San Francisco historic crimes

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Dec 30, 2014

Here’s something neat; I received an e-mail recently from Mr. Paul Drexler, who operates a web site and tour organization featuring historic crimes in the Bay City. As a relatively rare instance of the tomorrow-fixated town recalling otherwise little-remembered figures like Isaiah Lees, I commend the effort.

The Crooks Tour web site also includes a blog, with a recent post noting a significant connection to one of Lees’s great cases that I either missed or forgot. In Brilliant Deduction, I outlined Lees’s direction of the grueling manhunt for fugitive banker Joe Duncan… but I somehow missed the fact that Duncan was the father of Isadora Duncan. Something else to note if I ever prepare a revised edition.

Meanwhile, if anyone is in San Francisco looking for a tour a bit outside the usual itinerary, here you go.

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Pollaky, Tumblety and Jack the Ripper

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jul 1, 2013

My quiet adviser on Ignatius “Paddington” Pollaky has provided another curious little footnote to his history, and that of London’s most notorious unsolved crimes, i.e. the Whitechapel murders.

Research has apparently placed Pollaky at 10 Devonshire Place in 1861 (some years before he relocated to the Paddington Green address thereafter associated so closely with him). One of his next-door neighbors at 8 Devonshire Place was a very young Henry Carr

And this is where I had to do some research, myself, because my informant pointed out that Carr was later an associate of Francis Tumblety… which name I may have come across before, but apparently forgot. Perhaps not entirely unreasonably, though, given the enormous number of names associated with the mystery of Jack the Ripper… <dramatic piano chords>

Still, it seems that the grounds for suspicion of Mr. Tumblety are actually rather interesting, and probably more solid than is the case for a number of other suspects. The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Companion: An Illustrated Encyclopedia notes that Tumblety was actually subject of considerable police interest in 1888, which, considering the numberless leads offered Scotland Yard, may say something.

Tumblety, also named as “Kumblety” or “Twomblety” in various newspaper reports, was apparently an American “quack” doctor. He was also apparently markedly misogynistic, even for the 1880s, and accused more than once of other forms of “sexual deviancy” (including homosexual relationships, of which Victorian society could of course be less than tolerant).

Allegedly, though (according to the head of Special Branch during the 1880s in fact), Scotland Yard assembled “a large dossier” on Tumblety. Certainly, they expended considerable effort pursuing him. Read more…

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Lees and “The Bell Tower”

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jun 5, 2013

A few months ago, while reading a work of fiction based on the Whitechapel murders, I discovered another book about the same crimes advertised in the back. (There was even a clip-out coupon; how quaint this seems, now.) Despite my skepticism about any claims of solving a century-old crime, and even moreso about claims to have pulled a clean solution from the bottomless mire of Ripperology, I was intrigued by The Bell Tower: The case of Jack the Ripper finally solved… in San Francisco.

I presumed that in some way it connected Jack the Ripper to the Emmanuel Baptist Church murders, of which I had read in researching the career of Isaiah Lees; as this was one of a few strange, coincidental associations between Lees and the Ripper crimes that I had encountered, I made a note to get hold of the book at some point.

I’ve done so, and finished the 525-page account by Robert Graysmith of his theory that the executed Theodore Durrant was innocent of the murders in the church, which were actually the work of church pastor Jack Gibson (and a buddy), who was also behind the infamous Whitechapel murders in London, which form a kind of cross if you choose enough of them and assume one or two additional points.

Let me just say that I’m unconvinced. Beyond that, and noting that the author of another recent book-length re-examination of the Baptist church murders found Durrant’s identification as the murderer entirely satisfactory, I don’t really want to get into debating either those events or the identity of Jack the Ripper. I’ll leave that game to far more dedicated players than I.

I do, however, want to note my bafflement at Mr. Graysmith’s apparent loathing for Isaiah Lees.

Read more…

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Isaiah Lees vs Jack the Ripper

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Apr 29, 2013

As noted in an earlier post, the infamous Whitechapel murders of 125 years ago this autumn took place within a curious hole right in the middle of what was otherwise the golden age of extraordinary real-life detectives. Every one was either retired, deceased, or practicing far from London in 1888.

