The strange cases of Henry Meyers

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jan 22, 2013

In the notes to his monumental graphic novel about the Whitechapel murders, From Hell, Alan Moore is compelled to comment more than once on “the odd way in which key names seem to recur throughout the history of murder.” This phenomenon is, probably, just coincidence, but it is certainly odd. And it isn’t just Moore. In my own researches into a century or so of detectives and their criminal adversaries, I was similarly unable to avoid noting a number of name-related connections. From time to time I will post about them, here, under the “name game” tag.

As a start, however, I’m not sure anything else in this category can approach the bizarre case, or as I’m fairly certain, cases, of Henry Meyers.

In William Hunt’s biography of William Burns, the author points to 1894 as a breakthrough year for the detective’s reputation. One of the investigations which, per Hunt, boosted Burns’s profile in that year involved Henry Meyers. A Chicago-based quack doctor, Meyers apparently attempted to branch out into more directly money-making frauds and try his hand at counterfeiting. This brought him into the sights of the Treasury’s Secret Service, and in particular its rising star William Burns, who shut down Meyers’s operation and seized his equipment in a nicely publicized raid.

At some point, during either my initial read of the biography or while reviewing my notes later, I recalled Burns’s great rivals the Pinkertons (also based in Chicago) sparring with a rogue of that same name. Indeed, my notes confirmed, some years previously William Pinkerton had directed efforts against a villainous doctor who had organized a “murder for profit” system, and this Chicago doctor named Henry was still active in 1894. I actually wrote in one of the early drafts of how Burns’s 1894 foiling of one of the Pinkertons’ old foes, right on their home turf of the Windy City, was an early score in their eventual long, bitter rivalry. There was just one problem, however. In re-checking dates and things, I noticed that that the man arrested by the Pinkertons was named Henry Meyer. No “s.”

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In the jailhouse now

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jan 16, 2013

Being a prominent detective had its up-sides. Fame, for a time; in a few cases wealth. It also carried considerable risks, trouble with the law being one of the biggest. After all, the position usually meant being regularly associated with criminals, and a constant “person of interest” to law enforcement. That’s like two strikes, right there. Three strikes and you’re in—jail.

Of the nine men profiled in Brilliant Deduction, nearly half were sentenced to serve time behind bars, after they had established reputations as detectives.

Vidocq was in and out of jails regularly in his youth, before changing sides, but long after he had made immeasurable contributions to policing history, the Paris gendarmes still threw him into the Conciergerie.

Isaiah Lees spent a brief period in jail early in his career with the SFPD, mainly for arguing with a particularly combative chief, though he found himself in hot water with the law a further time or two as well. (For what it’s worth, another SFPD chief went to jail, himself, during one of those later episodes; it was a rowdy era, you might say.)

After years of controversies and legal scuffling, William Burns was sentenced to jail late in his career for what he called jury surveillance and his opponents called jury tampering. As with an earlier case in which he was briefly wanted by the police, though, Burns avoided actually having the jail door clang shut on him…

Ellis Parker, however, was not so fortunate, and effectively ended his career with a lengthy prison sentence. The jury recommended leniency, and a public outcry eventually demanded a pardon, though neither did Parker much good in the end.

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Burns Agency stationery

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jan 14, 2013

Here’s something novel I turned up by accident, in one or another of my online searches. A sample of The William J. Burns International Detective Agency’s stationery. (I’m not sure I should just grab it from the host’s site, but click through and have a look.)

As a graphic designer, I can’t describe this as all that exciting or attractive; Burns’s rivals the Pinkertons had him thoroughly beat, just with graphic panache alone, to say nothing of their iconic and unnerving “We Never Sleep” logo itself. Now that was branding. Still, the Pinkertons were rather ahead of their time, there, and in 1921 Burns’s corporate and government clients probably didn’t particularly mind his duller graphic identity. As this piece of letterhead suggests. In addition to the firm’s three principals (Burns, and sons Raymond and Sherman) and 28 cities in which the agency had offices (they had a Cleveland office… I wonder where it was?), it lists four major clients: the California Bankers Association, the Railway Ticket Protective Bureau, the National Retail Dry Goods Association, and of course the American Bankers Association which Burns famously poached from their old agency, the Pinkertons. (Read more you-know-where.)

