Straightforward biography of a man famous in his day for his work with the infamous Pinkerton’s Detective Agency.
In introducing the book, Riffenburgh (Encyclopedia of the Antarctic, 2006, etc.) notes that the legacy of his subject is murky, with history unable to decide whether James McParland (1843–1919) was a hero or a villain. “Thus, there is a clear need for a reassessment of the Great Detective,” he writes. “Only through thorough study can a deeper understanding be gained of a man whose public persona was so divergent....” The author immediately gets down to that business, first briefly laying out McParland’s early years before jumping into the history of his job with Pinkerton’s. Riffenburgh focuses on McParland’s two most sensational cases, both involving mining unions and violence possibly perpetrated by union members. The detective first infiltrated the Molly Maguires, a violent group that did not seem to be aligned with the union, and his informing on that group made him both famous and infamous. The case also seemed to cement for McParland that mine owners were upright citizens terrorized by violent employee factions, which informed his future work in union/mine cases. Later, in charge of Pinkerton's offices in the Western United States, he oversaw investigations into many unions and alleged union violence. Though detailed in recounting the investigations and trials in which McParland was involved, there is little new information here, and the court cases, repetitive in nature, slow the narrative considerably. In the end, Riffenburgh admits that there really is no private persona to consult and that the “divergent” nature he previously acknowledged in McParland’s public persona leaves the mystery of who he actually was just as shrouded as in the beginning of the work. While no doubt true, it’s a disappointing conclusion for those hoping for fresh insights.
Not quite a reassessment but a thorough consideration of two of McParland’s major court cases and the investigations that preceded them.