Out of all the Brilliant Deduction cast, the most fascinating might-have-been with regards to the Ripper crimes is the career of Isaiah W. Lees. Born in England, Lees grew up to become a police detective with an impressive record for solving mysterious crimes, including many violent murders, and in 1888 was in his prime. But he was also several thousand miles away from Whitechapel, having emigrated to America with his family while still an infant and decamped for San Francisco while a young man.

And yet, reading about Lees one finds that repeated, odd connections to the case of Jack the Ripper seem to have followed him across the ocean.

In July of 1889, the San Francisco Examiner made note of Lees’s enthusiasm for book collecting, and chose to illustrate it with the suggestion that

If Captain Lees tomorrow were to collar the Whitechapel fiend, and be able to establish his identity by the clearest of proofs, he would make no mention of the circumstance in the upper office, and treat it as an everday occurrence. When he runs down and scoops in a rare specimen of criminal literature the case is different. He glories in his success, brags of his achievement and will spend hours telling his friends how he was enabled to make the capture.

At the same time, the (many) legends associated with the actual Ripper crimes include a story that a man named “Lees” did play some role in the investigation. Which does not mean it happened, but it is a real story associating the name “Lees” and the Whitechapel mythology…

Read more…

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The Civil War and the great detectives

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Apr 9, 2013

I read once that “There will never be anything more interesting in America than that Civil War.” Apparently this is a Gertrude Stein quote. I would say that it also, if arguable as a hard fact, certainly expresses a real truth. One hundred fifty years later the Civil War continues to fascinate us.

It was, also, kind of a big deal at the time.

Which probably doesn’t need illustration, though just how big it was may, perhaps, escape some people. I recall years ago, a friend returning from South Carolina where it seemed to her like a cease-fire had only been declared the week before, and then during our conversation remarking “well, that wasn’t a big deal for people up here [Iowa], was it?” In response I suggested that, actually, it was a very big deal, even up in Iowa. (Wikipedia suggests that it was, indeed, a proportionately bigger deal in Iowa than in any other state by one measure.) Still, I can see how one might think that the Civil War was a very regional phenomenon. Nearly all of the big set-piece battles that define a basic course of study were in the southeastern states, compared with which the total area of the “lower 48” states seems awfully big.

Nonetheless, the phenomenon of The Civil War was in fact even bigger, and it’s possible that the history of the great detectives examined in Brilliant Deduction constitutes as effective an illustration of this as anything.

Read more…

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The San Franciscan Connection

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Mar 29, 2013

San Francisco’s brilliant, long-serving detective Isaiah Lees was well positioned to encounter many of Brilliant Deduction‘s other stars, from a four-dimensional perspective.

Geographically, Lees spent most of his career well outside my book’s largely Atlantic settings. Before the first Transcontinental railroad line was completed with the famous Golden Spike in 1869, California might almost have been as far from London or New York as Australia, so slow and uncertain was crossing North America by land. In the decades after, San Francisco (the fortunate terminus of that first line) was somewhat less isolated, but Lees still worked a long distance from most of his peers, in space.

In time, however, Lees was right in their midst. His police career from 1853 to 1900 spans the busy center of the timeline I drew for my book (some day I’ll post it, along with a properly designed and typeset version). Other than Vidocq, who died a few years after Lees was sworn into the SFPD, and Ellis Parker, who accepted the office of Burlington County detective just six years before Lees retired, the active years of every other detective I’ve profiled overlap considerably with those of Isaiah Lees.

As a result, it’s very tempting to speculate about connections that might have existed, even though there is only one confirmed…

Read more…

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Old San Francisco City Hall

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Mar 8, 2013

In the conclusion to my chapter about San Francisco’s great 19th-century detective Isaiah Lees, I wrote that

Lees faded relatively quickly from memory… That disappearance was undoubtedly hastened by the great earthquake that leveled much of San Francisco within a few years of his death; in many ways the city he had known and protected was gone and relegated to the past along with Lees himself. Today, a visitor to San Francisco would struggle to find any traces of either one.

Last year, though, one such trace did turn up as part of construction work at the city’s Civic Center. Per the Chronicle, itself another rare survivor of Lees’s era,

Crews working on a building project in San Francisco’s Civic Center have unearthed the massive foundations of the old City Hall, a ghostly reminder of San Francisco’s greatest disaster.

