards. At its height, Pinkerton’s had more agents than the U.S. army, causing an alarmed state of Ohio to outlaw the agency due to the possibility of that it could be hired out as a private army.

Again, echoing memories of the French revolution, businessmen hired Pinkerton’s guards to keep strikers and unionists out of their factories during the labor strife of the late 19th century.

The agency’s logo, which featured an eye along with the motto “We never sleep” inspired the term private eye. Pinkerton agents were hired to track the outlaws Jesse James, the Reno brothers, and the Wild Bunch including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The Pinkerton Agency also initiated the practice of clipping and filing newspaper stories for reference in investigations. Pinkerton’s collection of mug shots and methodology formed the first criminal database.

It was not until the prosperity of the 1920s that the private investigator became affordable for the average American.

The history of the private investigator is indeed fascinating, and it helps us to understand the role they play in our society. If you find yourself in need of a specialized service that goes beyond the scope of traditional law enforcement, a private eye may be just what you need.

The field has changed much since those early days. Over the past century, the business has evolved to cover many other functions, including corporate investigations, infidelity, hidden assets, employee screenings and more. Modern technology has also provided the PI with a large arsenal of investigative tools unheard of in the pioneering days.

Hire a licensed professional

When selecting a private investigator, it’s of the utmost importance that they are licensed and experienced in their field. Kelmar Global employs private investigators who have worked for state law enforcement agencies, federal law enforcement bureaus, various branches of the U.S. military and large corporations.

Oftentimes, a search for hidden bank accounts or missing records will turn up a story even bigger than you’d anticipated. It’s the qualified private investigator’s skill that helps clients see the bigger picture.

Kelly E. Riddle is the President of Kelmar and Associates Investigations (www.KelmarGlobal.com) as well as a certified member of the Texas Association of Licensed Investigators (https://www.tali.org/).

Kelmar Global

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