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.

The connection between Mom’s school trip of back when, and William Burns of further back, is admittedly tenuous. It may even be spurious, as the precise etymology of the term “beanie” is questionable. Wikipedia offers four or five versions, and notes that even the OED is uncertain. But William R. Hunt, author of Front Page Detective, offers another origin with a roundabout connection to Bill Burns.

In the years after the great San Francisco Earthquake (which event has since overshadowed the history of the period) the city by the Bay was the scene of a years-long war over accusations of widespread corruption. On one side, most of the city’s government, corporate friends and allies, and the alleged cabal’s mastermind Abe Ruef; on the other side local reformers, and their front-line agents led by attorney Francis J. Heney and his partner in another recently concluded anti-corruption campaign, detective William Burns. The two sides battled it out for a number of years, in a controversial, sometimes desperate and even violent struggle that eventually petered out to a costly, qualified victory for the reformers.

In the meantime, a number of prominent San Francisco personalities were drawn into the fray, including two still remembered today. Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst initially supported the reformers, then changed sides and directed all the considerable resources of his empire to shutting down their disruption of business as usual. Or, failing that, mocking them…

Which (no pun intended) drew in cartoonist Bud Fisher. Fisher is today remembered for his long-running Mutt & Jeff comic strip, which began in 1907 as just A. Mutt, at the San Francisco Chronicle of Hearst’s rivals the De Youngs. Yet Hearst was never above poaching a good idea, or the man who came up with it. I’ll let Hunt take up the story from here:

Hearst hired Fisher away from the Chronicle to create a cartoon strip that derisively mocked the reformers each day. The story line followed the graft prosecution loosely. The forces of reform were led by a homely, gangly character called Colonel A. Mutt. Another character was called “Beaney,” and his name was later given to what became the standard head gear for college freshman boys. Beaney was a cross-eyed, stupid, and clumsy dwarf who represented Francis Heney.

Now, how much weight one should give to Hunt’s unattributed etymological claim about the beanie? I don’t know. I have my doubts about whether it’s the sole origin for the term. But it seems possible at least that it might have popularized it in the United States. In any event, Front Page Detective does include a few panels from Fisher’s political satires, and “Bean(e)y” was there…

Beany vs Shortribs

“Exciting scene in court when Atty. Shortribs called Atty. Beany a Dill Pickle…”

As was Burns—”Hot Tobasco Burns.”

Tobasco Burns

“The Greatest Special Detective That Ever Did Special Detecting”

And yes, he was called “Tobasco” Burns. I’m guessing that Fisher (probably in common with many people) didn’t bother to notice the iconic hot sauce is actually spelled “Tabasco.” And probably didn’t care; I don’t have enough material to confirm it but my impression is that Heney’s caricature was called “Beany” or “Beaney” with no particular pattern.

Evidently his audience didn’t mind, either, as Fisher’s strip (eventually handed off to assistants) remained popular for decades. In fact it even counted William Burns among its fans; Burns reportedly got a laugh from the cartoon along with everyone else, and even invited Fisher to his home at least once.

Whether his partner “Beaney” was equally amused by his own caricature, or what he might have thought about that caricature’s legacy (possibly) living on in the form of a popular term for silly (if sporadically very popular) headgear… the world may never know.

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