Pinkerton Detective Agency of the Wild West that tracked Jesse James’ train-robbing spree with revolutionary strategies is still up and running

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“You think it’s all made up don’t yea, think it’s all yarns and newspaper stories”. – Charley Ford, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

On March 11, 1874, Pinkerton agent Joseph W. Whicher’s body was found lifeless near Independence, Missouri. He was 26, he was married, and had a whole life ahead of him to father and raise children with his loving wife, Mollie Hildenbrand.

However, fate had other plans for this young blood who was sent to find and arrest one of the most notorious gang leaders at the time.

That man was Jesse James, the outlaw, the folk hero, the legend, and the murderer, and his partner in crime and a fellow former Confederate soldier, his older brother Frank. Both were wanted criminals in various states on multiple accounts of larceny, extortion, and murder, as well as suspected of additional illegal activities. As of December 1869, when both robbed the bank in Gallatin, Missouri, and Jesse in cold blood shot and killed the bank president John W. Sheets, a “Wanted Dead or Alive” price had been set on their heads, after which both were constantly on the move, robbing the rich from state to state along with their gang of outlaws and giving the loot to the poor, allegedly.

“Got out of there, damn you get out of there; we are grangers, and rob the rich and give to the poor,” wrote the St. Louis Daily Globe under the headline “Diabolical Attempt to Wreck a Night Express Train – Engineer Killed, Engine Ditched and Tender and Baggage Cars Crushed,” published on July 23, 1873, about the attempted robbery of a Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific night train that took place two days previously in Adair County, Iowa, of which Jesse and Frank, as well as the Younger brothers, Cole and Bob were suspected.

Nine months, a couple of stagecoaches and some train robberies later, and seemingly out nowhere, on March 9, agent Whicher was allegedly seen on a horse, bound and gagged, with three other men alongside him. The next day he was found dead with fatal wounds in his head, neck, and shoulder, all from shots fired from close range, which strongly indicates he was executed. According to Frank and Jesse James: The Story Behind the Legend by Ted P. Yeatman, descriptions given by the occasional passerby and the ferry operator suggested the three men were Arthur McCoy, Jim Anderson (“Bloody Bill” Anderson’s Brother), and non other than Jesse James himself.

So how does a young man, freshly wed, get himself executed by a legend who was labeled a Robin Hood and a gentleman by commoners?

Well, as banks were long shots even for criminals of Jesse James’ caliber, or that of Butch Cassidy, his Wild Bunch and the Sundance Kid, who truly knew how to pull off a heist, stagecoaches with loot that only had a driver and one armed guard to protect it were the best next thing. And then there were trains. Everyone knew what train would pass where and when precisely, and some passed during night hours, carrying money from banks related to esteemed Union generals and various politicians in the express safe down in the baggage car. Interestingly enough, the safes were more often than not unusually low on cash.

By this time, the reward offered for the capture of Jesse and the members of his gang was off the roof. Realizing that trains were their, let’s say, preferable cup of tea, Alan Pinkerton, a leader of the Union’s Intelligence Service throughout the Civil War and currently head of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency that he founded in 1850 in Chicago, got an offer he could not refuse and turned to tracking down train robbers in the 1860s when the American Railroad Express hired him and his agency to assemble a special task force in order to put an end to it.

They paid a lot, but he was worth it, every penny of it. After all, his reputation preceded him. In 1861 he successfully uncovered a sinister plot and saved the life of the President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.

Anyhow, the time had come and he was assigned in the 1870s to track down and capture the James brothers and the Youngers “dead or alive.” The agency’s code strictly forbade the Pinkerton’s agents from accepting reward money, so they were never really after the bounty, but the challenge was still greater than any other. Not to mention the fact that the capture alone of Jesse James and his gang, if executed efficiently, was about to bring a priceless reputation for him and his agency.

Turn down reward money, was yes, their first rule of conduct, but the Pinkerton Code set some other standards within its ranks. Such as, accept no bribes, never compromise with criminals or partner with local law enforcement agencies among the rest. Going first and foremost by their own rules, the agency devised a fine plan of how to catch their targets, as well as a practice that was revolutionary.

According to Larry Earl Schweikart, an American historian and professor of history at the University of Dayton who wrote the article “The Non-Existent Frontier Bank Robbery,” Pinkerton detectives put together a special operations force of crack shots and expert riders who rode in separate cars with their horses, or even separate trains that trailed behind the ‘target.’ The Pinkertons could react rapidly to a robbery, ultimately making it too difficult to consistently hit trains.” This was perhaps the reason why safes in these so-called target trains were unusually low on cash, like on July 21, 1873, when Jesse’s gang hit the Night Express Train in Adair, Iowa, we previously mentioned and found only $3,000, and the same amount, more or less, when they robbed the safe of a train in Gad’s Hill, Missouri, on January 31, 1874. They were probably baits.

As for Jesse, according to Pinkerton’s official website, the Pinkerton Agency composed huge criminal databases out of everything that was related to the criminals they were after. And we mean everything! Mugshots, people’s recollections, witness accounts, hearsay, as well as every single newspaper story published that in one way or another was somehow about them and the things they did, praised, or condemned.

And there were a lot. Many believed they were heroes and tried to depict them as such. Others wished nothing else than their capture. But for Pinkerton, they were just tiny pieces of evidence and clues about their potential whereabouts, and he used them to track them down. It was a practice not heard of before and it proved to be effective. They were found at last.

