Review: True Detective Stories From the Archives of the Pinkertons by Cleveland Moffet

True Detective Stories - Cleveland Moffett

Free on Gutenberg or Internet Archive.

Wikipedia: Pinkerton Detective Agency

Reading in progress blogged about here.

2 1/2 Stars mainly for dull use of exciting stories and because it's not going on my Would Read Again list. Almost made 3 but some of the period stereotypes changed my mind (more on that nearer the end where I eyeroll over it).


This book is basically the true crime of the late 1800s. Unfortunately it's not as interesting as it should be - even with some really great crime stories the author makes them drag on in parts. I found it interesting here and there, but more as obscure history. (I do have a couple of other (free) Pinkerton books to read, but these were ones written by Allan Pinkerton. They're supposed to be really self promotional, so I'm curious to see how he'll write about himself.)


You could file these under history - but I'd really call them history-ish, or true crime. Mainly because the author is getting his material - I assume - from the Pinkerton archives. There's no preface so he may not have been able to interview any of the Pinkertons himself - who knows. True crime is always a slightly suspect genre for good reasons - it has a long history of being purposefully graphic to entice readers to buy it. Being factually accurate wasn't really a priority - telling a story was. But the author here isn't really going for graphic details or good story telling - this is far more police procedural type stuff. But again, not as exciting as that sounds. (It makes you wonder how much the author actually wrote and how much was just quoted directly from the files.)


As usual, I think the best idea I can give you about the book is to quote some parts of it. And also as usual, I'll warn you that the bits I've chosen may make the book seem more interesting than the whole thing actually is. (I should also add that I used this as one of my Books To Fall Asleep To, which I pick on purpose not to tempt me to stay up later in order to keep reading.)


From The Rock Island Express, ending paragraphs:

"About a year after the trial Schwartz's Chicago wife died of consumption. On her death-bed she made a full confession. She said that her husband's mind had been inflamed by the constant reading of sensational literature of the dime-novel order; and that under this evil influence he had planned the robbery, believing that it would be easy to intimidate a weak little man like Nichols, and escape with the money without harming him..."


[Mrs. Schwartz gives robbery money to a lawyer on orders from her husband to pay for the husband's trial costs.]


"...Superintendent Robertson remembers well the dying woman's emotion as she made this solemn declaration, one calculated to compromise seriously a man of some standing and belonging to an honored profession. Her body was wasted with disease, and she knew that her end was near. There was a flush on her face, and her eyes were bright with hatred as she declared that not one dollar of that money was ever returned to her, or ever used in paying the costs of her husband's trial. Nor was one dollar of it ever returned to the railroad company, or the bank officials, who were the real owners."


The chapter called Destruction of the Renos was really the most interesting of the book. I'd never read about the history of these outlaws - but I've also not read any Indiana history (I honestly can't remember).


From The Destruction of the Renos:

"...Moore, Gerroll, and Sparks were arrested shortly after, and placed on a train to be taken from Seymour to Brownstown, the county-seat. But they never reached their destination. As the train stopped at a small station some miles from Brownstown, a band of masked men, well armed, rushed on board, overpowered the officers, hurried the three outlaws away to a neighboring farm-yard, and there strung them up to a beech-tree, while an old German who owned the farm looked on approvingly.


This was the first act of retributive justice done by the Secret Vigilance Committee of Southern Indiana, an organization as extraordinary as the situation it was created to deal with. The entire population of that part of Indiana seemed to have risen in self-defense to crush out lawlessness."

The book had been pretty mild on violence (except for some home-invasion business in the first chapter) - so I was surprised by the lynching. I had not seen that coming.


A pause here for some wikipedia links, for those wanting some more history here:

Vigilance Committee

Reno Gang Lynchings

Also if you're wanting to root up more info on the Secret Vigilance Committee of Southern Indiana, it was also called the Jackson County Vigilance Committee or the Scarlet Mask Society. (I couldn't find anything more, but then I didn't look for long.)


The history of the Reno gang made good fodder for movies, and it'll seem familiar to those of you who've watched westerns. In fact the bit I'm about to quote is almost entirely in the wikipedia entry. But I think you'll see why I'm quoting it all - it's got some great visuals.

"The final passage in the history of the Reno gang occurred about a month later, in the latter part of November, 1868, when one day a passenger-car was dropped off at Seymour, Indiana, some distance from the station. There was nothing remarkable in this, nor did the car attract any attention. That night a train passing through Seymour took up the car and drew it away. A few people about the station when the car was taken up remembered afterward that this car was filled with strange-looking men, who wore Scotch caps and black cloth masks, and seemed to be under the command of a tall, dark-haired man addressed by every one as "No. 1." Although there were at least fifty of these men, it is a remarkable fact, developed in a subsequent investigation, that the conductor of the train could remember nothing about the incident, declaring that he did not enter the car and knew nothing of its being attached to his train. It is certain the company of masked men did everything in their power to avoid attention, scarcely speaking to one another during the ride and making all their movements as noiseless as possible.


