Posted by Matt Kuhns on Feb 4, 2015
Recently I happened to see a bit of a show called Ghost Stories, while I was at the YMCA, and was intrigued by one segment about the Burlington County prison. As this brought the show’s cameras to Mount Holly, New Jersey, I wondered whether the local crime fighter who sent many felons to said jail would be mentioned.
I didn’t get to catch the rest of the segment, though, so I have no idea whether or not it included any reference to Ellis Parker. Subsequent looking around online suggests that you can however go to the old prison, now a museum, and hear a good deal about Parker there. From the Weird New Jersey site: “Another character to have made his mark in Burlington’s, and New Jersey’s, history was the excellent detective Ellis H. Parker—who sounds like a Sherlock Holmes. Mike Reilly, chief guide at the museum, can fill you in on the details of Parker’s exciting life.”
As, of course, can Parker biographer John Reisinger… This might be a good time to mention that at some point, perhaps a year or two ago, the entertaining Mysteries at the Museum show also visited Burlington County Prison for a segment specifically featuring Parker. They interviewed Reisinger, and while I have never seen the episode he has written about the experience at his web site.
Posted by Matt Kuhns on Sep 12, 2013
On this day, 142 years ago: Ellis H. Parker born near Wrightstown, New Jersey. Happy birthday, chief Parker! I don’t expect this will actually happen, but I certainly like to imagine that they might raise a toast down at the Elks Club in Mount Holly, this evening, in your honor.
Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jun 18, 2013
There isn’t a great deal to post about this one, but I like it and feel like sharing. Ellis Parker and one of his (many) grandchildren:
Ellis the family man
There’s something adorable about this stocky, gruff-looking bald old cop gently taking the hand of this innocent little tot. Definitely a glimpse of the kind man whose reputation as such was, unfortunately, dinged up by failing judgement in late-life. Frankly, if there were ever a Parker statue, this wouldn’t be a half-bad image to use.
Posted by Matt Kuhns on May 15, 2013
This is almost certainly coincidence. But it’s something of an amusing coincidence, I think. I recently purchased several back issues of the late Will Eisner’s classic comic strip, The Spirit (it was adapted into a ridiculous-looking action movie a few years ago). I’ve been acquainted with The Spirit for a number of years, but as I read through these latest acquisitions, I was struck by the odd resemblance of Police Commissioner Dolan to someone else I’ve gotten to know through extensive reading…
Dolan’s the one in the bottom row (Parker photos courtesy William Fullerton)
Posted by Matt Kuhns on Mar 30, 2013
One further thought, this last weekend of Women’s History Month, inspired by some comments from Mr. Jerry Clark at our recent store co-appearance. Discussing the “Pizza Bomber” case, a byzantine, years-long investigation chronicled in the book he and Ed Palattella co-authored, Clark spoke briefly of the personal toll such cases can exact.
Unsurprisingly, such work can stretch those involved awfully thin. Even with dedicated, well-organized teams like those of the modern FBI, the individuals at the center of a major crime investigation can find work taking over their life; as Clark noted, one may “clock out” and go home at night but one doesn’t ever really get away from a case like “the pizza bomber” until it’s truly and finally over. Meanwhile, stress and exhaustion can take a toll, not only on an investigator but on those around him or her. Particularly one’s family.
I don’t recall Mr. Clark’s exact words, but the gist of one further comment stuck with me, too. I believe it was, more or less, that an all-absorbing criminal investigation can sorely test personal relationships but, at the same time, strong family support can be invaluable in making it through.
This gave me pause because nearly every detective highlighted in Brilliant Deduction was a “family man.”
Which may not be that odd, certainly for the time period, but it’s striking how this contrasts with fiction. Sherlock Holmes—at least in the canonical stories—was a borderline-misogynist bachelor. I’ve not read a lot of Poirot novels but I’m not aware of any Mrs. Poirot. The 20th century American fictional detective archetype, exemplified by Spade and Marlowe, is decidedly unattached.
Posted by Matt Kuhns on Mar 18, 2013
The stars of Brilliant Deduction are “forgotten” figures in the sense that they were once prominent figures, regularly in the news, at least regionally. Isaiah Lees, once a name familiar to nearly the entire city of San Francisco, is now almost vanished; William Burns, in his day perhaps the most famous real-life detective in history, has thoroughly lost out to his great rivals the Pinkertons (the exception to the rule) in popular memory. Ellis Parker, though the last to depart the stage, has fared little better; despite a recent biography, my efforts to acquire a photo of the man via the same newspapers that regularly featured his picture within living memory met with zero recognition of him.
