The History of Private Investigators and Where They Started

By October 24, 2017Private Investigator

Private investigator front view

It should come as no surprise that the history of private investigation is an intriguing and colorful tale that dates all the way back to ancient Sumerian and Egyptian civilizations.

The first mention of espionage is even recorded in the Old Testament of the Bible in the Book of Numbers, when God told Moses to send some men to spy on Canaan. These twelve spies were the leaders of their respective ancestral tribes and were sent ahead by Moses to explore Canaan during the Jews’ long trek from Egypt to the Promised Land.

The Birth of the Private Investigation Agency

As a craft, private investigation has existed for thousands of years, for as long as people have required it. The first known private detective agency, however, was founded in 1833 by a man named Eugène François Vidocq, a French soldier, privateer, and criminal. Le bureau des renseignments, or the Office of Intelligence as it was called, was staffed by men of similarly patchy backgrounds with law enforcement. Most of these men were ex-convicts and, as a result, official law enforcement attempted to shut the operation down several times.

In 1842, Vidocq was arrested on charges of unlawful imprisonment and for accepting money under false pretenses after solving an embezzlement case. He suspected a set-up but was still sentenced to 5 years imprisonment and a 3,000 franc fine. The Court of Appeals later released him.

Vidocq was the one who introduced record-keeping, criminology, and ballistics to the field of criminal investigation. He pioneered the practice of creating plaster casts of shoe prints and is also the inventor of indelible ink and unalterable bond paper.

To this day, some aspects of his method of anthropometrics – the study of the human body and its movement – is still in use by seasoned private investigators and the French police. He was also a known philanthropist who claimed to never have informed on anyone who had stolen due to a great need.

Evolution of Private Investigators

The private investigation industry came into existence as a response to a specific need: in the olden days, clients went to private investigators with the expectation that they would do work and act as the police in matters where traditional and official law enforcement were ill-equipped or simply unwilling to do.

They were mostly employed by wealthy owners who effectively utilized and deployed them to resolve labor disputes. Their primary function was to control workers and keep the peace, especially those who had been inspired by the French Revolution. They also did mercenary work, as well as acted as private security.

Private Eyes in the United States

Meanwhile, in the United States, a man named Allan Pinkerton was making a name for himself as a criminal detective. After informing on a band of counterfeiters to the local sheriff of his town, he was appointed in 1849 as the first police detective in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois.

A year after that, he partnered with a Chicago lawyer named Edward Rucker and formed the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, a company that continues to exist today under the name Pinkerton Consulting and Investigations. It is believed that the term “private eye” originated from Pinkerton’s choice of business insignia: a wide open eye with the caption “We never sleep”.

During the Civil War, Pinkerton became the head of the Union Intelligence Service – the predecessor of the United States Secret Service – and managed to successfully foil an assassination plot targeting Abraham Lincoln. He and his men often took on undercover jobs posing as members of the Confederate army and sympathizers in order to acquire military intelligence.

Today, private investigators fulfill an important role in society. Their services have become invaluable in everything from assisting crime investigations to finding missing persons. With the continuing advancement of technology, private investigation services are continually evolving to serve the public much better ways than ever.