In March 1874, one of their agents was tasked to infiltrate the home of  Zerelda Samuel, Jesse’s and Frank’s mother. Some believed the agent was a former criminal who wished to redeem himself and could get inside their circles with ease. Some say his alleged criminal activities were just a cover-up story made up to help him get inside. Nonetheless, he did get in but never made the trip back out alive. His name was Joseph W. Whicher and he was found dead in a ditch, executed.

At the same time, according to multiple reports (William A. Settle, Marley Brant, Ted P. Yeatman, Homer Croy), two other agents Louis J. Lull, aka W. J. Allen, aka Lull, and Ed Daniels were sent for the Youngers. Both died in a gunfight, though Lull managed to kill one of the brothers, John Younger.

After these unfortunate events, Alan Pinkerton personally tried to catch Jesse himself and avenge the agents’ deaths but never did. On April 3, 1882, Jesse was assassinated by Robert Ford, in a cowardly fashion.

“Can’t figure it out, do you want to be like me or do you want to be me?” – Jesse James to Robert Ford.

He was 34 and he was killed at close range by a shot fired through the back of his skull, and by a man who he believed was his friend, but turned out to be something else. Pinkerton died two years after Jesse’s death. He had personally never managed to catch Jesse James, but his legacy lives on.

By the end of the following decade, the agency had 2,000 active agents and an additional 30,000 within its ranks. The Pinkerton Detective Agency was credited with disbanding the Wild Bunch, and by the 1960s had earned such glory and fame that it had no less but 60 offices nationwide. On one occasion in 1968 they were even called on to protect and escort Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa across the Atlantic.

At the turn of the millennium, Securitas AB, probably the largest provider of security services across the world, bought both Pinkerton and Burns detective agencies, the same year that Pinkerton was celebrating its 150 years of existence and good service for people in need.

To honor the legacy, all that was salvaged over the years and was theirs to give, was given to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., accompanied by a statement that reads:

We are honored that the Library of Congress considers our archives to be of historical significance and are proud to share the details of our organization’s past with the nation.” The agency was never known to be an all-boys club, was never a white-only organization either, and today, after almost 170 years of existence, Pinkerton Consulting and Investigations is still here if needed.

 Martin Chalakoski

(Related story from us: Jesse James was a “cool and deadly customer” who masterminded daytime robberies that taunted law enforcement)


Why the fiercely independent Katharine Hepburn hid her 26-year affair with co-star Spencer Tracy

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“If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.” Katharine Hepburn certainly lived up to her famous quote. She broke rules, she had fun, she set her own agenda. During her long and illustrious career, the legendary silver-screen star appeared in at least 30 movies over 60 years and took home a record of four golden Oscars for Best Actress.

Glamorous, athletic, and fiercely independent, Hepburn also harbored a passionate and secret relationship with her married co-star Spencer Tracy for 26 years. She even tended to him in his final years of declining health but was unable to attend her lover’s funeral. Today, it’s not unreasonable to wonder why such an unabashed proto-feminist would seemingly subjugate herself to the role of unacknowledged mistress for over a quarter of a century. Why did the Hepburn-Tracy affair last so long?

Katharine Hepburn was born in Connecticut in 1907 to a doctor father and a feminist mother. Planting the seeds of independent intelligence that would flourish throughout Hepburn’s life, both of her parents encouraged and expected their daughter to excel in academics, athletics, and any arena she chose. As a young girl, Katharine cut her hair short and called herself “Jimmy.” She ran, swam, bicycled, and played tennis and golf, the latter so well that she won tournaments while in high school. She loved going to movies and staged performances for her family and friends.

Hepburn’s early teens were marked by tragedy: at 13, Katharine discovered her brother’s death by suicide. In their typical upper-class fashion, her parents urged her to get over it and move on, but Katharine had a hard time returning to “regular” life. Eventually, at her mother’s urging, she attended Bryn Mawr College. There she found solace in acting while getting into the kind of trouble you’d expect from someone with a fierce sense of her own destiny. She once got suspended for smoking in her room.

It was during those years she met Ludlow Ogden Smith, whom she married in 1928. But she was more invested in her career than in the relationship, and by 1934 they were divorced. Interestingly, the two remained friends until his death in 1979. She later had relationships with Hollywood power brokers Leland Hayward and Howard Hughes—both of whom proposed marriage, though Hepburn ultimately declined.

Straight out of college, Hepburn pursued a career in theater, taking roles on Broadway and in summer stock, though some directors and critics found her “odd” look and “shrill” voice so off-putting that she was fired from several productions.

Undaunted and unintimidated, she landed her first movie role in 1932 and held her own opposite the much more famous John Barrymore in A Bill of Divorcement. Shortly thereafter, she took home her first Academy Award for her role as Eva Lovelace in Morning Glory (1933), though she didn’t attend the ceremony, and would only attend the gala once, in 1974, to present a lifetime achievement award. Many people equate Katharine Hepburn with the socialite Tracy Lord, one of her early defining roles in the critically acclaimed box-office hit The Philadelphia Story.

Like many actors, Hepburn was an introverted extrovert. She loved the perks of fame but resented any intrusion into her privacy. She didn’t like the press or the demands of public attention, declining interviews and autograph sessions (she would’ve loathed requests for selfies). The tabloids called her “Katharine of Arrogance,” according to A. Scott Berg’s biography Kate Remembered.

