Billy the Kid and the name game

Posted by Matt Kuhns on May 7, 2013

I’ve written a few times now, about “the odd way in which key names seem to recur throughout the history of murder” and other criminological activity. I find it amusing, and at times bizarre or even a little eerie.

The Pinkertons clashing with a 19th century bandit named Frank James, and Ellis Parker bringing a murderer of the same name to justice in the 20th, is easy enough to write down to coincidence given that neither “Frank” nor “James” are remotely unusual names. But then there are other repetitions of names that give one a bit more pause. Isaiah Lees putting away a horrible murderer named Edward Bonney in 1861, roughly coincident with the birth of another Bonney who went on to considerably greater criminal infamy (using the nickname in this post’s title), for example. And then there’s the dumbfounding history of Henry Meyers

But all of it is ultimately just coincidence, right? Just apparent patterns observed amid random noise, with no further significance? Probably, but maybe not quite entirely.

Gregory Clark of UC Davis has conducted research into surnames and intergenerational social standing that produced a bit of buzz last fall. The result of his study of tracking surnames across hundreds of years in several countries around the world—including the United States—was that “if we want to [forecast your rank] in society, maybe as much as 60 percent of the outcome is determined at the time of conception.” In other words, family status has been remarkably, consistently durable across 100s of years in a variety of societies and economies.

The implications of this for socioeconomic policy I’ll leave to other forums. But, from the perspective of recurring names in the history of crime, it does seem to suggest that there might, might just be a little bit more going on than coincidence.

Check back in a few hundred years, perhaps, for further review.

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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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