Still, it’s more accurate to describe the reduced profiles of Parker et al. as “obscure,” because none of them is entirely forgotten. Since publishing Brilliant Deduction, in fact, I have heard from various others interested in one or another of its heroes, beyond those biographers and other chroniclers I found during my research. Just recently, their number has been joined by two gentlemen working to restore a little of the faded reputation of The Garden State’s greatest sleuth.
The first of these, attorney and local historian George R. Brinkerhoff, has written an excellent feature article on Ellis Parker for JerseyMan Magazine. Having spent a good deal of thought and effort on how to condense down Parker’s life and career, myself, I feel I may say with fair qualifications that Mr. Brinkerhoff has succeeded admirably. Parker’s origins, key information about his most remarkable cases, a good sense of what he was like as a person, and a thoughtful analysis of his story’s unhappy ending; it’s all there.
Having also observed how published reminiscences of Parker grew fewer and farther between since his death, I’m glad to see at least one local periodical taking note of his fascinating story again. Better still, there may be more to come, from the second gentleman; as noted in the JerseyMan story, Parker grandson Andrew Sahol has been preparing to write his own account of “Pop” as few other living people could.
Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jan 16, 2013
Being a prominent detective had its up-sides. Fame, for a time; in a few cases wealth. It also carried considerable risks, trouble with the law being one of the biggest. After all, the position usually meant being regularly associated with criminals, and a constant “person of interest” to law enforcement. That’s like two strikes, right there. Three strikes and you’re in—jail.
Of the nine men profiled in Brilliant Deduction, nearly half were sentenced to serve time behind bars, after they had established reputations as detectives.
Vidocq was in and out of jails regularly in his youth, before changing sides, but long after he had made immeasurable contributions to policing history, the Paris gendarmes still threw him into the Conciergerie.
Isaiah Lees spent a brief period in jail early in his career with the SFPD, mainly for arguing with a particularly combative chief, though he found himself in hot water with the law a further time or two as well. (For what it’s worth, another SFPD chief went to jail, himself, during one of those later episodes; it was a rowdy era, you might say.)
After years of controversies and legal scuffling, William Burns was sentenced to jail late in his career for what he called jury surveillance and his opponents called jury tampering. As with an earlier case in which he was briefly wanted by the police, though, Burns avoided actually having the jail door clang shut on him…
…Ellis Parker, however, was not so fortunate, and effectively ended his career with a lengthy prison sentence. The jury recommended leniency, and a public outcry eventually demanded a pardon, though neither did Parker much good in the end.
Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jan 10, 2013
There is a P.I. Museum in San Diego, and a Spy and Private Eye Museum in Austin, Texas. I’ve never been to either, though both have interesting online collections.
But, I’ve started to wonder what a museum or museum exhibit about the great detectives profiled in Brilliant Deduction might include. It’s basically just a play-pretend exercise, but it’s interesting enough; what one or two items might I want to display for each of the investigators I’ve described?
Vidocq made more use of disguise than any of his notable peers, and perhaps more than any detective real or imagined other than Sherlock Holmes. If some of his costumes or other paraphernalia had been preserved, it would be a must-see display. I might also want to include examples of his file-card record system, which represented a major advance in durable, systematized approaches to criminal investigation.
For Jonathan Whicher, I can’t help thinking of the “relics” from the Road child murder investigation that he apparently held on to after the case and his entire career imploded, only for them (and Whicher) to get a second hearing of sorts, years later.
Allan Pinkerton’s detective career began with counterfeiting investigations, and that crime played an important role throughout detective history, so a few samples would make ideal displays. Perhaps even one of the counterfeit dimes from his very first foray into detective work. Any kind of records would also be appropriate, as Pinkerton was ultimately as or more important as an administrator and entrepreneur than as a field man.
Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jan 7, 2013
I only discovered this as I was going through the final steps of publishing my own book’s first edition, but John Reisinger has an updated edition of his masterful biography of Ellis Parker, Master Detective.
I already have a print copy of Master Detective, but I purchased the updated ebook right away, and I’m more than happy to call it out here even though I’ve got my own book to flog. Mr. Reisinger was a courteous source of help with Brilliant Deduction more than once, and I greatly appreciate that as well as his fine work recovering the story of Ellis Parker in the first place. I also commend the fact that he has continued that work. The fascinating, forgotten story of amazing detection in real life tends to get under one’s skin, though…
The new edition seems to be available at Amazon in paperback and ebook formats. I also recommend taking a moment to browse around the author’s own web site, though; a lot of nifty little notes, including how Master Detective has ended up being licensed for Chinese and Taiwanese editions.
Meanwhile, if anyone wants to discuss a foreign-language edition of Brilliant Deduction, step right up…