Chapter 18 – Humpty Dumpty
Our editor-in-chief, one Thaddeus Z. “Angus” McCreavy, has recuperated enough to once again begin issuing edicts. The latest:
“Enough with this tomfoolery! These is serious fake journalism, and I didn’t pay for you pack of vo-tech dropouts to get all educated at that Learning Annex class just to ramble on about dingbat conspiracies and has-beens in banana-hammocks! You clowns find a real topic and find it now, dagnabbit!!”
Thus, we have had to temporarily shelve our plans for an in-depth expose on drunken perverts watching lesbian mud-wrestling, in favor of something more substantive. We’ll keep diligently researching that future post, and meanwhile you look at The Pinkerton Act.
Meet Brian X. Scott. Army veteran of nearly 13 years, albeit drummed out for corresponding with the Soviet government during the height of the cold war. Former government civil-service bureaucrat, having worked as a procurement analyst with the U.S. Geological Survey.
Apparently semi-retired on a government pension now, Mr. Scott ran as a write-in anti-war Congressional candidate in 2006, reportedly promising U.S. taxdollar payments (intentional ones, that is) to Iraqi insurgents a/k/a freedom fighters. Perhaps that last plank had something to do with his garnering a total of 12 votes.
Oh, and Mr. Scott likes to sue the government.
Specifically, he files complaints, protests, and lawsuits arguing that a hoary old statute commonly called The Pinkerton Act outlaws government use of private security contractors or, as he knows them, mercenaries.
So let’s explore the story of this Pinkerton Act thing, and then we’ll see how Mr. Scott is faring in his campaign.
[For the record, while we don’t see eye-to-eye with Mr. Scott on everything, this is a really interesting argument and he deserves kudos for seeking to hold the government to the law—at least for the first few attempts.]
About 1850, ace
The Pinkertons used cutting-edge criminal science techniques, including some of their own invention, such as tailing a suspect and undercover work, in order to solve a series of high-profile train robberies. Along the way, Pinkerton worked for a railroad president named George McLellan and for his attorney, Mr. Lincoln, as well.
When the Civil War came, Pinkerton’s men were hired to guard that same lawyer, who was now called Mr. President rather than Esquire. There was probably ugly press about corruption and the insider connections that Halibur, er, the Pinkertons had, but in retrospect, their hire just might have had something to do with their exceptional track record—and the fact that they’d already foiled one assassination plot on then President-elect Lincoln, gratis.
Pinkerton and his men went on to guard the President for much of the war, to form the spy/counterspy Union Intelligence Service—better known nowadays as the Secret Service—and to chase Jesse James, the Youngers, Butch Cassidy, Sundance and others. These were high times for the Pinkertons, and some of their real-life stories (e.g., the Farrington capture) are more compelling than many recent action flicks.
The Pinkerton’s episode of interest to us, though, is the one that made headlines around the world: the Homestead Strike.
It was June 29, 1892. The nation’s largest steelmaker and its largest craft (vice labor) union had been in contract negotiations for some time over the
Negotiations broke down, probably intentionally. Carnegie Steel put up a three-mile long, 12-foot high stockade fence around the works and locked the unionists out. The workers responded by seizing the mill, running out the sheriff’s department, and sealing off the town.
Carnegie manager Henry Frick determined to re-open the plant using non-union workers / strikebreakers / scabs (choose your flavor of hyperbole). When the workers and the company had gone through this drill three years prior, the strikers drove off the sheriff and 150 of his men, so Frick sent in via barge 300 armed Pinkerton guards tasked with securing the mill.
When the Pinkertons, in the company of deputy sheriff Joseph Gray, pulled up to the steelworks the morning of July 6th, they faced somewhere between five and ten thousand people on both riverbanks. As they came ashore, they were met with a hail of stones. Someone started shooting—ever notice how it is always the “other side” (see here vs. here)—and the battle was on.
For twelve hours, the opposing groups exchanged fire, with the Pinkertons initially holding the upper hand with their superior weapons (.45-70
Who doesn’t have a neighbor with a cannon laying around out back in the shed?