It was on the set of Woman of the Year in 1942 that she got involved with her co-star Spencer Tracy, then 41 and married to Louise Treadwell, whom he would never leave. The script, full of articulate banter characteristic of the era, highlighted their evident oppositional attraction, providing heat for the screen and their own private affair. Pat and Mike (1952), written specifically for the pair, was her favorite of the nine films they made together. 

“I loved Spencer Tracy,” Hepburn wrote in her 1991 autobiography. “I would have done anything for him.”

From the outside, theirs was a curious relationship: Sure, he was Hollywood handsome, but he was also a drunk and depressive. Usually so strong-willed and self-involved, Hepburn would become almost submissive around him, tending to his needs and obeying his wishes. A guilt-ridden Catholic, he would never divorce his wife and abandon his family. When he became ill with heart disease in his last years, Hepburn even moved in with him to care for him. After his death, she didn’t attend his funeral and never publicly acknowledged their relationship until the death of his wife, in 1983.

In their last movie together, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, they played parents dealing with their child’s interracial romance—a radical concept at the time. In obvious ill health, Tracy was battling heart disease, and the stress of performing while caring for his health put stress on them both. He died 17 days after filming his last scene, on June 10, 1967. When Hepburn won her second Academy Award for the role, she said it felt like it was a tribute to them both.

While Hollywood is historically unkind to aging actresses, Hepburn continued to act and her defining characteristics came into sharp focus as she grew older. Her role as undaunted Ethel Thayer opposite Henry Ford, 74, in On Golden Pond garnered her as record fourth Academy Award.

Some called it a sentimental win, as much a symbol of her longevity in the business as an award for a stellar performance. A sweet and poignant movie, it’s easy to imagine that this is how she would’ve preferred to live out her last years with Tracy.

Hepburn died June 29, 2003, aged 96 years old.

Jazz, blues and gumbo in the Deep South

The French Quarter in New Orleans is brimming with antique buildings and music
The French Quarter in New Orleans is brimming with antique buildings and music   GETTY IMAGES

‘So can we go upstairs?” An overworked guide gives me a weary look. “Nobody goes upstairs, nobody but family.” My grown-up daughter and I are on the porch of Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee, at the end of a road trip through the Deep South that has brought us to the second most visited house in America.

I know from the books that above us is the “death bathroom” where a heart attack felled Elvis Presley, supposedly as he read A Scientific Search for the Face of Jesus on the loo. With no chance of inappropriate selfies, we settled into our basic $43.75 tour.

The first striking fact is that, unlike everything else in America, Graceland is smaller than you expect: a solid suburban home gussied up by a portico with four Corinthian columns. The second surprise is that for all the green shag carpeting on ceilings, the white settees, the faux fur upholstery and the indoor waterfall, the interior is really rather intimate and homely. You can see why Elvis loved the place.

Visitors to Graceland are forbidden from seeing the bathroom where Elvis died
Visitors to Graceland are forbidden from seeing the bathroom where Elvis died   MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES

Long before reaching Presley’s doorstep, music and food had become the twin Corinthian pillars of our trip from Louisiana up Highway 61, the old “blues highway” through Mississippi. The adventure had begun, as many do, in New Orleans, specifically on that garish slash of neon, Bourbon Street, which cuts through the picturesque and otherwise charming French Quarter. Just off the plane, we went to the Desire Oyster Bar for our Welcome to Louisiana meal. Its no-nonsense menu was not for the weak-stomached: firecracker oysters, fried alligator (like chicken but saltier) and gumbo (southern stew). When a towering plate of shrimp and grits (similar to polenta) and a case of over-ambitious ordering defeated me, Kentrell, the oyster man, told me about the diner who downed nine orders of a dozen oysters. Yes, but that probably wasn’t at 3am UK time.

The next day we ventured farther into the French Quarter. In the balmy sun, surrounded by colourful, flower-bedecked antique buildings, you would have to try hard not to have a good time. Music was, of course, everywhere — a funky brass band, country blues buskers. Yes, this is tourist land but the standard was high, save for a lone trumpeter in Woldenberg Park by the Mississippi who seemed to slip into Baa, Baa, Black Sheep every time inspiration flagged. Even the living statues were a cut above, though the one we admired most, an eccentric figure in Canal Street, turned out, in fact, to be just a statue.

The restaurants too have their surprises. At ancient Napoleon House they showed us the upstairs chambers supposedly prepared for Bonaparte’s exile (never used after he died in St Helena). Above Arnaud’s Jazz Bistro there is a museum showing the costumes worn by the founder’s daughter at Mardi Gras balls. We inspected rows of ghostly mannequins clad as a mix of Disney princesses and Marie Antoinette.

John Bungey takes a break from Highway 61
John Bungey takes a break from Highway 61

By now, however, the road was calling — Highway 61, the legendary road as revisited by Bob Dylan. At first, however, the journey was dull unless you are a fan of swamp and low-budget ribbon development. However, excitement grew as it began to rain — and rain. By the time we reached picturesque Natchez, tornado warnings were gusting all over cable TV. Our hotel, the Grand, sat on a bluff high over the Mississippi, which was not, as in the Paul Simon song, “shining like a National guitar”. Instead Ol’ Man River brooded grey and ominous.

Natchez is known for the glories of its plantation houses — not so glorious if you were one of the four million slaves in the South labouring amid the cotton and sugar cane. The most spectacular residence we saw was Longwood, a six-storey mansion designed in Moorish style that comes with a poignant backstory. Only the basement was fitted out internally when the Civil War broke out and the northern builders fled. Its owner then died and his wife, reduced to penury, lived on with the children in the basement — as did their descendants for 100 years — never having the money to complete the interiors. The grand and ghostly upper floors are now a favourite for vampire movie-makers.

