Modern technology sometimes creates some very odd ironies. Today, my mission is to connect via Skype with an award-winning scholar from the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. All this high technology is being utilized so we have the chance to talk about one of the Wild West’s most famous lawmen, who is buried less than half an hour from where I sit, here in Colorado.

Riffenburgh is well known in polar history circles for his books about Ernest Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition, a well-received chronicle of Douglas Mawson's Antarctic expeditions, and several books about the Titanic and other famous explorations. But for his latest bout with history, Pinkerton’s Great Detective: The Amazing Life and Times of James McParland, Riffenburgh decided to go down a different path, and delve into the life of history’s most famous undercover operative.

“One of the problems with polar history in general is that it has been written by enthusiasts instead of historians,” Riffenburgh explains. “So many people were writing bad books in that ice and snow genre that it was getting harder to do something interesting. I started going through a multi-volume biography of American history and came across Allan Pinkerton, and through him his ‘Great Detective,’ James McParland.”

James McParland, however, is the most famous self-created cipher in American history, as Riffenburgh would soon discover. To briefly recap for those less familiar with the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency, McParland became their most famous agent after he successfully infiltrated the Molly Maguires, the infamous 19th-century secret society convicted of murder, arson, kidnapping and other crimes, largely on the questionable word of McParland. He later became tangentially involved in the hunt for The Wild Bunch, tangled with the famous Clarence Darrow over the assassination of Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg, and was immortalized in fiction by no less than Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s almost too unbelievable to be true.

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“I think he loved being mysterious,” Riffenburgh observes. “I think he loved telling stories. I found one book that had a lot of stories that he supposedly told, but they’re too poorly sourced to be trustworthy. Yet, when you know McParland, you know that they’re crazy enough that he very well could have told them—even if they weren’t necessarily true. When he became famous with the Molly Maguires case, I think he fell in love with that image of himself.”

McParland was also a very divisive public figure in his day, depending on which side of the labor arguments you were on. Although the book itself is richly sourced—more than 100 pages of notes, arguments and conclusions will appear on the publisher’s website and Riffenburgh’s author page—a critical lack of original sources leave many questions unanswered.

“There’s just no correspondence,” Riffenburgh says. “There were reports but never any letters to family or notes that showed a personal side to the man, which leaves a lot to conjecture. It’s intriguing but it’s also very frustrating. That said, I want you to be able to go back and look at the same sources I did, and hopefully draw the same conclusions.”

And never in those conclusions does Riffenburgh reveal whether he believes McParland was truly a white-hat hero or a villain.

“On one side, supporters of unions and the sort of people who believe McParland was a horrible creature who subverted the Molly Maguires take one view,” Riffenburgh says. “Others think he was a national hero, so there’s this wide gap. Yes, he sold out people with whom he broke bread. Does that make him worse than people who were outright murdering other people? I don’t think so.”Riffenburgh Cover

McParland’s reputation was sealed when Allan Pinkerton met the novelist Arthur Conan Doyle on a transatlantic liner. With days to kill, the rakish Pinkerton spun stories about McParland’s exploits for the exotic British novelist, who became fascinated with McParland’s undercover adventures. Little did Pinkerton know that Doyle would spin fact into fiction in his last full-length Sherlock Holmes novel, 1915’s Valley of Fear.

“That incident definitely brought the story to a much wider audience, as well as a European audience,” Riffenburgh says. “The Pinkerton name meant a lot. Even today, people might have seen the movie The Molly Maguires, but everyone has heard of Pinkerton. Pinkerton was hugely aggravated with Doyle because Doyle wrote it without asking permission.” 

The fictions are entertaining, but the facts remain long since buried, many of them by McParland himself. When Riffenburgh visited the Library of Congress, he was expecting volumes of material, only to be handed a shallow folder of material. He later learned that the Pinkerton records from Denver, where McParland spent the majority of his life, were purged as well. It’s a void that leaves the biographer trying to extrapolate the truths of McParland’s life from his actions, not his words.

“I learned that there’s a lot not to be learned,” Riffenburgh explains. “I think that I’ve learned more about the man, but I’m not sure I understand him any better because there’s no record that allows you to get inside the guy. I think I’ve learned that what you read in general about James McParland is unfair. I don’t mind if people hate him or love him, as long as they do it for a legitimate reason. I’m torn myself, as you can tell. There’s no doubt he was good at what he did, but I’m not sure I would open the door and let him walk in my house.”

Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media.