In 1914, the French Consulate in New Orleans engaged the Pinkerton National Detective Agency to investigate what they believed was a group of agents working for the Central Powers, one of the two main coalitions that fought in World War I from 1914 to 1918.

As part of their ongoing investigation, a Pinkerton operative infiltrated the group to further investigate one particular person of interest, Hans Helle, a German machinist and suspected saboteur with remarkable skill and nerve. The operative rented a room in the same boardinghouse as Helle, drank and ate with him, and listened to his often-violent pro-war viewpoint. In due time, the operative gained Helle’s confidence and learned that he had manufactured a bomb to be hidden on a French ship and set to detonate in six days.

To make a tight legal case against Helle, the Pinkertons pressed the New Orleans district attorney to let them accompany the saboteur to the ship and to arrest him as he was setting the bomb. The DA ruled against them on the grounds of public safety. Instead, the Pinkertons, along with officers from New Orleans Police Department, waited in Helle’s darkened boarding room to make the arrest and disable the bomb.

Larger than life

The Pinkerton operative later reported, “In the final wait, the size and power of the bomb was magnified in all our minds.”

One of the police officers forewarned, “If you grab this guy, lift him right off the ground. He’ll be wired like a submarine.”

Upon hearing this, the representative of the local explosives company who accompanied them announced, “I am only a dynamite expert.” He promptly left.

When Helle finally returned to his room that day, he was surrounded and handcuffed. Without an explosives expert on-site, it was up to the Pinkerton operative to disable the bomb. He worked deftly as everyone stood motionless.

The Pinkerton operative later said, “We had to get the bomb and its parts, including the dynamite, to police headquarters. To do so, we hired a little old man who happened to be around the corner with a dilapidated wagon drawn by an ancient horse. We carried the dynamite from the room in two dresser drawers and the rest of the paraphernalia in the bomb box. I rode on the set with the driver and after we were on our way, I told him what he was carrying and cautioned him to drive carefully over the cobbled streets…”

Out on a technicality

Helle was taken to prison but later released because of a technicality on the indictment.

After the United States entered the war in 1917, the Pinkerton operative from the New Orleans investigation spotted Helle on a Chicago city street and followed him to a wartime munitions factory where Helle had just been hired as a foreman. The operative reported the information to the authorities, and Helle was arrested by the Secret Service.

Black and white photo of an antique typewriter.

Pinkertons at war

“In the event at this time of this government requiring additional secret service assistance, we desire to offer to you the entire immediate resources of this Agency consisting of thirty-five fully equipped offices in the United States all under one organization.” –Allan Pinkerton II, February 1, 1917

Allan Pinkerton II, head of the Agency’s Eastern Division from 1907 to 1930, proved himself a true patriot when he offered the services and resources of the Pinkertons to the United States when the country officially entered World War I. He also accepted the commission of major in the Army so that he would be able to fulfill the president’s call to protect American borders and seaports against alien enemies. While serving in the army, Pinkerton was gassed, and as a result his health suffered until his untimely death in 1930.

Pinkerton’s patriotism was a family trait. During the Civil War, his great grandfather, Allan Pinkerton I — also known as Major E.J. Allen until the close of the war — brought the full resources of the Agency into the Civil War where Pinkerton and his operatives served as spies, adopting new names and ranks as they staffed the United’s States’ first secret service agency. 

Published November 23, 2022