On we drove, the road taking us past more swamp and shacks and what looked in places like picturesque poverty, but real poverty nonetheless. We stopped at little Greenwood where the Alluvian was a fine boutique hotel, much-loved by weekending Americans. However, the rest of this little cotton city was a puzzle. For all its period buildings, the centre has been “hollowed out” by suburban growth. Trying to walk to a shop where you could buy, say, a banana or even (mad idea) a newspaper proved impossible. Instead we took the car to the Museum of the Mississippi Delta where they had the skeleton of a local mastodon, a re-creation of a swamp, and made a game attempt at explaining the convulsions of the Civil War and the bitter civil rights struggle in these parts.

Next came blues day. We drove out of town to the rustic little Zion Missionary Church to pay our respects at what may be the grave of the commercially insignificant but hugely influential bluesman Robert Johnson. There are two other alleged burial sites to choose from. Our route then took us past the crossroads where Johnson is said to have met the Devil to sell his soul in return for supernatural musical powers. Today Beelzebub would be crushed by the 18-wheelers trundling past before he could make the deal.

Halfway to Memphis we stopped at Clarksdale, touted as the birthplace of blues music. At the Delta Museum they were handing out fairy cakes to mark the birthday of Muddy Waters. The Ground Zero club is one part tourist trap, one part blues cliché and one part a very good time. We sipped root beer and listened to some righteous guitaring.

In Memphis we arrived at the new Napoleon Hotel, which pulls off the trick of being homely and hip. We told the valet we wanted to visit Sun Studio, cradle of early rock’n’roll. He pointed down the street. But it was one of those American urban forays via crumbling or non-existent sidewalks and past wandering lost souls that proved impossible for us. So we retreated and caught a bus. Sun Studio is small and airless, bedecked with pictures of Elvis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and sundry lost legends. At one end is a drum kit left behind when U2 rattled and hummed here in 1987; at the other end our guide, Nina, unveiled an ancient Shure 55 mike that Elvis may or may not have sung into. “Do not kiss it or lick it,” she implored, as the holy relic was passed round.

Downtown Memphis was smart and shiny, the rest was not. We ate a decent plate of gumbo in Beale Street, the music quarter, which is heavily touristy. But the National Civil Rights Museum, built around the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was shot in 1968, is hugely moving. King’s bedroom is preserved as on the day of his death. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music, celebrating the mighty local label, was also $13 well spent.

After our Graceland foray, it was a six-hour straight drive down the Interstate 55 for another brief taste of New Orleans. At a final brunch at Commander’s Palace, I drank a potent local Sazerac cocktail, then another, and not surprisingly fell asleep on the plane home. I had a dream that I was back in Graceland and the reincarnated Elvis himself was showing me round upstairs. Yet as we reached his inner sanctum he morphed into an air stewardess who was telling me to buckle up for landing. Some things in the Deep South will for ever remain a deep mystery.

Mystery: Hours before his death, Edgar Allan Poe was found in the gutter, disheveled and raving


It’s a mystery the father of detective fiction may have penned himself: On a dark and stormy election night in 1849, a newspaperman hurrying to Ryan’s 4th ward polling place in Baltimore came upon a man lying in a gutter outside the public hall. The man was dirty, disheveled, and barely coherent. When the newspaperman stopped, he received quite a shock: this filthy, seeming stumblebum was the estimable poet and detective writer, none other than Edgar Allan Poe.

Quickly the newspaperman sent a message to a Poe associate describing Poe as “the worse for wear,” “in great distress,” and “in need of immediate assistance.”

Though Poe was hurried off to Washington College Hospital, he dipped in and out of a feverish and hallucinatory consciousness, at one point calling out for “Reynolds”—another unexplained mystery. He never regained full lucidity and died four days later, at age 40, on October 7, 1849, reportedly of “phrenitis,” or swelling of the brain.

What caused the writer of “The Tell-Tale Heart” to land in a gutter and never recover? Was he drunk, sick, or beaten to death? “Maybe it’s fitting that since he invented the detective story,” Chris Semtner, curator of the Poe Museum, in Richmond, Virginia, told Smithsonian magazine. “He left us with a real-life mystery.”

Edgar Allan Poe was born January 19, 1809, in Boston, the son of two actors. His early life was marked by loss. His father abandoned the family when Edgar was an infant; his mother died of tuberculosis two years later. He was raised in Richmond, Virginia, by a Scottish merchant, with whom had many disagreements over money. Poe attended the University of Virginia briefly, dropped out and enlisted in the Army, where he spent two years and published his largely ignored first book of poetry.

Poe attended West Point, where he published another book of poetry, but he chafed at the discipline and successfully got himself kicked out. In 1835, he became a magazine editor and a literary critic known for harsh appraisals. When he was 27, he fell in love with and married his cousin Virginia Clemm, then 13, and the couple moved to New York. In 1841, he published the story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” often cited as the first modern detective story.

Poe achieved more universal acclaim when he published his dark and hypnotic poem “The Raven,” in The New York Evening Mirror in 1845. It was around this time that Virginia started coughing blood—a terrible tell-tale sign of tuberculosis. When she died in 1847, Poe fell into a deep, alcohol-fueled despondency from which his friends feared he would never recover. He became engaged nearly two years later, but his fiancée insisted he quit drinking, and he couldn’t. Indeed, for many years people assumed that alcoholism felled him.

