An interview with Beau Riffenburgh

Who was James McParland and how did he become known as simply “The Great Detective”?

In the late nineteenth century, James McParland was America’s most famous detective. A native of Ireland, McParland moved to the U.S. in 1867 while he was in his early twenties. He eventually made his way west to the booming city of Chicago. After having a series of jobs, in 1872 he joined Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency. The next year, he was assigned to go undercover in the anthracite coalfields of Pennsylvania, where a group known as the Molly Maguires was accused of sabotage against the mining companies and of a number of murders. After more than two years, McParland helped bring down the Molly Maguires by testifying in no fewer than 19 trials against men accused of a variety of heinous crimes. His testimony made him a nationally known figure.

In the following years, McParland worked many more high-profile cases for Pinkerton’s, and in 1888 he was appointed head of Pinkerton’s Denver office. He later rose to be in charge of all Pinkerton’s operations west of the Mississippi. McParland’s triumphs in the Molly Maguire investigation, followed by his later successful and highly visible cases, kept his name in front of the American public for decades. The constant praise he received from the press included being given the nickname ‘the Great Detective,’ a label that stuck with him the rest of his career. So common was this appellation that one could use it anywhere around the country, and the average listener would know that it McParland to whom one was referring.

Was it difficult writing about a figure who left behind almost no personal correspondences or records?

Certainly having very few personal documents made it more difficult to get a better perspective of McParland as an individual. This was compounded by most of the documents from Pinkerton’s Denver office – where McParland spent much of his career – no longer being in existence, so that his dealings with colleagues and subordinates were not as well-recorded as for many other historic figures. This meant that I had to place more emphasis on materials generated by others in an attempt to gain a clear picture of McParland the man, as opposed to simply his actions.

Coincidentally, the same is the case for the Molly Maguires, the group of individuals brought to trial for and convicted of violence and murder in the Pennsylvania coalfields. Understanding the specific individuals linked to the Molly Maguires – and indeed the group itself – has long been difficult for historians because they, too, left very few records or examples of personal correspondence from which to make informed judgments of their beliefs and actions.

What were McParland’s most challenging cases?

Two of McParland’s most challenging cases were the Molly Maguires saga and the investigation of the assassination of former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg. In the former, McParland went undercover in the anthracite coalfields of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, for more than two years to gain enough evidence to take to trial dozens of members of a shadowy brotherhood that had allegedly terrorized the region for years. In constant danger of being murdered if it were discovered he was a detective, McParland nonetheless persisted in his investigation and, testifying in 19 different trials, was a key figure in the legal process that ended with 20 men being hanged and numerous others sentenced to prison.

About thirty years later, McParland was also the primary investigator in the Steunenberg case, developing the evidence that led to the arrest and trials of the leaders of the Western Federation of Miners. McParland’s tactics in the arrest of the WFM leaders, and the subsequent trial of ‘Big Bill’ Haywood – which featured Clarence Darrow as a key defense attorney and Senator William Borah as one of the lead prosecutors – garnered national attention and criticism for McParland, Pinkerton’s, and the state of Idaho.

Is there one case or story that you find particularly fascinating?

One of the most interesting of McParland’s cases was the murder of Josephine Barnaby, a wealthy socialite from Providence, Rhode Island, who was visiting Denver. In 1891, Mrs Barnaby was sent through the post a bottle of liquor with a mysterious message attached, but seemingly from a friend. When she had a drink, she quickly became ill and eventually died in agony, the bottle containing large amounts of arsenic. The incident became known as ‘the first murder by mail.’

McParland was one of the lead investigators, along with operatives from Pinkerton’s Boston office. Although Mrs Barnaby’s physician cum financial advisor was convicted of the crime after being convinced to return to Denver by McParland, there remain some doubts as to his actual guilt.

What kind of research did you do for Pinkerton’s Great Detective?

Most of the research for Pinkerton’s Great Detective was done in various archives, libraries, courthouses, and other repositories around the United States. In fact, I collected original manuscripts and other primary research materials from 22 different states, as well as four other countries. These included original reports, business and personal correspondence, trial transcripts, medical records, legal rulings, governmental documents, billing statements, confessions, and wanted posters. I also made examinations of newspaper accounts in approximately 150 different newspapers. And of course I read previously published books and journal and magazine articles about every aspect I could think of related to this account. You can see that the Bibliography of the book – which can be found at its online site – is about 25 pages itself, so that shows that there was a lot of background material that I had to use to make this account as thorough as I wanted it to be.

What was it like exploring the newly released Pinkerton archives? Any major surprises?

It is always fun and exciting to conduct research in large archives, and they don’t come any bigger than the Library of Congress, where the Pinkerton’s papers are held. The Pinkerton’s material forms a fabulous collection, and could be used for almost limitless projects.

The biggest surprise – as well as the major downside of the collection – was that it is primarily comprised only of documents from Pinkerton’s two main offices, those in New York and Chicago. For most of his career, McParland was the head of the Denver office, and also served much of the time as the head of the Pinkerton’s operation in the western U.S. But most of the documents from that office – not to mention the many other smaller branches the agency had throughout the country – do not appear to have been kept by Pinkerton’s when they consolidated their own records into their archives before eventually passing the materials on to the Library of Congress. So, sadly, the vast majority of materials dealing with McParland and the investigations he headed appear to no longer be extant. Of course, this helped make McParland even more mysterious, because one could only glean bits and pieces about some of his operations, and many appear to have virtually disappeared altogether.

Where did your fascination with the Pinkerton National Detective Agency and James McParland come from? What inspired you to write a biography about him?

I first ‘ran into’ James McParland when the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid inspired me to read about those characters, and I found that McParland was the man ultimately in charge of the Pinkerton’s hunt for them. Not long after that, I found out the basics of his role in the investigation of the Molly Maguires, and later still that he was the key figure in the investigation into the assassination of former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg. So his involvement in so many famous cases always intrigued me, although those introductions to him were decades ago.

The historic treatment of McParland remained interesting to me as a historian, because he was lionized during his lifetime and demonized later, and I wondered where on the continuum of good and evil he truly fell, because there seemed to be no intermediate ground in people’s opinions about him. Most of what has been written about him was done by journalists, individuals espousing a particular cause, or ‘Molly Maguire enthusiasts’ with an axe to grind, rather than by trained historians. So I thought it would be interesting to try to find out who this mysterious and complex individual truly was. Therefore I decided to start an investigation into him with no particular preconceptions and no agenda other than to tell his story based on the provable evidence. I think that putting forward an unbiased account of him at the same time as putting his story in its historic context and milieu – because much of what has previously been written about him failed to properly take into account or acknowledge the differences in the legal and social systems of his time and today – is the key achievement of Pinkerton’s Great Detective.