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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Unsolved robbery finally solved?

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Mar 3, 2014

You may have seen something recently about a California couple finding $10 million in gold. I saw the headlines, but didn’t read into it in any great detail. Then, today, I saw this headline: SF heist at turn of century may explain buried gold.

Something about this intrigued me, and as I read into the story, I recalled what it was. $30,000 (per its original face value) in coins that someone around San Francisco wanted to hide, a long time back…? Why, yes, I’ve read about something much like that.

The San Francisco Mint robbery investigated by William Burns.

I didn’t write about this case at length in Brilliant Deduction, honestly. With Burns, more than almost anyone else I covered, I was really spoiled for choice; in order to go into depth on any cases I had to pick and choose, and the mint robbery was among those cases that got a brief mention only. It was an interesting episode, though, involving impressive work by Burns. He eventually pinned the job on a mint employee, Walter Dimmick, who received a relatively short sentence after two trials ended in hung juries… Perhaps in part because no one ever found the loot.

Until now, perhaps. I see that another item from a few days ago has already considered this theory along with others, and concluded maybe yes, maybe no.

Still, the possibility alone is wild. Meanwhile, for anyone curious, as I recall the best account of Burns’s investigation of the mint robbery was in The Incredible Detective by Gene Caesar.

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Great detectives in comics: Burns

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jun 11, 2013

My mother once related a novel little story of school fundraising and flash fashion trends from, I’m guessing, some time in the mid 1960s. (Bear with me, this is leading to the subject promised in the headline.) Traditionally, whatever grade she was in at the time conducted some or other type of fundraiser for a class trip. When the time came for her class to hustle money from friends, family and neighbors, for whatever reason they elected to sell beanies.

By which I mean cheap, round soft-cloth caps. Similar to the of caps worn by Tweedledee and Tweedledum in Tenniel’s illustration, essentially. Which, given both this specific association and the broader association between beanies and dorkiness, might have suggested the 196X class trip was going to be on a very modest budget.

And well it might have been, except for the unfathomable potential for random things to become trends. In my lifetime, I recall brief periods when people would do almost anything for Tickle-Me-Elmo, or a Nintendo Wii; in Monticello, in that particular year, beanies became a craze. Whatever the reason, the beanies caught on, and everyone had to have one. Mom and classmates sold out the first order. They sold out a reorder, and possibly another after that, and might have sold more but for some adult with the wisdom to quit while they were ahead. As it happened, they had sold enough beanies to pay for the most lavish class trip in memory and set aside a nice head-start for future years that might not benefit from such a random windfall.

Most of half a century later, I recall the Great Beanie Craze for a nearly-as-odd connection with one of the subjects of my book, and comics.

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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Thank you San Francisco!

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Apr 20, 2013

Another review joins my virtual press clippings file… Writing for San Francisco Book Review, Glenn Dallas gives Brilliant Deduction four stars out of five, along with some thoughtful remarks about the book’s themes.

There’s something inherently oxymoronic about a famous private detective. Similar to questioning how good a spy James Bond is when everyone knows his favorite drink, you have to wonder about the efficacy of a detective who keeps secrets and hunts down criminals but also becomes a renowned public figure. This conflicting juxtaposition of qualities serves as the center of Brilliant Deduction…

The most fascinating idea in Brilliant Deduction is that “the great detective” is more a byproduct of a certain time period rather than an inevitable cultural development…

As welcome as the exposure and star rating are, it’s also splendid to find that someone a) picked up on my book’s major themes and b) found them interesting enough to write about in his review.

I suppose I had better keep working on that second book, here, hadn’t I?

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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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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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Celebrated Forty-niners

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jan 20, 2013

I make a small joke about this, in Brilliant Deduction, but San Francisco’s 49ers are a tribute to the memory of the city’s early days, generally, and all of the individuals who transformed it from a tiny outpost to a major regional, then national and eventually world city. Said world city has, largely, forgotten the individuals behind the 49ers’ name, it’s true…

Still, I’m willing to presume that Isaiah Lees, an original forty-niner who embraced his adopted city wholeheartedly during decades as the captain of detectives and ultimately chief of police, would feel proud of the San Francisco 49ers’ securing this year’s NFC championship and returning to the Super Bowl.

On behalf of Captain Lees, then, congratulations to the Niners and best of luck in the big game, two weeks hence.

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