Great detectives in comics: Pinkerton

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Feb 8, 2013

In my chapter on Allan Pinkerton, I make some observations about Allan Pinkerton’s relatively durable fame compared with most of his peers, and about some of the unusual forms that fame has taken:

The Pinkertons were effectively the nation’s law force during the Civil War and the Wild West era. Allan himself planned strategy with Abraham Lincoln, hunted fraud for the great railroad magnates, and waged war against the Renos and the James Gang. With such famous company, Pinkerton and his agency never vanish for very long before some new retelling or re-imagining, from a children’s book, to a television documentary, to the fictionalized historic background of a Batman graphic novel.

I happen to own the last item referred to, though I didn’t realize that it had any tie-in with great detectives when I purchased it. Or at least, great detectives other than the Dark Knight Detective himself, whose reputation as a detective is (IMO) more of a tradition based on his first appearance in Detective Comics issue #27 than on the modern character being particularly more of a detective than any other costumed crimefighter. The 2003 graphic novel Detective No. 27 by Michael Uslan and Peter Snejbjerg, however, is an “imaginary story” which takes Bruce Wayne out of costume to unravel a mysterious conspiracy alongside a number of other famed detectives, some fictional and some historical.

The latter includes Allan Pinkerton, along with a couple of his own best detectives. Appearing only in flashback to the conspiracy’s beginnings, none of the Pinkertons meet “Detective Number 27,” i.e. Bruce Wayne., but they get considerably more ink than the cameos for which Nick & Nora, Nero Wolfe, et al. have to settle. They also get lively action scenes with a bit of a Wild Wild West flavor, such as these panels in which Allan, disguised as Charles Darwin, is exposed by one of the bad guys:

Allan Pinkerton in 'Detective No. 27'

Art by Snejbjerg, dialogue by Uslan

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Elaine and The Duchess: stolen sisters

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Feb 5, 2013

The 1870s saw a curious pair of art thefts, which eventually played into the story of two of the great detectives chronicled in Brilliant Deduction. In 1875, Toby Rosenthal’s portrait of Elaine vanished from a show in San Francisco.

Elaine, by Rosenthal. 1874.

Since moved to Chicago

Just one year later, Thomas Gainsborough’s Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire disappeared from a London gallery. Read more…

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Jack the Ripper at 125

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Feb 1, 2013

The autumn of 2013 will mark 125 years since London’s infamous Whitechapel murders, i.e. the crimes of Jack the Ripper. (Do I really need to provide a link to explain this?)

As the crimes were never officially solved, they have remained fertile soil for speculation ranging from serious to fanciful. One perennial favorite, nearer to the latter category, is the intersection of the Ripper’s debut with that of another product of late-1880s England, i.e. Sherlock Holmes. Based on my own observations of the Sherlockian world and its post-Doyle extensions to The Canon, there are three themes to which pseudo-Watsons are repeatedly drawn: 1) that Holmes had further involvement with The Woman, Irene Adler, after “A Scandal in Bohemia,” 2) that Holmes lived to great old age, surviving even into the 1940s, and 3) that Holmes investigated the Ripper crimes.

I’ve actually considered making a study of examples of this third theme; I don’t think I’m actually going to get around to it but I’ve counted at least a dozen formally-published Holmes-vs-Ripper stories, not counting works in other media. (There is apparently a video game based on the concept, now.) It isn’t particularly mysterious why this theme should intrigue writers, so many times over. The Whitechapel murders are one of the best-remembered crimes of relatively modern times, they were never officially solved in reality, but in fiction the greatest and (even in reality) best-remembered detective of all time was right there in London, practicing at the time. It was close; had Doyle waited a couple of more years the “what if” of Holmes and the Ripper might have required a double re-imagining. As it happened, though, the great detective was there, conceptually, even though he didn’t actually physically exist. It seems absolutely inescapable that Sherlock Holmes would thus have been drawn to investigate the most notorious mystery of his whole era.

The curious thing, though, is that this is much less a product of Holmes’ subsequent eclipse of his various real contemporaries in the realm of “great detective” as it might seem. Sherlock Holmes, though only introduced a couple of years before, was already notable enough by 1888 that Doyle was even asked at the time about how his character would solve the murders. Meanwhile, even though nearly half of the real investigators highlighted in Brilliant Deduction might be called “British detectives” in some sense or other—and even though the Whitechapel murders fell right in the middle of the real-life great detectives’ golden age—every one of them seems to have managed to miss the Autumn of Terror.

