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A Brief History of Private Investigation in Canada and Beyond

The history of private investigation immediately makes one think of 1920s private eye detective novels and movies. You might be surprised to find out that the reality of how private investigation agencies started isn’t far off from the smokey interrogation rooms and dapper attire of Sherlock Holmes or Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon.

Today, becoming a private investigator is a legitimate career path for many types of individuals, but it takes certain personality traits to be truly successful in solving cases, whether it be a missing person or a con-man husband on the run. You must be insightful, dedicated, persistent, intuitive, and most importantly you must be creative and able to think outside of the box.

The First Private Investigation Agency

In Canada during the 17th and 18th century, there were people employed as watchmen and citizen patrol, who were essentially used pseudo-police mainly to uphold law and order in Ontario and Quebec. But this wasn’t the birth of the private investigation industry officially.

To find the birth of the industry we must go back to France in 1833, where a man by the name of Eugène François Vidocq (aka the father of modern criminology) founded the first private detective agency called the Le Bureau des Renseignements (office of information).

A career criminal, inmate, police spy and war veteran, Vidocq’s backstory and upbringing was so incredibly interesting that it inspired such prolific writers as  Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, and the immortal Edgar Allan Poe in some of their most notable works.

Known for almost exclusively hiring ex-convicts, Le Bureau des Renseignements spent their time assisting citizens against fraudsters and crooksters, usually by means that were against the ethics of local law enforcement. These methods used by Vidocq often resulted in police intervention and even a search a seizure which resulted in him being charged with the acquisition of money by deception and corruption of civil servants, among other things.

Prior to starting the agency, Vidocq served as an informant for the police and spent 21 months in the French prison system relaying information to local law enforcement units. In 1811, he was released and started the Brigade de la Sûreté (security brigade). His time working with the police was contrasting at best, but these adventures would eventually lead him to start his private investigation agency and pioneer many criminology methods and terms still used today.

Private Eye Detectives in North America

Some of the earliest private investigators were no more than glorified mercenaries and military men helping private companies (with wealthy owners) keep an eye on employees and enforce policy, often with the use of physical intimidation.

Notable Private Eyes in American History

The most popular detective agency in North American history is definitely the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, known today simply as Pinkerton, which was founded in Chicago by Allan Pinkerton in 1850.

Born in Scotland, Pinkerton originally became interested in the process of criminal detective work after running into a group of counterfeiters while trying to find trees to make barrel staves. He continued to observe their activities over a period of time, eventually reporting them to the local sheriff leading to their arrest.

This act of stellar investigation led to Pinkerton being hired as Cook County, Illinois’ first police detective in 1849. After a year in this position, he eventually partnered with a local attorney named Edward Rucker and started the North-Western Police Agency, which went on to become Pinkerton National Detective Agency.

Some notable cases lead by Pinkerton agents included being hired to track Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, outlaw Jesse James, and the Reno brothers to name a few.

Notable Private Eyes in Canadian History

Another Scottish native by the name of John Wilson Murray was a police detective and sailor who would come to be known as the Great Canadian Detective, and a pioneer of scientific and forensic criminology in Canada and beyond.

After spending some time in the US Navy supervising prison camps, Murray defected during the civil war and started working as a detective for the Canadian Southern Railway. It was during this time that he attracted the attention of Attorney General who in 1875 appointed Murray as the first Detective for the Government of Ontario.

While he wasn’t a private investigator by job title, his methodologies and influence in security, law enforcement, and criminal investigation were unmatched. During his tenure (and until his death) Murray solved hundreds of notable cases, including the murder of Cornwallis Benwell and the “Million Dollar Counterfeiting” case. Murray would go on to play a pivotal role in the forming of the Ontario Provincial Police, and inspiring the CBC television series Great Detectives, as well as the character Detective William Murdoch from the Murdoch Mysteries novels and tv show.

While the World Wars were going on, Canada saw an increase in the need for protection and intelligence. Since police can’t be everywhere all at once, these citizen patrol groups were given extra privileges and responsibility, which would eventually lead to today’s private security and private investigation sectors. Since World War II, the growth and need for private detective and security firms have expanded well beyond hiring actual police officers.

The Current Role of Private Investigators

In Ontario, to become a private investigator or security guard one must pass a Ministry of Community Safety & Correctional Services exam which is governed by the province, and typically offered through private training institutes like

Today, security officers and private investigators outnumber police officers worldwide, 2 to 1. With the rise of technology and crimes being committed through digital means, the need for private investigators, detectives, and intelligence experts is continuing to grow.