Christmas with the Burns family

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Dec 17, 2012

One of the reasons for this blog’s existence is that my research turned up a good deal more material than could ever fit in a realistic book. Some of it was of the footnote or aside variety, of course. But some of it was choice, choice stuff; I simply had to leave it out because I was writing one-chapter introductions to my stars rather than full-length biographies. William Burns is a particularly good example. Just the cases I left out of Brilliant Deduction, alone, would by themselves make the beginnings of an argument for great detective status. The San Francisco Mint thefts, for example, or the astonishing trail of clues followed in the case of “XX1634.”

One of my favorite Burns stories from a pure human interest perspective, however, was his first major counterfeiting case, against “Long Bill” Brockway’s operation. This, too, I could give only the barest mention in my book. But I can share a bit more here on the blog, and this feels like the perfect time, for reasons which will become apparent.

In the autumn of 1894, Secret Service Operative Burns moved his young family to Cincinnati as part of a long-term surveillance assignment. The target of his and his colleagues’ (and some times even Mrs. Burns’s) round-the-clock observation was one Charles Ulrich. Regarded as one of the most skilled engravers of his day, the 70-ish German immigrant had turned his abilities to counterfeiting on various occasions and the Secret Service suspected that he was drifting back into old ways. Thus, when he left home one morning with William Burns in low-key pursuit, Burns not only followed “Charley” to the train station but onto a train for New York and all the way to the Big Apple without even an overnight bag; as Burns observed afterward “I did not see Mrs. Burns again for four months”

In New York, Burns and other Secret Service men spent those months continuing to observe Ulrich as he made contact with the Brockway gang, eventually arresting Ulrich and turning him around against Brockway as a key witness for their case. In this delicate bit of salesmanship, Burns played a key role, as he would do many more times in other cases. This time, however, Burns had a particular advantage: he had known “Charley” a quarter-century before during his central Ohio boyhood.

I just love picturing the scene that unfolded. It seems perfect for film: the irascible old con artist parked in a hotel room, guarded by Secret Service agents on whom his amusing charm was entirely wasted, and then a red-haired, earnest young man joining them and walking up to Ulrich before giving him a strange look and asking “Charley, don’t you recognize me? It’s me, Bill Burns!” And then all of a sudden the old man’s face would transform as it all came back to him. The engraving shop he ran in Columbus all those years ago, on one of his attempts at going straight, and that goofy little freckled boy who loved to drop in, always eager to hear more stories about “the good old days” counterfeiting money and the various (moderately embellished) adventures of a life of crime. “Ho! Bill Burns!”

It got even better as the goofy little freckled boy, now a grown man working for the Treasury Department, eventually proceeded to hector old Charley about how foolish he was getting into this nonsense again, at his age, and in spite of how little it had ever gained him before. “You, like a big loafer, were willing to sit around while your wife worked and allowed your friends, who are not friends at all, to get you into trouble and put you in prison.” A chagrined old man had to grant that little Bill had a point.

Of course, this didn’t stop him from trying to swindle a German couple some weeks later, with Burns in the very same café and having only stepped away for a moment; Charley was what he was. But then, Burns being what he was, this was really part of why he couldn’t help liking Charley; he was an old rogue, but an endearing old rogue.

And in 1895, the case against Brockway’s gang having proceeded successfully thanks in no small part to Charley, “the old rogue” was the guest of honor at the Burns family Christmas dinner. Here, again, the visual is just irresistible. I can see it all in my mind’s eye, the little Burns children gathered around at the feet of old “Uncle Charley,” listening in rapt attention as he spins lively tales of his adventures and schemes, and Bill Burns looking on and smiling as he recalls doing exactly the same 25 years before.

Merry Christmas!

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