Setting the scene for the events that led to his death, Poe spent the summer of 1849 in Richmond, proposing to his childhood sweetheart, Sarah Elmira Royster. On September 27, 1849, he left Royster in Richmond and set off to Philadelphia, where he was to help a friend edit a collection of poems. He never arrived, and no one knew where he was until the newspaperman found him October 3 outside the polling place.

Was Poe inebriated? He was highly susceptible to the effects of alcohol, and even a couple of drinks could’ve made him blind drunk. In 1867, one of his first biographers theorized that thugs may have beaten him in his drunken state. Others speculated that he was a victim of the 19th century voter-fraud practice of “cooping,” whereby a man, persuaded by alcohol, was forced to vote multiple times under different aliases at multiple locations.

Other suppositions include poisoning—by carbon monoxide or heavy metal—but DNA testing of Poe’s hair clippings have largely discredited those theories.

In the September 1996 issue of Maryland Medical Journal, Dr. R. Michael Benitez published an article pulling together facts that suggested Poe had died from rabies.

Most recently, historians have surmised Poe may have had a brain tumor. When Poe’s remains were exhumed 26 years after his death for relocation, the rotted coffin unfortunately fell apart. Observers noted a mass in his skull, and assumed it was his brain. Today forensics experts know the brain would’ve disintegrated in two decades, but a tumor would remain intact. Pressing on the brain, a tumor can cause erratic behavior and stuttering incoherence easily mistaken for drunkenness.

“I’ve never been completely convinced of any one theory,” Semtner, the Poe Museum historian, told Smithsonian.

Will we ever really know how Poe died?

If you asked his Raven, you know the answer: NEVERMORE.

By  Scott Antony





James Naismith holding a ball and a peach basket, the first basketball equipment.
November 6, 1861

Almonte, Canada

November 28, 1939 (aged 78)



Ethan Hawke

Maria Shriver

Glenn Frey

Sally Field

Charles II



The Cleveland Browns (left) in a game against the Carolina Panthers.
1996  Art Modell, the owner of the NFL‘s Cleveland Browns, announced that he was moving the team to Baltimore, which enraged sportswriters and Cleveland fans.
Ronald Reagan.
1984  U.S. President Ronald Reagan won reelection in a landslide victory over Democratic candidate Walter F. Mondale.
Vladimir Ilich Lenin addressing the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets in Petrograd, November 8 [October 26, Old Style], 1917.
1917   The second phase of the Russian Revolution of 1917 began (October 25, Old Style) as the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia.
Benjamin Harrison, photograph by George Prince, 1888.
1888  Benjamin Harrison of the Republican Party was elected U.S. president by an electoral majority despite losing the popular vote by more than 90,000 to his Democratic opponent, Grover Cleveland.
Walter Johnson.
1887   Professional baseball player Walter Johnson, who had perhaps the greatest fastball in the history of the game, was born in Humboldt, Kansas.
John Philip Sousa.
1854   American bandmaster John Philip Sousa, who composed 136 military marches, was born.
Charles II of Spain, detail of a portrait by Juan Carreño, c. 1685; in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
1661  Charles II, who ruled Spain from 1665 to 1700 and was the last monarch of the Spanish Habsburg dynasty, was born.


Simón Bolívar
Simon Bolivar

Simón Bolívarby name The Liberator or Spanish El Libertador (born July 24, 1783, Caracas, Venezuela, New Granada [now in Venezuela]—died December 17, 1830, near Santa Marta, Colombia), Venezuelan soldier and statesman who led the revolutions against Spanish rule in the Viceroyalty of New Granada. He was president of Gran Colombia(1819–30) and dictator of Peru (1823–26).

Early Life

The son of a Venezuelan aristocrat of Spanish descent, Bolívar was born to wealth and position. His father died when the boy was three years old, and his mother died six years later, after which his uncle administered his inheritance and provided him with tutors. One of those tutors, Simón Rodríguez, was to have a deep and lasting effect on him. Rodríguez, a disciple of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, introduced Bolívar to the world of 18th-century liberal thought.

At the age of 16, Bolívar was sent to Europe to complete his education. For three years he lived in Spain, and in 1801 he married the daughter of a Spanish nobleman, with whom he returned to Caracas. The young bride died of yellow fever less than a year after their marriage. Bolívar believed that her tragic death was the reason that he took up a political career while still a young man.

In 1804, when Napoleon I was approaching the pinnacle of his career, Bolívar returned to Europe. In Paris, under the renewed guidance of his friend and tutor Rodríguez, he steeped himself in the writings of European rationalist thinkers such as John LockeThomas HobbesGeorges-Louis Leclerc, count de BuffonJean le Rond d’Alembert, and Claude-Adrien Helvétius, as well as VoltaireMontesquieu, and Rousseau. The latter two had the deepest influence on his political life, but Voltaire coloured his philosophy of life. In Paris he met the German scientist Alexander von Humboldt, who had just returned from his voyage through Hispanic America and told Bolívar that he believed the Spanish colonies were ripe for independence. That idea took root in Bolívar’s imagination, and, on a trip to Rome with Rodríguez, as they stood on the heights of Monte Sacro, he made a vow to liberate his country.

