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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William J. Burns returns (again)

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Nov 20, 2013

I don’t know whether there’s any kind of genuine “comeback” in progress, for the great real-life detectives, or I’m simply noticing mentions of them now and that’s all. But whatever the context, I was interested to see a familiar face at The Atlantic today, accompanying an article by Benjamin Welton titled The Man Arthur Conan Doyle Called ‘America’s Sherlock Holmes.’

Executive summary and disclosure of the obvious: 1) the story is basically a brief survey of Burns’s career and musing on how its derailing contrasts with the continued popularity of  great-detective fiction, 2) I wrote about all of this at somewhat greater length in a recent book you may have heard of, and 3) nowhere is anything mentioned about the previous point in Welton’s article.

It’s certainly plausible that despite having plainly done a good deal of reading about Bill Burns, Mr. Welton has never heard of my own book, and that I simply need a better publicist. (Self: as soon as I can find someone who will work cheaper, you’re fired.) That said, I shall trust that the same benefit of the doubt will apply to the following supplementary footnotes, and that any resemblance to irritable sniping will be understood as entirely coincidental.

Going down the article from the start, off the top of my head I would point out the following (possibly very reasonable and/or editorially imposed) simplifications or other points of contention: Read more…

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Runners-up: Raymond Schindler

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jun 14, 2013

As I recall I was some ways into my research when I first took notice of Raymond Schindler. Most likely I first encountered reference to this man as a detective of note in researching William Burns; I believe one or other of Burns’s biographers note that the team he employed in the massive San Francisco corruption investigation included Schindler, who later established a legend of his own in detection history.

I may have found one or two other references to Schindler, also, but I certainly recall that he turned up in Eugene Block’s Famous Detectives, one of the few examples of anything similar to Brilliant Deduction which I was able to turn up. As I also recall, and as their web site confirms, this 55-year-old work has been relegated to the Cleveland Public Library’s off-site storage and had to be specially requested when I consulted it. Still, per the very premise of my book, dusty obscurity hardly disqualifies a detective for having been one of the field’s greats. And it’s quite possible that Mr. Schindler might be a worthy peer for the nine men featured in Brilliant Deduction. Not only did he make it into Block’s survey, but he has a book of his own, The complete detective: Being the life and strange and exciting cases of Raymond Schindler, master detective. That’s more than Pollaky can say. More than William Pinkerton or his brother Robert can say.

Even so, this even older (1950) tome does not seem to be among any of the local libraries’ many works attributed to a Hughes, Rupert. This being 2012, I certainly could have looked further afield to acquire a copy, very possibly without even leaving home; used copies appear to be available and inexpensive. Nonetheless, I have not done so, for what I feel is a reasonable excuse, at least in context.

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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.

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The dream of William Burns

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Apr 15, 2013

Note: On March 1, 1932, Charles Lindbergh’s infant son was kidnapped, prompting a years-long investigation into the crime. Six weeks later, William Burns died following a prolonged period of illness. The rest of what follows is entirely the invention of the author.

William Burns puffed out his cheeks in frustration. As he exhaled, a small jet of vapor formed for a moment. It was damn well cold enough up here, he thought. Florida was a Hell of a lot more livable in March.

Burns crossed his arms, and tilted his head one way and then the other, as though looking for something. There was nothing to see, though, at any rate nothing more than there had been all morning. Just that big new house, off through the pine trees. A couple of cars out front. No one coming or going, though, and nothing else anywhere nearby but more trees. He believed—no, he had seen—figures moving inside the house a few times, even from this far away. But that didn’t prove anything useful. What was he doing here, really?

What was Lindbergh doing here was a better question, he thought, squeezing himself against the frosty evening air. All that money, beloved by everyone and opportunities anywhere he went, and he chose to make his home up here halfway to the Arctic? Year-round? He had flown across the Atlantic Ocean, surely the concept of removing someplace warm at least for the winter wasn’t too daunting for him…

He might try to drop a hint, perhaps, an offhand remark about someone he knew who wintered in Florida. Though for that matter, his family might want to relocate entirely after this; god knows Burns knew the feeling. If only Lindbergh would talk to him. Burns could help, he wanted to help, he understood what this was like. He had been through much of it, more than once: threats to his family, anonymous notes, and of course the whole circus that always converges on a case like this. Burns had been in the middle of those too many times to count and he understood the instinct to hole up in a fortress, shut everything out, trust no one, but dammit they needed his help and here he was, ready to offer it, but stuck tramping around in a forest like some gumshoe amateur.

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Further Research Needed

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Mar 22, 2013

I end Brilliant Deduction with a select bibliography of suggested “further reading,” which I hope some people will actually explore. But I also kind of hope the book may inspire some further research and further writing, as well. Most of my subjects have at least one full-length biography, but a few are still waiting on one; some of the others are also still worth further attention, in my opinion. If I were to draw up a List of Priorities for great-detective biographies, it would probably be the following:

  1. “Paddington” Pollaky. As I note in the book, in all modesty Brilliant Deduction is the closest thing to a full biography this extraordinary but elusive man has, to date. My single chapter is certainly not a complete biography but I hope it is, at least, a convincing argument for why one is worth attempting. During my research I encountered a hint that someone is, or at least was, working on just such a project; unfortunately, this single dozen-year-old post on a genealogy forum is the only evidence I’ve encountered. (Though for those interested in the man, it’s still a fascinating, flickering glimpse of the Pollaky family’s later history.) I can only hope that the unnamed Maryland author’s project has been delayed, rather than abandoned. Update 8/6/15: Cross this one off the list! Bryan Kesselman has written a Pollaky biography, reviewed here. (Among other things, he reveals that the “Maryland author” was probably Baltimore journalist Barney D. Emmart, who died in 1989 with the work never completed.)
  2. Read more…

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Great photos of great detectives, no. 3

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Mar 14, 2013
William Burns and family with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

William Burns (at right) and family with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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The Book of Williams

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Mar 11, 2013

The title of this post could almost be an alternate title for Brilliant Deduction, I sometimes think. If the stories of Henry Meyer(s) are the strangest coincidence of names out of the many I encountered in my research and writing, the stories of William, William and more Williams ad infinitum deserve some sort of record for sheer volume.