The train reached New Albany at two o'clock in the morning. The car was detached, and was presently emptied of its fifty men as silently and mysteriously as it had been filled. A few hurried commands were given by "No. 1," and then the company marched in quiet order to the jail. Arrived there, they summoned the jailer to open the doors, but were met with a firm refusal and the shining barrel of a revolver. There followed an exchange of shots, in which the sheriff received a ball in the arm, and two local police officers were captured. Without loss of time the jail doors were battered down; the company entered, and taking the three Reno brothers and their friend, Charles Anderson, from their cells, placed nooses that they had ready around the men's necks, and hung them to the rafters in the corridors of the jail. Then, having locked the doors of the jail, leaving the prisoners secure, they made their way silently back to the New Albany station, reaching there in time to catch the train that drew out at 3:30 a. m. The same special car in which they had come was coupled to this train, and dropped off at the switch when Seymour was reached. This was just before daybreak on a dreary November morning.


Who these fifty men were was never discovered, although, because of the fact that Reno and Anderson had been extradited from Great Britain, the general government made an investigation. It was rumored, however, and generally understood, that the company included some of the most prominent people in Seymour, among others a number of railroad and express employees. It was found that at the time of the lynching all the telegraph wires leading from New Albany had been cut, so that it was noon of the following day before the country learned of it."

That was the moment I gave the book an imaginary pat on the head and told it that I appreciated it, just for this one story.


Adding this last bit as an example of Coded Language from other time periods. This is where I told the book that it lost points here, no matter that other books in its peer group did this too.


From The American Exchange Bank Robbery, two different sections in the chapter:

"Edward Sturgis Crawford at this time was about twenty-seven years old, a man of medium height, a decided blond, with large blue eyes, and of a rather effeminate type. He went scrupulously dressed, had white hands with carefully manicured nails, parted his hair in the middle, and altogether was somewhat of a dandy. He had entered the bank on the recommendation of a wealthy New-Yorker, a young man about town, who, strange to say, had made Crawford's acquaintance, and indeed struck up quite a friendship with him, while the latter was serving in the humble capacity of conductor on a Broadway car. This was about a year before the time of the robbery. Thus far Crawford had attended to his work satisfactorily, doing nothing to arouse suspicion, unless it was indulging a tendency to extravagance in dress. His salary was but forty-two dollars a month, and yet he permitted himself such luxuries as silk underclothes, fine patent-leather shoes, and other apparel to correspond.

...His expenses were lightened, it is true, by an arrangement voluntarily offered by his friend, the young man about town, who invited him to live in his own home on Thirty-eighth Street, whereby not only was he saved the ordinary outlay for lodgings, but many comforts and luxuries were afforded him that would otherwise have been beyond his reach."

 And nearer the end

"Several letters were thus secured from the young man about town in New York who had befriended Crawford so constantly in the past, and who seemed now disposed to stand by him even in adversity and disgrace. The letters contained counsel and reproaches, and seemed to indicate that relations of unusual familiarity had existed between the two men."


There we have how one refers to a homosexual relationship in the late 1890s while being polite. (Or, more likely, trying not to shock.) The description of clothing and the word effeminate are pretty standard. The fact that the author felt he had to add "relations of unusual familiarity" - well someone felt it REALLY had to be emphasized that these men were gay, oh noes.


It's good to live in a time when I can eyeroll and poke fun at that, but if you read enough of this kind of writing from the period about many, many groups (race, sex, creed, you name it) it gets very, very old. Why do I mention it? Because too often no one does when old books get reviewed - and I really think that does a disservice to readers. Not so much as a warning - I think it's important we remember how once it was felt certain groups weren't thought of as worthy of better consideration, and this was normal. You aren't part of my group, I don't need to worry about how you'll interpret this - in fact, I assume you don't read, if I even think of you as human at all.

And there was little critique of that mentality at the time.


Oddly, this is why I like reading period lit. It makes me appreciate my century, even with its blemishes. I really like that we critique the hell out of writing these days.


Anyway, here's another bit from that American Exchange chapter to end with, with another bit of coded language (this time it's the thieving native stereotype, whee), but some slightly humorous wording about a gun.

"As soon as Mr. Pinkerton learned of Crawford's flight, he hurried in pursuit, crossing the bay to Livingston, in Guatemala. In so doing he risked his life, first by putting out to sea in a little dory, and then by trusting his safety to a treacherous Carib boatman, who, when they were several miles out, evinced a strong disposition to take possession of the detective's overcoat, in order, as he explained with a cunning look, to turn its silk lining into a pair of trousers. At this, Mr. Pinkerton carelessly produced his revolver, which had a quieting effect upon the fellow, and the voyage was completed in safety."




The Northampton Bank Robbery

The Susquehanna Express Robbery

The Pollock Diamond Robbery

The Rock Island Express

The Destruction of the Renos

The American Exchange Bank Robbery