One other experience enriched his intellect at that time: he watched the extraordinary performance that culminated in Napoleon’s coronation in 1804 as emperor of the French. Bolívar’s reaction to the coronation wavered between admiration of the accomplishments of a single man and revulsion at Napoleon’s betrayal of the ideals of the French Revolution. The desire for glory was one of the permanent traits in Bolívar’s character, and there can be little doubt that it was stimulated by Napoleon. The example of Napoleon was, nevertheless, a warning that Bolívar heeded. In his later days he always insisted that the title of “liberator” was higher than any other and that he would not exchange it for that of king or emperor. In 1807 he returned to Venezuela by way of the United States, visiting the eastern cities.

Independence Movement 

The Latin American independence movement was launched a year after Bolívar’s return, as Napoleon’s invasion of Spain unsettled Spanish authority. Napoleon also failed completely in his attempt to gain the support of the Spanish colonies, which claimed the right to nominate their own officials. Following the example of the mother country, they wished to establish juntas to rule in the name of the deposed Spanish king. Many of the Spanish settlers, however, saw in those events an opportunity to sever their ties with Spain. Bolívar himself participated in various conspiratorial meetings, and on April 19, 1810, the Spanish governor was officially deprived of his powers and expelled from Venezuela. A junta took over. To obtain help, Bolívar was sent on a mission to London, where he arrived in July. His assignment was to explain to England the plight of the revolutionary colony, to gain recognition for it, and to obtain arms and support. Although he failed in his official negotiations, his English sojourn was in other respects a fruitful one. It gave him an opportunity to study the institutions of the United Kingdom, which remained for him models of political wisdom and stability. More important, he fostered the cause of the revolution by persuading the exiled Venezuelan Francisco de Miranda, who in 1806 had attempted to liberate his country single-handedly, to return to Caracas and assume command of the independence movement.

 Venezuela was in ferment. In March 1811 a national congress met in Caracas to draft a constitution. Bolívar, though not a delegate, threw himself into the debate that aroused the country. In the first public speech of his career, he declared, “Let us lay the cornerstone of American freedom without fear. To hesitate is to perish.” After long deliberation, the national assembly declared Venezuela’s independence on July 5, 1811. Bolívar now entered the army of the young republic, whose commander in chief was Miranda, and was placed in charge of Puerto Cabello, a port on the Caribbean Sea west of Caracas that was vital to Venezuela. In the short time since their London meeting, he and Miranda had drifted apart. Miranda called Bolívar a “dangerous youth,” and Bolívar had misgivings about the aging general’s abilities. Treasonable action by one of Bolívar’s officers opened the fortress to the Spanish forces, and Miranda, the commander in chief, entered into negotiations with the Spanish commander in chief. An armistice was signed (July 1812) that left the entire country at the mercy of Spain. Miranda was turned over to the Spaniards—after Bolívar and others prevented his escape from Venezuela—and spent the rest of his life in Spanish dungeons.

Determined to continue the struggle, Bolívar obtained a passport to leave the country and went to Cartagena in New Granada. There he published the first of his great political statements, El manifiesto de Cartagena (“The Cartagena Manifesto”), in which he attributed the fall of Venezuela’s First Republic to the lack of strong government and called for a united revolutionary effort to destroy the power of Spain in the Americas.

With backing from the patriots of New Granada, Bolívar led an expeditionary force to retake Venezuela. In a sweeping hard-fought campaign, he vanquished the royalists in six pitched battles and on August 6, 1813, entered Caracas. He was given the title of Liberator and assumed political dictatorship. The war of independence was just beginning, however. The majority of the people of Venezuela were hostile to the forces of independence and weary of the sacrifices imposed. A cruel civil war broke out, and Bolívar himself resorted to extreme measures, such as the shooting of prisoners. His severity failed in its object. In 1814 Bolívar was once more defeated by the Spanish, who had converted the llaneros (cowboys) led by José Tomás Boves into an undisciplined but savagely effective cavalry that Bolívar was unable to repulse. Boves subjected Creole patriots to terrible atrocities, and his capture of Caracas and other principal cities ended the second Venezuelan republic. Narrowly escaping Miranda’s fate, Bolívar fled to New Granada, where he was commissioned in Cartagena to oust a separatist faction from Bogotá (now in Colombia) and succeeded in doing so. He then laid siege to Cartagena but failed to unite the revolutionary forces and fled to Jamaica.

In exile, Bolívar turned his energies toward gaining support from Great Britain, and, in an effort to convince the British people of their stake in the freedom of the Spanish colonies, he wrote the greatest document of his career: La carta de Jamaica (“The Letter from Jamaica”), in which he outlined a grandiose panorama from Chile and Argentina to Mexico. “The bonds,” wrote Bolívar, “that united us to Spain have been severed.” He was not dismayed that the Spaniards had in certain instances won the upper hand. “A people that love freedom will in the end be free. We are,” he said proudly, “a microcosm of the human race. We are a world apart, confined within two oceans, young in arts and sciences, but old as a human society. We are neither Indians nor Europeans, yet we are a part of each.” He proposed constitutional republics throughout Hispanic America, and for the former Viceroyalty of New Granada he envisioned a government modeled on that of Great Britain, with a hereditary upper house, an elected lower house, and a president chosen for life. The last provision, to which Bolívar clung throughout his career, constituted the most dubious feature of his political thinking.

In “The Letter from Jamaica,” Bolívar showed himself as a great internationalist. He looked forward to the day when the representatives of all Hispanic American nations would gather in a central location such as Panama.

