American Scottish patriots from England

Posted by Matt Kuhns on May 25, 2013

In an earlier post, I demonstrated what Brilliant Deduction describes as the Pinkerton family’s “stern economy with given names.” Among the branch of the family of import for detective history, at any rate, male children seem to receive one or another of just three first names, over and over: Allan, William or Robert.

In pondering on this practice, it readily occurred to me that two of those three names may have been treasured, in part, for their prominence in Scottish history. William and Robert have been among the country’s most revered names for quite a long while (even before Mel Gibson got involved). By the 19th century, the names’ place in their own family tradition may have meant more to the Pinkertons, but there is at least an obvious possible explanation for why they might have latched onto those names in the first place.

For Allan, though, I’ve really been at a loss. I thought there might be some other famous Scot behind that name, as well, but having looked into it I’ve not found much. Wikipedia offers up a poet named Allan Ramsay, but it seems a bit of a stretch. I could be wrong but I’ve got to guess he had little influence on the name’s significance in the Pinkerton family.

The web site of a James Allan (somehow lingering at Geocities, perhaps still online only because someone at Yahoo missed it when shutting things down?) lists a few other “famous Allans” of Scotland, but none of them seem much more convincing than Ramsay. His note about the history of the name itself suggests, like other sources, that it was probably a Breton name that crossed The Channel along with William the Conqueror’s invasion of England.

What’s more, the little I can find about the origins of “Pinkerton” describes it as an English name, also. Like so much that is “English,” it probably came from continental Europe as part of some migration/invasion, as well; I’m not sure what to make of the first half but the “-ton” suffix is presumably of Germanic origin.

So, that’s the Pinkertons: a patriotic Scottish family with English names of French and German etymology, who in very American fashion decided to leave most of that baggage behind and “make a name for themselves” in the New World, attaching an entirely new significance to that name in the process.

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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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Isaiah Lees vs Jack the Ripper

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Apr 29, 2013

As noted in an earlier post, the infamous Whitechapel murders of 125 years ago this autumn took place within a curious hole right in the middle of what was otherwise the golden age of extraordinary real-life detectives. Every one was either retired, deceased, or practicing far from London in 1888.

Out of all the Brilliant Deduction cast, the most fascinating might-have-been with regards to the Ripper crimes is the career of Isaiah W. Lees. Born in England, Lees grew up to become a police detective with an impressive record for solving mysterious crimes, including many violent murders, and in 1888 was in his prime. But he was also several thousand miles away from Whitechapel, having emigrated to America with his family while still an infant and decamped for San Francisco while a young man.

And yet, reading about Lees one finds that repeated, odd connections to the case of Jack the Ripper seem to have followed him across the ocean.

In July of 1889, the San Francisco Examiner made note of Lees’s enthusiasm for book collecting, and chose to illustrate it with the suggestion that

If Captain Lees tomorrow were to collar the Whitechapel fiend, and be able to establish his identity by the clearest of proofs, he would make no mention of the circumstance in the upper office, and treat it as an everday occurrence. When he runs down and scoops in a rare specimen of criminal literature the case is different. He glories in his success, brags of his achievement and will spend hours telling his friends how he was enabled to make the capture.

At the same time, the (many) legends associated with the actual Ripper crimes include a story that a man named “Lees” did play some role in the investigation. Which does not mean it happened, but it is a real story associating the name “Lees” and the Whitechapel mythology…

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Scotland Yard, version x

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Apr 25, 2013

Spent a week in London, earlier this month. Good time, mostly, though I think even Dr. Johnson might find the modern city can be legitimately tiring even if one has not lost all interest in life. Unfortunately, the only detective-related sightseeing I fit in was this (which I found delightful); didn’t make it to Paddington Green or the Met Police Heritage Museum. Perhaps next time.

But I do have a photo of Scotland Yard, acquired through a photo exchange with a friend who also visited London this spring.

Scotland Yard of a sort

NOT the modern Scotland Yard, note.

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Runners-up: Thomas Byrnes

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Apr 19, 2013

One claimant for “great detective” who didn’t quite make my final nine does, nonetheless, have his own biography, certainly a respectable consolation given the rare company this places him in among detectives. Neither “Paddington” Pollaky, nor either of the Pinkerton brothers, has a biography of his own yet. But Thomas F. Byrnes, who rose to direct New York City’s police for 15 years, does.

The Big Policeman: The Rise and Fall of America’s First, Most Ruthless, and Greatest Detective by J. North Conway chronicles Byrnes’s lively career. Given that I was trying to write a book about great detectives, I could hardly pass it up.

My impression of Byrnes is that he was almost the ultimate expression, the purest and most prominent example, of the brutal 19th-century Irish cop keeping order in the big northern city through regular application of violence to those communities he judged as troublemakers. It’s a stereotype, of course. But I’m guessing that a number of such Mick flatfoots did indeed walk the beat. Byrnes, aside from his avoidance of strong drink, comes across as the most canny of their number, risen to the top of the profession. He was unquestionably an impressive operator.

