Hands-up who thinks of “Magnum” or “Jessica Fletcher” ... even good old “Poirot” (complete with perfect moustache and mincing steps!) when they hear the word “PI”?
The private investigation industry is synonymous with television and literary characters, probably due to the intrigue and secretive nature of the business. However, the truth of the matter is that private investigation was conceived of in the mid nineteenth century, and is utilised by many different professions and individuals to provide services and information on a wide-range of issues.
One of the first known PI agencies was founded by Eugène François Vidocq, a French soldier. Vidocq is credited with having introduced record-keeping, criminology and ballistics to criminal investigation; along with creating indelible ink and unalterable bond paper. Vidocq’s career was almost curtailed entirely when he was arrested on charges of unlawful imprisonment, among other things, in 1842. However, he successfully appealed the sentence and was released, having created a platform for a brand-new industry.
In 1850, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency was established in the USA by Allan Pinkerton, becoming famous when the agency foiled a plot to assassinate then President- Elect Abraham Lincoln. There have been some claims to suggest that, at one point, Pinkerton employed more agents than the USA army.
Pinkerton agents were hired to track western outlaws Jesse James, the Reno brothers and the Wild Bunch, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In fact, they also inspired the term “private eye” with their logo – an eye embellished with the words “we never sleep”.
While there are obvious tasks involved in PI work; there are also many types of job which the public would not normally associate with a PI. Often a PI will be responsible for carrying out process-serving for the legal profession, background-checking an individual, tracing (of various types) and investigation of spurious insurance claims.
The role of a PI is a varied one; and as such it attracts a diverse audience to its career-path. Nowadays PIs prefer to be known as “professional investigators” as opposed to “private investigators” or “private detectives” – in response to the image that is sometimes attributed to the profession and an effort to establish and demonstrate the industry as a proper and respectable profession.
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