By 1815, Spain had sent to its seditious colonies the strongest expeditionary force that had ever crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Its commander was Pablo Morillo. Since neither Great Britain nor the United States would promise aid, Bolívar turned to Haiti, which had recently freed itself from French rule. There he was given a friendly reception as well as money and weapons.

Liberation Of New Granada

Three years of indecisive defeats and victories followed. In 1817 Bolívar decided to set up headquarters in the Orinoco River region, which had not been devastated by war and from which the Spaniards could not easily oust him. He engaged the services of several thousand foreign soldiers and officers, mostly British and Irish, established his capital at Angostura (now Ciudad Bolívar), began to publish a newspaper, and established a liaison with the revolutionary forces of the plains, including one group led by José Antonio Páez and another group led by Francisco de Paula Santander. In spring 1819 he conceived his master plan of attacking the Viceroyalty of New Granada.

  • Francisco de Paula Santander, statue in Medellín, Colombia.
    Francisco de Paula Santander, statue in Medellín, Colombia.
    Alejandro Sajor
  • General José Antonio Páez.
    General José Antonio Páez.   Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Bolívar’s attack on New Granada is considered one of the most daring in military history. The route of the small army (about 2,500 men, including the British legion) led through the plains, but it was the rainy season, and the rivers had become lakes. For seven days, according to one of Bolívar’s aides, they marched in water up to their waists. Ten navigable rivers were crossed, most of them in cowhide boats. The journey through the plains seemed child’s play, however, in comparison with their ascent of the Andes Mountains that stood between Bolívar and the city of Bogotá. Bolívar had chosen to cross the cordillera at the pass of Pisba, which the Spanish considered an inconceivable approach. An icy wind blew across the heights of the pass, and many of the scantily clad troops died of cold and exposure. The fatigue and loss, however, were more than outweighed by the advantage gained in descending unopposed into New Granada. The Spaniards were taken by surprise, and in the crucial Battle of Boyacá on August 7, 1819, the bulk of the royalist army surrendered to Bolívar. Three days later he entered Bogotá. That action was the turning point in the history of northern South America.

Indefatigably, Bolívar set out to complete his task. He appointed Santander vice president in charge of the administration and in December 1819 made his appearance before the congress that had assembled in Angostura. Bolívar was made president and military dictator. He urged the legislators to proclaim the creation of a new state; three days later the Republic of Colombia, usually called Gran Colombia, was established, comprising the three departments of New Granada (now the countries of Colombia and Panama), Venezuela, and Quito (Ecuador). Since most of that territory was still under royalist control, it was largely a paper achievement. Bolívar knew, however, that victory was finally within his grasp. Early in 1820 a revolution in Spain forced the Spanish king, Ferdinand VII, to recognize the ideals of liberalism on the home front, an action that discouraged the Spanish forces in South America. Bolívar persuaded Morillo to open armistice negotiations, and the two warriors met in a memorable encounter at Santa Ana, Venezuela, signing in November 1820 a treaty that ended hostilities for a six-month period.

When fighting was resumed, Bolívar found it easy, with his superior manpower, to defeat the Spanish forces in Venezuela. The Battle of Carabobo (June 1821) opened the gates of Caracas, and Bolívar’s Venezuelan homeland was at last free. In the autumn of the same year, a congress convened in Cúcuta to draft a constitution for Gran Colombia. Its provisions disappointed Bolívar. Although he had been elected president, he thought the constitution was too liberal in character to guarantee the survival of his creation. As long as more-urgent assignments claimed his attention, however, he was willing to put up with its weak structure. Putting the administration in Santander’s hands, he left to continue his military campaign.

The effort to liberate Ecuador lasted about a year. Bolívar was assisted by the most brilliant of his officers, Antonio José de Sucre. While Bolívar engaged the Spaniards in the mountains that defended the northern access to Quito, capital of Ecuador, Sucre marched from the Pacific Ocean coast to the interior. At Pichincha on May 24, 1822, he won a victory that freed Ecuador from the Spanish yoke. On the following day the capital fell, and Bolívar joined forces with Sucre on June 16.

It was in Quito that the Liberator met the great passion of his life, Manuela Sáenz. She was an ardent revolutionary who freely admitted her love for Bolívar and accompanied him first to Peru and ultimately to the presidential palace in Bogotá.

Liberation Of Peru

The territory of Gran Colombia had now been completely recovered from Spain, and its new government was recognized by the United States. Only Peru and Upper Peru remained in the hands of the Spaniards. It was the Peruvian problem that brought Bolívar and the Argentine revolutionary José de San Martín together. San Martín had done for the southern part of the continent what Bolívar had accomplished for the north. In addition, San Martín had already entered Lima and proclaimed Peru’s independence. But the Spanish forces had retreated into the highlands, and San Martín, unable to follow them, decided to consult with Bolívar. On July 26, 1822, the two men met in the port city of Guayaquil, Ecuador (the Guayaquil Conference). Details of their discussions are not known, but presumably they covered completion of the military struggle in Peru as well as the subsequent organization of liberated Hispanic America. San Martín must have understood that Bolívar alone combined the military, political, and psychological assets needed to gain final victory over the powerful Spanish army in the highlands. Given the situation in Lima, where he faced mounting opposition, San Martín’s presence there could only hinder the performance of that task. On his return from Guayaquil, San Martín resigned his office in Lima and went into exile, allowing Bolívar to assume sole direction of the war. Whether he took that action to give Bolívar a free hand or out of a sense of personal frustration is unknown.

