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Telling Secrets Out of School: Siringo on the Pinkertons

With 2,000 active agents and 30,000 reserves, the forces of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency were larger than the nation’s standing army in the late-19th century. The Pinkertons provided services for management in labor disputes, including armed guards and secret operatives like Charles A. Siringo. A Texas native and former cowboy, Siringo moved to Chicago in 1886, where first-hand observation of the city’s labor conflict (which he attributed to foreign anarchism) moved him to join the Pinkertons. Angry with the agency after it sabotaged the publication of his cowboy memoirs, Siringo published Two Evil Isms: Pinkertonism and Anarchism, a revealing chronicle of Pinkerton methods and deception. Guarding its reputation, the Pinkerton Agency succeeded in suppressing the book. Operatives bought up all copies available at newsstands and a court order confiscated the book’s plates. In the following passage from Two Evil Isms, Siringo (who, even when alienated from the Pinkertons, never displayed any sympathy for the labor movement) described how he infiltrated and undermined miners' unions in northern Idaho during the 1892 Coeur d’Alene strike.


Shortly after my return from the White Cap operation, I was called into Superintendent James McParland’s private office and told to get ready for a long operation into the Coeur d’Alenes of northern Idaho.

He explained that I would have to join the miners‘ union and disclose their secrets to the mine owners’ association, that they were having trouble with their miners. I refused to work on such an operation, as my sympathy was with laboring men and against capitalists. Then he excused me by saying if such was the case I could not do justice to the clients. He selected another operative, who had been a miner, for the work, and I was sent to Utah and California on a railroad operation, there being six sleuths in the bunch.

About a month later, while in Salt Lake City, Utah, I received a telegram to take the first train for Denver, and I did so. Calling me into his private office, Mr. McParland said: “Now, Charlie, you have got to go to the Coeur d’Alenes. You are the only man I have got who can do the work right. The other operative I sent there was suspected and had to skip out to save his life. I am going to make you a proposition: You go there and join the union. If you find the miners are in the right and the mine owners wrong, come home at once; otherwise stay to the finish.” This seemed fair, so I agreed.

Reaching Wallace, Idaho, the central town of the Coeur d’Alenes, I met some of the officials of the mine owners' association, Mr. John Hays Hammond being at its head, and Mr. John A. Finch being the secretary. I was advised to make my headquarters in the hurrah mining camp of Gem, four miles up the canyon from Wallace, this being considered the toughest camp in the Coeur d’Alenes.

I went to work in the Gem mine at the regular wage of three dollars and fifty cents a shift, and two weeks later I joined the Gem Miners' Union, it being a branch of the mother union of Butte, Montana. Of course, I had to take a Molly McGuire oath to bleed and die for my noble order, and if I ever turned traitor and gave the secrets of the union away death would be my reward.

In the course of two months I was elected recording secretary of the Gem union. Then I quit work and became the running mate of that true blue anarchist, George A. Pettibone, who was the financial secretary of the Gem union and one of the executive officers of the Central Miner’s Union of the Coeur d’Alenes, taking in the mining camps of Burk, Gem, Wardner and Mullen.

From now on I had nothing to do but drink booze and study anarchy at close range. My sympathy for labor unions had taken a genuine flop and I concluded to stay and see the war out.

My chum, George A. Pettibone, was also justice of the peace in Gem and dealt out scab justice with a vengeance.

During the coming winter I had to help trample the constitution of the United States into the mud by assisting the union in gathering up scabs and marching them up the canyon above the town of Burk, and giving them a good start for the state of Montana. Often there would be half a dozen scabs in a bunch. They were taken from their homes, sometimes with weeping wives and children begging for mercy. They were marched through the streets of Gem and spat upon amidst the beating of pans and ringing of cowbells, this being a warning to others who might have the manhood to criticise this noble union, or refuse to pay dues and assessments.

Above the town of Burk these poor half-clad citizens—some of whom had fought in the Union army—were told to hit the trail for Montana and never return, at the peril of their lives, and to give them a good running start shots would be fired over their heads. In this Bitter Root range of mountains the snow in winter is from four to twenty feet deep, so you can imagine what those scabs had to endure on their tramp without food or shelter to Thompson’s Falls, the first habitation, a distance of about thirty miles.

Then the newspapers of Anaconda and Butte, Montana, were furnished write-ups of how a citizens' mass meeting in Gem had branded these men as undesirable citizens and ran them out of the state.

This kind of anarchy was kept up all winter and my Texas blood was kept at the boiling point, but I had to pretend that I liked it.

Late in the spring a strike was declared throughout the Coeur d’Alenes. Soon after the mine owners' association began to ship in non-union miners by the trainload. Then the war of slugging scabs began, but real war did not start until after the fourth of July, 1892.