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Great photos of great detectives, no. 1

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jan 26, 2013

Inspired by Mark Evanier’s “Great Photos of…” series, I’ll drop an interesting picture into the blog now and then.

Pat Connell, William Pinkerton and Sam Finley

Pat Connell, William Pinkerton and Sam Finley, c. 1880. Library of Congress photo [ LC-DIG-ppmsca-10781]

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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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Pawn Stars vs Pinkertons

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jan 18, 2013

Not surprisingly, given that I wrote a historical nonfiction book, I like history. I also like History, i.e. the History channel. Much of what I watch on History, these days, is admittedly as much about contemporary life as history. But I actually note one theme common to Pawn Stars, Swamp People, American Restoration, etc., in common with Brilliant Deduction: generational conflict in a family business.

This appears over and over in the above television series. The Harrisons bickering with one another, Rick Dale balancing too much authority for his son Tyler vs too little responsibility, and of course almost every alligator-hunting crew on Swamp People includes a father-son relationship.

Many of the detectives in Brilliant Deduction made work a family affair as well. Vidocq had no children, apparently, while “Paddington” Pollaky had a large family but demonstrated no interest in bringing them into the line of work he himself grew increasingly eager to escape. The great American private detective firms of Pinkerton and Burns, however, were both family businesses. And even county detective Ellis Parker drafted his son Ellis, Jr., for help on at least one very significant case.

These father-son partnerships seem to have run more smoothly than History’s usually do, though that may not have been entirely a good thing. Both Ellis, Jr., and Sherman Burns arguably disagreed with their fathers too little and might have done considerably better to question the old man a bit more.

Within the Pinkerton family, however, this was definitely not a problem.

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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 Detective Museum

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jan 10, 2013

There is a P.I. Museum in San Diego, and a Spy and Private Eye Museum in Austin, Texas. I’ve never been to either, though both have interesting online collections.

But, I’ve started to wonder what a museum or museum exhibit about the great detectives profiled in Brilliant Deduction might include. It’s basically just a play-pretend exercise, but it’s interesting enough; what one or two items might I want to display for each of the investigators I’ve described?

Vidocq made more use of disguise than any of his notable peers, and perhaps more than any detective real or imagined other than Sherlock Holmes. If some of his costumes or other paraphernalia had been preserved, it would be a must-see display. I might also want to include examples of his file-card record system, which represented a major advance in durable, systematized approaches to criminal investigation.

For Jonathan Whicher, I can’t help thinking of the “relics” from the Road child murder investigation that he apparently held on to after the case and his entire career imploded, only for them (and Whicher) to get a second hearing of sorts, years later.

Allan Pinkerton’s detective career began with counterfeiting investigations, and that crime played an important role throughout detective history, so a few samples would make ideal displays. Perhaps even one of the counterfeit dimes from his very first foray into detective work. Any kind of records would also be appropriate, as Pinkerton was ultimately as or more important as an administrator and entrepreneur than as a field man.

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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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The legacy of Homestead

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Nov 25, 2012

This is fairly tangential to exploration of the great detectives, but I couldn’t help being reminded of a couple of them in reading this recent post by Matthew Yglesias. Prompted by recent walmart employee protests, Yglesias notes how things have changed compared with the world described in a biography of Franklin Roosevelt (presumably this one). Confronting a strike at a General Motors factory in Flint, Roosevelt sees no options for intervention other than armed force, which he is reluctant to deploy; the state’s governor has much the same reaction:

“I’m not going down in history as Bloody Murphy,” he told a friend. “If I send soldiers in on the [strikers] there’d be no telling how many would be killed.”

I couldn’t help immediately wondering if Governor Murphy had a particular event in mind as he envisioned his legacy being indelibly spattered in blood. Possibly not; Murphy was apparently two years old when an armed intervention into the strike at Homestead ended in violence and bloodshed. And Homestead was by no means unique, anyway; one of the reasons why it’s still worth study 120 years later is because in most ways it was emblematic of the era’s labor battles, rather than an outlier.

The attempt at breaking up the strike—initially through private means rather than state or federal forces—was nonetheless particularly injurious to people on both sides and to the reputations of the men held responsible. The dismal events at Homestead were relatively minor elements in the lives and careers of Carnegie, Frick and the Pinkerton brothers. Yet more than a century afterward, it remains difficult to read much about any of them without a reminder of how responding to a strike with force turned out for them. It seems at least possible, then, that their example was on the mind of Frank Murphy 75 years ago, as well.

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