Admitted, William is not a particularly unusual name, at any rate in the Euro-American societies to which my book is largely confined. Nonetheless, the frequency with which it turns up in Brilliant Deduction is almost ludicrous. Just among the individuals associated with William Pinkerton and William Burns, alone, we have:

  • William Hazen, Burns’s chief at the Secret Service before he was replaced
  • William Pinkerton, grandfather of the later National Detective Agency director
  • William Barton and William Taylor, associates of the Farrington gang pursued by Pinkerton
  • William Edson, “inside man” in a major bank robbery investigated by the Pinkertons
  • William McKinley, whose inauguration Pinkerton provided security for and whose Treasury Department employed Burns
  • William R. Hunt, biographer of Burns
  • William Sheridan, Burns’s partner in the short-lived Burns and Sheridan Detective Agency
  • William Randolph Hearst, whose media empire bedeviled both Burns and Isaiah Lees

Plus even more Williams connected one way or another with the stories of their peers

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Detective Dynasties

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Feb 19, 2013

My history of great detectives examines both police detectives and private detectives, but it’s safe to say that the most famous of real-life detectives all operated their own private practice sooner or later. (Though in nearly every case, they were also in government employ at other times in their careers.) Of those who did operate private detective businesses, I find the occurrence and fates of those which became family businesses an interesting area of comparison.

Of the private detectives who did not bring their sons into the profession to succeed them, most simply had no sons at all. William Pinkerton had no male heirs, though the Pinkertons’ detective dynasty (of which William himself was a second generation) continued with his brother Robert’s son Allan II. Jonathan Whicher seems to have had no children at all, at least none who survived infancy; the same seems to be true, remarkably, of the long-lived and romantically profligate Vidocq.

Childlessness was decidedly not a factor in the case of “Paddington” Pollaky, whose second wife Mary Ann Hughes bore at least four and possibly several young Pollakys; a number were daughters but Pollaky had at least one son to carry on the name. Nonetheless, despite establishing a thriving detective practice, Papa Pollaky apparently made no effort to encourage a son to join him and may well have discouraged the idea, for reasons on which I speculate in Brilliant Deduction.

Detection as a family business seems to have been all or nothing, really, at least among my book’s stars. Ellis Parker did bring his son Ellis, Jr. in to assist with at least one case, though that one turned out disastrously for both Ellises and I don’t believe any of Ellis Sr.’s children ever really followed him into the role of detective. The only detectives in my study to bring in a second generation in a meaningful sense, meanwhile, also launched eventual dynasties lasting into third or fourth generations.

Per the Library of Congress’s records, family direction of the Pinkerton agency persisted for more than a century, until the 1967 death of Robert Pinkerton, the great-grandson of Allan (and the grandson of the Robert Pinkerton profiled in Brilliant Deduction.) I’m less certain about the Burns agency, though I recall reading that a grandson of William Burns eventually succeeded his sons.

I’m more positive that neither agency is family-run, today. (I don’t want to spoil the agencies’ shared fate for those planning to read the book, though if you want to know it isn’t secret information and may be found with a little online searching.) A BBC story examining family businesses last year sheds an interesting light on the detective dynasties, however. Though the oldest family firm in America is now in its 14th generation, the much briefer family successions of the Burns and Pinkerton agencies is the norm: “Globally, family businesses are extremely prevalent, [yet] very few family businesses last more than three generations.” Moreover, today’s concepts of the corporation may play a role, particularly in the United States: “family businesses in the US tend to be criticised for not focusing on shareholders and quarterly profits.”

I wonder what Allan Pinkerton would have thought about that.

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Baltimore 1861: Lincoln, Pinkerton, and Burns?

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jan 29, 2013

One of my favorite fictional detective works is the 1990s NBC series, Homicide. Though in fact it was originally based on a nonfiction work of the same name by David Simon, also about Baltimore homicide detectives (and also excellent).

More than 130 years before Pembleton, G, Crosetti, et al., Baltimore also played host to a couple of notable events in the history of their real-life predecessors. Events that are all the more interesting for their strange juxtaposition in that particular place and time…

In January and February of 1861, the founder of the legendary Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency was deep in the midst of what history records as The Baltimore Plot. In Allan Pinkerton’s mind, at least, this was a clear, present and very real danger to the life of president-elect Abraham Lincoln; per subsequent criticism it was an imaginary bogeyman threat born of empty rumor and Pinkerton’s overcautiousness (and/or self-promotional hyperbole). I recorded my own assessment in the book, but regardless of what The Baltimore Plot was not, it was a significant and memorable episode in the history of one of the most accomplished detectives in history, tied to the city of Baltimore in early 1861.

Which represents a fascinating coincidence given the other event in Baltimore, in early 1861, of enormous significance in the history of a celebrated American detective.

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