The strikers were also murderously creative. They launched a burning raft at the barge, a speeding railcar full of burning oil, a flaming oil slick, a natural gas explosion, and numerous dynamite blasts, but to their frustration failed to kill many Pinkertons.
Meanwhile, the county sheriff repeatedly wired the governor for help and was basically told: ‘Hey, good luck with that, Ace.’ (One cable read: “Local authorities must exhaust every means at their command for the preservation of peace.”).
In the end it was a bit of a stalemate, as the crowd couldn’t take the armed barge, but the Pinkertons were low on drinking water and more or less trapped inside their roasting-hot barge.
One PBS special described the eventual surrender this way:
Four times the Pinkertons raised a white flag. Four times it was shot down by one of the three hundred sharpshooters positioned [nearby]. At 5 PM the workers finally accepted the Pinkertons’ surrender. Three workers and seven Pinkertons were dead.
The disarmed prisoners were marched up the hill, and soon the crowd was happily beating them, stoning them, clubbing them, some were shot, and one had an eye gouged out with an umbrella. The Nation (yes, The Nation) described the whole incident thusly: “The conduct of the
On July 11th, the Governor finally ordered the state militia to
[Even a century-plus later there is still difference of opinion over this incident, but the above appears to be the majority consensus. If you don’t like our Homestead for Dummies, a more thorough explanation is available here.]
The conventional wisdom is that the media furor over the
This is an interesting result, since
But, the fact is that the investigations were already underway when
The pols didn’t want to give up the support of either big labor or industry, so who did that leave without a seat when the music stopped? Who gets thrown under the bus? Look out, Pinkertons!
[This is not to say Pinkerton men were good or bad, but rather that the political machinations are instructive. And timeless.]
In any event, if you read through the House Report linked above, as well as House Report No. 2447, 52nd Congress, Second Session (1893) and Senate Report No. 1280 from the same Session, you see that Congress was not generally opposed to the Pinkerton’s detective business, or even their work as a private watch force in general. Rather, their apparent desire was an absolute ban on the bringing of Pinkerton guards in from out of state to intervene in labor strikes.
We are not concerned with their employment as private watchmen for residences and banks, or in their employment for the detection of ordinary crimes. It is only so far as that force is used in bodies in strikes, and in the prevention of strikes that we are concerned.
In 1893, however, our friends in D.C. had not yet discovered the unlimited miracle power of the interstate commerce clause, and therefore concluded they lacked the authority to enact such a federalism-busting ban.
But, a bear’s gotta eat, a politician’s gotta get re-elected. So Congress, as always, had to have something concrete about which to speechify.
They passed a law that read: “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.”
That’s it. The whole thing. Seems somewhat strange to us in an age of signing statements and statutes that require handtrucks to haul off of Capitol Hill, but that’s all that the Pinkerton Act says.
So why does this one-sentence, 114-year-old statute merit two whole posts in our examination of armed contractor issues?
Whether the allegory appears striking to you or not, there are a number of people who claim that modern private security companies are “similar organizations” and so cannot be hired by the federal government. Mr. Scott included.
In fact, we were surprised how many people—even those who are to some extent great supporters of private action—not only make that comparison generally, but expressly proclaim that our strawman, Blackwater is “The Pinkertons of the 21st Century.”
It’s a slithy little argument, but as we said, it was enough to hold up award of a $475 million dollar contract this summer.
Next time, we’ll get to the meat of this story—how Mr. Scott is faring and whether that trendo ‘Blackwater is Pinkertons’ thing stands up in court.
And, if we have time, we’ll take a look at a little-seen piece of Blackwater video we found gathering dust in a random corner of the ‘net.
For part 2, click here.
The Postscript: Come’on, MountainRunner, how trifling and tawdry do you think we are? You expect us to shamelessly pander ourselves out just for another reader or two?
Just to check, though, since the soft-core art porn thing has already been done, would pleather and fake boobs be sufficient? Just speaking theoretically, of course.
What people are saying about The Rabbit:
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