Saturday, November 15, 2008

Allan Pinkerton Sets a Sting Operation

The Sauganash Hotel, named after a famous Illinois Potawatomi chief, was Chicago's first frame building, erected by "Jolly" Mark Beaubien in 1831, here at the corner of Lake St. and Market St. (the latter now known as Wacker Dr.). Of its comforts, Herbert Asbury quotes a Chicago visitor in 1833, who described the Sauganash as a "vile two-storied barrack," where "all was in a state of most appalling confusion, filth and racket." Nevertheless, the Hotel was one of Chicago's only public houses and served for several years as a central meeting grounds for the town's hoi polloi.

It was at the Sauganash that Allan Pinkerton first made his name as a detective, running a sting operation that rounded up a local counterfeiting ring.

Pinkerton came to Chicago from his native Scotland in 1842, and worked in the Northwest suburb of Dundee as a successful barrelmaker. One day, seeking a new source of wood for his product, Pinkerton floated to a small island in the middle of the Fox River, where he happened upon the campsite of a group of local counterfeiters. Returning to town, Pinkerton informed the sheriff, who returned with him to the island, and arrested the criminals. However, the leader of the gang was still at large, and the town council, sufficiently impressed with Pinkerton's earnestness, deputized him to find and arrest the ringleader. They gave him $125 with which he was to buy counterfeit bills as evidence.

Pinkerton quickly found his man, striking up a conversation with him in a local saloon, and offering the $125 as down payment on over $4,000 worth of bills, which he proposed to buy at $0.25 on the dollar. The men agreed to execute the rest of the transaction at the Sauganash in Chicago one week hence.

On the specified date, Pinkerton entered the hotel restaurant, and as two plainclothes officers looked on, bought the bills. As the money changed hands, the officers revealed the sting and arrested the counterfeiter. It is said that no counterfeit money was seen again in Cook County for over a year.

Impressed with Pinkerton's abilities, the sheriff hired the barrelmaker as a full-time investigator, from which he went on to great fame and success. He founded the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in the 1850s, and was involved in foiling an assassination plot on President Lincoln, performing military intelligence during the Civil War, and arousing strife within labor unions that kept them from successfully organizing against business interests. His Detective Agency still exists today.

The Sauganash Hotel burned in 1851, and the site was later used for the Republican convention that nominated Abraham Lincoln in his 1860 campaign. Today, the Chicago Lantern Building at 191 N. Wacker covers the spot where the Sauganash once stood.