Isaac Newton, detective

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jan 11, 2013

One of the various odd twists in the saga of real-life famous detectives is that, in recent years at least, it seems like they have returned with one peculiar caveat: they’re people famous for other things, and detectives mainly if not exclusively within the pages of mystery novel series. Recently, however, I came across a kind of exception to the exception to the rule:

Front cover of 'Newton and the Counterfeiter'

This design by Hsu + Associates

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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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