The avenue that would lead to Bolívar’s ultimate ambition was now open. In September 1823 he arrived in Lima. The Spanish army occupied the mountains east of the city, and its position was considered unassailable. Bolívar, however, systematically assembled troops, horses, mules, and ammunition to form an army, and in 1824 he moved out of the temporary capital in Trujillo and ascended the high cordillera. The first major battle took place at Junín and was easily won by Bolívar, who then left the successful termination of the campaign to his able chief of staff, Sucre. On December 9, 1824, the Spanish viceroy lost the Battle of Ayacucho to Sucre and surrendered with his entire army.


Bolívar was now president of Gran Colombia and dictator of Peru. Only a small section of the continent—Upper Peru—was still defended by royalist forces. The liberation of that region fell to Sucre, and in April 1825 he reported that the task had been accomplished. The new country chose to be called Bolivia, a variation on the Liberator’s name. For that child of his genius, Bolívar drafted a constitution that showed once more his authoritarian inclinations: it created a lifetime president, a legislative body consisting of three chambers, and a highly restricted suffrage. Bolívar was devoted to his own creation, but, as the instrument of social reform that he had envisaged, the constitution was a failure.

Bolívar had now reached the high point of his career. His power extended from the Caribbean to the Argentine-Bolivian border. He had conquered severe illness, which during his sojourn in Peru had made him practically an invalid for months at a time. Another of his favourite projects, a league of Hispanic American states, came to fruition in 1826. He had long advocated treaties of alliance between the American republics, whose weakness he correctly apprehended. By 1824 such treaties had been signed and ratified by the republics of Colombia, Peru, Mexico, the United Provinces of Central America, and the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata. In 1826 a general American congress convened in Panama under Bolívar’s auspices. Compared with Bolívar’s original proposals, it was a fragmentary affair, with only Colombia, Peru, Central America, and Mexico sending representatives. The four countries that attended signed a treaty of alliance and invited all other American countries to adhere to it. A common army and navy were planned, and a biannual assembly representing the federated states was projected. All controversies among the states were to be solved by arbitration. Only Colombia ratified the treaty, yet the congress in Panama provided an important example for future hemispheric solidarity and understanding in South America.

Bolívar was aware that his plans for hemispheric organization had met with only limited acceptance. His contemporaries thought in terms of individual nation-states, Bolívar in terms of continents. In the field of domestic policy he continued to be an authoritarian republican. He thought of himself as a rallying point and anticipated civil war as soon as his words should no longer be heeded. Such a prophecy, made in 1824, was fulfilled in 1826.

Civil War

Venezuela and New Granada began to chafe at the bonds of their union in Gran Colombia. The protagonists in each country, Páez in Venezuela and Santander in New Granada, opposed each other, and at last civil war broke out. Bolívar left Lima in haste, and most authorities agree that Peru was glad to see the end of his three-year reign and its liberation from Colombian influence. In Bogotá, Bolívar found Santander upholding the constitution of Cúcuta and urging that Páez be punished as a rebel. Bolívar, however, was determined to preserve the unity of Gran Colombia and was therefore willing to appease Páez, with whom he became reconciled early in 1827. Páez bowed to the supreme authority of the Liberator, and in turn Bolívar promised a new constitution that would remedy Venezuelan grievances. He declared himself dictator of Gran Colombia and called for a national convention that met in April 1828. Bolívar refused to influence the elections, with the result that the liberals under the leadership of Santander gained the majority.

Bolívar had hoped that the constitution of Cúcuta would be revised and presidential authority strengthened, but the liberals blocked any such attempts. A stalemate developed. Arguing that the old constitution was no longer valid and that no new one had taken its place, Bolívar assumed dictatorial powers in Gran Colombia. A group of liberal conspirators invaded the presidential palace on the night of September 25, and Bolívar was saved from the daggers of the assassins only by the quick-wittedness of Manuela Sáenz. Although the attempt on his life failed, the storm signals increased. Bolívar’s precarious health began to fail. Peru invaded Ecuador with the intention of annexing Guayaquil. Once more Sucre saved Ecuador and defeated the Peruvians at Tarqui (1829). A few months later one of Bolívar’s most-honoured generals, José María Córdoba, staged a revolt. It was crushed, but Bolívar was disheartened by the continued ingratitude of his former adherents. In the fall of 1829 Venezuela seceded from Gran Colombia.

Reluctantly, Bolívar realized that his very existence presented a danger to the internal and external peace of the nations that owed their independence to him, and on May 8, 1830, he left Bogotá, planning to take refuge in Europe. Reaching the Atlantic coast, he learned that Sucre, whom he had trained as his successor, had been assassinated. Bolívar’s grief was boundless. The projected trip to Europe was canceled, and, at the invitation of a Spanish admirer, Bolívar journeyed to his estate near Santa Marta. Ironically, his life ended in the house of a Spaniard, where, toward the end of 1830, he died of tuberculosis.

Bolívar is regarded by many as the greatest genius the Latin Americanworld has produced. He was a man of international renown in his own day, and his reputation has steadily increased since his death. There are few figures in European history and none in the history of the United States who display the rare combination of strength and weakness, character and temperament, prophetic vision and poetic power that distinguish Simón Bolívar. As a consequence, his life and his work have grown to mythical dimensions among the people of his continent.

By Gerhard Straussmann Masur