All the miners of the Coeur d’Alenes district met in Gem armed to the teeth, with the intention of starting a revolution which they hoped would spread throughout the West. My written reports kept the mine owners' association posted, so that previous to the uprising most of the mine owners pulled out for Spokane, Washington, on a special train from Wallace.

On the morning of the uprising I had to endure the scene of seeing a brother Knight of Pythias, who was one of the Thiel guards, shot through the heart and killed. This virtually opened the war between the more than one thousand armed unionists and the three hundred armed guards and non-union miners at the Gem and Frisco mines on the edge of the town. A delegation of union warriors, under the leadership of Peter Breen and Dallas, the secretary of the mother union, had been sent from Butte, Montana, to take part in the revolution.

To make a long story short, on this big day of bloodshed I was branded as a Pinkerton spy and doomed to be burnt at a stake as a lesson to other traitors. Black-Jack Griffith, who had helped to blow up the two Tuscarora, Nevada, mine owners, had recognized me as Charles Leon of Pinkerton fame.

After the Frisco mill had been blown up with dynamite, many men being killed and wounded, and the whole force of over a hundred men captured, I was billed for the start act in being burnt at a stake.

Not caring to take part in such a brutal affair, I hugged my Winchester rifle and old cowboy Colts 45 pistol closer to my bosom and rebelled single handed.

In a two-story house in the town of Gem I sawed a hole through the floor in a rear room and got close to mother earth. When the mob led by Dallas broke down the door and entered to get the fatted calf for the slaughter, I crawled up under the board sidewalk, under the mob’s feet, and wormed my way for a distance of about a hundred feet to an opening, from whence I made a dash for liberty. One bullet singed my breath just as I sprang into a stream of foaming water flowing through a wooden flume under the high railroad grade. After forcing myself through this flume I ran for a distance of about seventy yards, where I joined Mr. John Monihan, the superintendent of the Gem mine, and his one hundred and thirty armed men.

The war continued, but finally Mr. Monihan was forced to surrender with his little army. Then I and a young hero by the name of Frank Stark, who begged to stay with me, struck out for tall timber.

In our only path to liberty stood four union guards. We made these men nearly break their necks rolling down the mountain side.

After Mr. Monihan had surrendered his men and arms they were taken next day to the bank in Wallace to draw their money. Then they were taken to the Coeur d’Alenes Lake, where the steamer from Spokane, Washington, lands, and at dusk a gang of mounted union men, under the leadership of Bill Black, charged among them, firing rifles and pistols. Mr. Monihan and Percy Summers sprang into the lake and swam to an island. The balance were robbed of their money in true desperado style.

One man, John Abbot, who was shot through the body by the first volley, hid in the tall grass on the water edge, and he said he saw this noble band of union cut-throats rob the bodies of several murdered men and then slash open their stomachs, so they would sink, and throw them into the deep water.

Monihan and his man Friday were picked up by the steamer next day.

After a count was made there were fourteen non-union men missing, and the supposition is that they are the ones Abbot saw go to the bottom of the lake.

For two days the excitement continued in Wallace. All men not in sympathy with the union were marched out of town, with shots fired over their heads to give them a running start. They were told to leave the state and never return.

Stark and I hugged the tall timber in the mountains, south of Wallace, for three days and nights, until the one thousand United States troops and state militia under command of General Carlin arrived. Then we emerged from the wilderness and filled ourselves with good food from the Carter Hotel tables.

I was appointed a United States deputy marshal, and with squads of soldiers to back me up, I started a general round-up. I had, as a cowboy rounded up wild cattle, but never before did I boss a round-up of dynamiting anarchists.

The mountains were scoured to the line of Montana. General Carlin would not permit his soldiers to leave the state of Idaho, therefore many dynamiters escaped.

My bosom companion, Judge George A. Pettibone, was found in the mountains with a shattered hand and other wounds, caused by the blowing up of the Frisco mill. It was he who touched off the fuse which sent men to an early grave. The force of the explosion had thrown the Honorable Pettibone up into a treetop.

The round-up did not cease until the bull-pen in Wallace contained three hundred angry and unruly men.

I was the star witness in Judge Beatty’s United States Court in Coeur d’Alene City and at Boise, Idaho. Eighteen of the union leaders were convicted.

My friend, George A. Pettibone, donned prison stripes in the Detroit, Michigan, penitentiary, and after his release he helped to organize all the miners' unions of the West into the Western Federation of Miners, an order which has since made bloody history.

After an absence of one year and two months, I returned to Denver to try something else.

Source: Charles Siringo, Two Evil Isms: Pinkerton and Anarchism (1914).

See Also:Spies for Hire: Advertising by the Pinkerton Agency