The contact information is also interesting. “Telephone: SUTTER 1775.” I’m guessing that “SUTTER” wasn’t a mnemonic for 788837, either. And then “Cable Address: WILBURNS,” which is even more curious given how remarkably it seems like the kind of thing we would associate with some kind of internet application. But, then, as Tom Standage noted in his excellent book The Victorian Internet, people actually had an internet 100 years ago, anyway.

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The 1920 Wall Street bombing

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Dec 26, 2012

A while ago I read the interesting New York Streetscapes, by Christopher Gray. It probably has a stronger appeal to those with more architectural awareness than I have, but I found most of it enjoyable enough. One entry features a connection with Brilliant Deduction, and more specifically with William Burns: “September 16, 1920: A Bomb That Rocked New York’s Financial District.” The accompanying photo does a great deal to really bring home an event that even I had trouble really pinning down, despite reading about it multiple times in my research.

Scene outside J.P. Morgan & Company headquarters on Wall Street, following Sept. 16, 1920 bombing

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Odd timing: Zanesville & Sanford

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Dec 25, 2012

It’s probably only the sort of coincidental connection that inevitably results from any large-ish project, like writing a book, but still, I want to share a curious bit of synchronicity from Brilliant Deduction‘s genesis.

In researching the life of William Burns, I discovered that one of the indisputably greatest detectives of all time was a fellow adopted Ohioan. (I moved here from Iowa, Burns from Maryland.) Burns made his first forays into detection in Columbus, though in between his birth in Baltimore and his family’s eventual resettling in our state’s capital, he spent much of his childhood in Zanesville. (His Zanesville years may not have had any particular influence of Burns, though it’s possible that a school lesson from the period played an important role many years later in his resolution of the great counterfeit Monroe-note case.) Despite living, according to Yahoo! Maps, no more than 150 miles from Zanesville, I had never heard of the place, myself.

And then in late 2011, as I was finishing up my research, I and a whole lot of other people heard about Zanesville in a very memorable context.

This would be mildly curious, on its own, but it really struck me in combination with what happened a few months later, as I was finally writing the first draft of Brilliant Deduction. My research was mostly complete by that point, but I continued working on a few interesting leads, including one relating to my most mysterious subject, Ignatious “Paddington” Pollaky. Thanks to Derek Ross and his diligent efforts reassembling the traces of Pollaky’s life and career, I knew that Pollaky had played a modest role in the international intelligence battles of America’s Civil War, at the behest of one Henry Shelton Sanford. As it happens, the Florida city he founded after the war has preserved most of the man’s papers including some fascinating correspondence from Pollaky, of which the local museum graciously provided extensive digital copies. (I eventually incorporated some of this material into the chapter on Pollaky, enriching the chapter considerably I believe; if you’re good I may share a bit of it here as well.)

Like Zanesville, I had otherwise never heard of Sanford and knew absolutely nothing of it. But right around this time, it surfaced in not one but two unexpected places. First, my brother moved to Deltona, Florida, barely 15 miles from Sanford. Second… this happened.

Strange world.

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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”

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William J. Burns returns?

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Nov 30, 2012

This is something which has been puzzling me for months. Somewhere, toward the end of my research or while I was beginning to write Brilliant Deduction, I came across a reference to a William J. Burns connected with the Department of State. As I was also writing about a William J. Burns connected with high profile federal government departments, I was naturally curious. I quickly learned that William Joseph Burns is currently serving as U.S. Deputy Secretary of State.

Close-up of William Joseph Burns

Associated Press photo

I’ve remained curious, since, about any connection. With a recent Atlantic item speculating about Burns as a candidate to succeed his boss as Secretary of State, it seems like as good a time as any to post about the question.

Obviously, “William Burns” isn’t the most unusual name in the world. But the possibility of a connection is intriguing. If William Joseph Burns is a relation, his career would represent an interesting comeback story for a family and a name that left Washington under a cloud 90 years ago.

Perhaps a great grandson? I’m only guessing, here, though having spent quite some time in front of photos of the earlier Burns, the photo at right does suggest a resemblance, to me.

The more I think about it, the more I’m curious. I’ve begun exploring the question, a little, and will certainly post further if I should learn anything.

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