But that isn’t quite the same as a great detective—and in my view Byrnes doesn’t even rate honorable mention in that category. Book titles, of course, are not always the author’s responsibility, but regardless of whoever chose that of The Big Policeman I’m going to declare it at least two-thirds groundless ballyhoo.

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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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Meet my family: Allan, William, Allan, Robert and William

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Feb 18, 2013

I use this blog to indulge the many asides which, though interesting, didn’t really seem to belong in my main text. One of those asides, however, did make an abbreviated appearance in the book; upon introducing the third-generation boss of Pinkerton’s, named Allan just like the firm’s founder, I realized to my surprise and gratification that I actually needed to make some comment on this. Therefore I made note that this second Allan was “typically identified as Allan II to limit confusion resulting from his family’s stern economy with given names.”

“Stern economy with given names” is, in fact, understatement to the point of (one hoped) dry humor. By this point in the book, careful readers have been introduced to

  1. William Pinkerton of Glasgow,
  2. Allan Pinkerton, son of 1) who died in infancy,
  3. Allan Pinkerton, a second son of 1) who became a famous detective in America,
  4. Robert Pinkerton, another son of 1) and probably a business associate of 3)
  5. William Pinkerton, son of 3) and later director of Pinkerton’s,
  6. Robert Pinkerton, son of 3) and co-director until his death in middle age, and
  7. Allan Pinkerton (Allan II), son of 6)

As well as two Joan Pinkertons, wife and daughter of the famous Allan. The son of Allan II, last Pinkerton to direct the agency, does not appear in Brilliant Deduction, but by this point the reader will probably have at least a 50/50 chance of guessing that his name was Robert Pinkerton.

To a great extent this dedicated re-use of family names probably was not very rare in earlier eras, and may not even be that rare today in many places, but it does seem awfully confusing, at least in retrospect. Presumably it was manageable enough at the time, with context, but one has to wonder…

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The Kuhns library of mystery

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Feb 12, 2013

My last name is not incredibly common. Growing up, other than my father’s few living relatives, I knew of one other family with the same name, though strangely enough I was not even the only Matt Kuhns at Iowa State University upon entering college. Still, it’s rare enough that people encountering it as text have to guess pronunciation more often than not, let’s put it that way.

Thus I was immediately intrigued, last year, when I encountered it in the new book area at the library. One Eleanor Kuhns had written a historical mystery, A Simple Murder, set in a Shaker community. I checked it out just for the novelty—I don’t believe I had ever encountered a book by another Kuhns before—though I quite enjoyed the story and can certainly recommend it.

This was, meanwhile, amusing enough given that I had recently completed the manuscript for my own (nonfiction) work on detection and mysteries in times past. Imagine my surprise, however, when some months later I conducted an online search to see what information might be turning up about my own book and discovered another Kuhns writing on the subject of detectives.

Luke Benjamin Kuhns, born like myself in one of the Midwestern “I” states, apparently now lives in London and has written a number of Sherlock Holmes stories among other works. Given that I love London, and collect Sherlock Holmes books, I’m envious. I’ve not read any of his writing, yet, but I hope to remedy that soon. Likewise I see that Eleanor Kuhns’s amateur investigator Will Rees has returned and will have to search out the further installments of his series. (As a sidenote, the way that Rees is drawn into the role of detective by chance but gradually develops a reputation as something of an informal expert has a surprising basis in history; another tradesman in the young United States started his eventual professional detective career in much the same way.)

Perhaps some day we can all have a very exclusive authors’ conference. 😉

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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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Runners-up: James McParland

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Dec 28, 2012

Nine detectives made the final cut for Brilliant Deduction. I think they represent a good effort at answering the question that began it all, i.e. “who are the greatest detectives ever outside of fiction?” Collectively, they represent a few of the various possible interpretations of “great detective,” they provide a good survey of the whole era of real-life famous detectives from its beginning to its closing days, and I suspect that if nothing else most of the strongest candidates for the most amazing individual detective, ever, are included.

I won’t claim for a minute that it’s a comprehensive list, though. It wasn’t intended to be, both for the purpose of a tighter narrative, and because (as is the more or less the book’s very raison d’être) the work of detectives has become quite obscure compared with what it once was. I make no bones about the fact that my selection was influenced by whom I could find the most information on. As demonstrated by the career of “Paddington” Pollaky, the one major character in Brilliant Deduction who lacks even a single biography, piecing together the affairs of a private investigator is a formidable challenge. And Pollaky was an exceptionally well-known PI, at least once! I can’t disprove that even better detectives than my cast may exist, but finding enough information to tell their stories is, at least, a task for a more able researcher than I.

All that having been said, the final nine of Brilliant Deduction were by no means the only detectives I considered in evaluating greatness. From time to time I plan on posting a bit about the “runners-up,” and I’ll begin with James McParland.

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