The imposing old City Hall collapsed in a shower of bricks, stone and steel in the 1906 earthquake. It was the largest municipal building west of Chicago and was so elaborate it took 25 years to build. The City Hall was supposed to be earthquake proof, but it collapsed in seconds after the great quake struck. It had been open for less than 10 years.

Its ruins were demolished in 1909, but workers digging under the sidewalk on Hyde Street near Fulton Street for a landscaping project struck something big Sept. 14 – bricks and concrete and steel reinforcing bars. They called archaeologists from the federal General Services Administration… It was the [1897] City Hall, all right.

The story quotes Rebecca Karberg, of the GSA, as remarking that “You really never know what’s under the surface.” Based on my own experience researching and fitting together the histories of Isaiah Lees and his peers—I couldn’t agree more.

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Black History: Archy Lee

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Feb 13, 2013

Every February (since 1976), the United States has observed Black History Month. The validity of the concept is argued nearly as regularly; I don’t really have anything to contribute to those arguments, least of all in this space. As it is, all the same, officially Black History Month, I do want to expand a bit on one relevant story from Brilliant Deduction.

There aren’t many such, as I acknowledge in the book itself; the era of great detectives as I’ve conceived of it played out in a place and time in which much of society was a white man’s world, and policing was not one of the exceptions. Women are fairly rare presences in Brilliant Deduction, as a result, and non-whites even moreso. I wasn’t thrilled about this, but ultimately it’s a look at how things were rather than any sort of advocacy for how things ought to be…

All that said, the story of Archy Lee and Isaiah Lees is a fine tale that fit naturally in the book, and is worth some further examination, and this month is as good a time as any.

In brief, at some point in the mid-1850s, white man Charles Stovall traveled to California along with black man Archy Lee, whom Stovall owned as a slave under the laws of his native Mississippi. The laws of California, however, were significantly less protective of slave ownership than Mississippi’s, and though the precise implications were regularly and heatedly contested, more than one black American managed to obtain freedom in the Golden State. Eventually, Archy Lee joined their number.

In Brilliant Deduction, I relate the last chapter of Lee’s struggle to do so, in which the main part was played by Isaiah Lees; Lee himself has a largely passive role in a near madcap scene, wherein Lees dramatically thwarts Stovall’s attempt to dodge the California courts’ ultimate judgment in favor of Lee* by kidnapping him. It’s quite a lively tale—but the events leading up to it are also interesting and inspiring, as well.

Read more…

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Vitriol-throwing: historic background

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Feb 6, 2013

Possibly the best known example of throwing acid at someone as a form of violent assault, in modern America, is a fictional episode. Just like the best known examples of exceptional detectives are fictional characters. Also like great detectives, however, it was not always thus; Brilliant Deduction‘s chapter on Isaiah Lees opens with an investigation into vitriol-throwing.

My book tackles the question of where the real-life great detectives went; recently, L.V. Anderson examined the similar disappearance of vitriol-throwing for Slate’s Explainer series.

Much of what Anderson reveals squares neatly with Lees’s encounter with vitriol-throwing in the mid-19th century. “…sulfuric acid was a common weapon in domestic disputes. […] Throwing vitriol was a way not only of causing someone immense pain, but also of rendering him or her unattractive, which goes partway toward explaining its use in sexually charged disputes.”

Anderson credits both evolving social attitudes, and better regulation of dangerous chemicals, for vitriol attacks’ wane over the past century. Unfortunately, the same is not true everywhere; the existence of Acid Survivors Trust International as an active organization testifies to the persistence of this hateful crime into the 21st century.

Per Anderson, “Human rights scholars note that acid violence is correlated with gender inequality, acid’s cheapness and accessibility, and the failure of courts to convict perpetrators.” San Francisco apparently had the first two of these operating in Lees’s early career, but did manage at least one conviction. Best of luck to all those still struggling to put a stop to acid violence in other communities, today; this is one phenomenon that I certainly hope can be widely forgotten, some day.

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Elaine and The Duchess: stolen sisters

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Feb 5, 2013

The 1870s saw a curious pair of art thefts, which eventually played into the story of two of the great detectives chronicled in Brilliant Deduction. In 1875, Toby Rosenthal’s portrait of Elaine vanished from a show in San Francisco.

Elaine, by Rosenthal. 1874.

Since moved to Chicago

Just one year later, Thomas Gainsborough’s Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire disappeared from a London gallery. Read more…

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